2013 – Setting some direction

Perhaps I am taking a risk by publishing some of my resolutions for 2013 here. But this post will probably help me to connect my own learning with those of my close friends, partners and fellow adventurers that follow my blog.

During 2012 my focus shifted strongly into the manufacturing sector where I am working on improving innovation systems, building domestic  industries, strengthening the role of universities and research organizations to create new platforms from where to compete. This is stimulating work where I combine my interests in engineering and science, with soft issues such as networks in industry, market signals and systems and innovation. I also find that my ability to work both with business people, academics and researchers is handy. Take a look at my page Stimulating industrialization, science and innovation to see some of the activities I have been involved with in 2012 in this area.

In 2013 I want to increase my focus on the manufacturing sector. Key research questions for me are:

  • How does competencies learned by organizations such as firms become developmental platforms for industries?
  • How can I use the insights from complexity to accelerate the formation of new industries, new markets and deeper industrialization?
  • How can new technologies, questions, ideas be used to upgrade traditional industries?
  • What is the role of universities and research organizations to upgrade the industries around them?
  • How can learning and experiments in firms be disseminated to accelerate exploration and exploitation of ideas?

As much of my work in this area is focused on Southern Africa, I am also keen to see how some of the insights from here can be tried elsewhere.

As far as my academic research is concerned (I have a post doctoral research fellowship position with the Vaal University of Technology), I must concentrate more on my academic publications and feeding the insights gained in working with industry back into the formal university system. Here my work will be focused on understanding how technological competencies can be created or leveraged to create new markets and new competencies.Technological ompetency map In the image to the right I show the technological choices that a particular group of enterprises that I am working with face.

Of course, the manufacturing sector is a clumsy way to draw a boundary around a system, so just to put some of your concerns to rest, I am still committed to the knowledge and service sectors, technological intermediaries and the local economies in developing countries. I have found that these are useful perspectives to look at manufacturing activities and how it evolves. Manufacturing to me is not only about making products, it is also about matching competence with opportunity within a given societal context. It connects wealthy people with poor people, clever dreamers with needy users, highly qualified people with poorly educated people, nerds with geeks, domestic ideas with international realities.

What makes my approach different is that I am working from demanding customers and markets back to the basic operations, and not from suppliers towards markets. I am not doing marketing promotion, I am developing supply side based on current and future needs. It means that I will help to better articulate demand criteria, and will then try to shape the institutional system and manufacturing capacities to work towards these needs. Central to all of this are developmentally minded organizations like universities, industry bodies and even consultancies that wants to develop a particular sub sector, technological competence or outcome.

In 2013 I undertake not to be a problem solver, but to be a better facilitator of deeper thinking, an adviser that assists my customers and counterparts to better recognize patterns, constraints and opportunities. I will assist my customers to become change agents within the systems that they work in.

Lastly, I want to work more with systemic thinking and complexity. Watch this space for some announces about a new podcast series and a new research field in collaboration with Marcus Jenal

Shifting towards innovation and technology application

Have you also noticed that increasingly local economic development is captured by the public sector, often from a governance perspective, while the role of the private sector and its own development gets reduced to a consultative stakeholder? I find this amusing, as the private sector is the acknowledged driver of growth and increased wealth. I have already shifted my attention to the stimulation of technology use and innovation in the private sector, as I cannot imagine a more strategic way to create a new future for our region.

But strangely, the private sector, at least at an organised level, has only in a few places in Southern Africa taken the lead in its own development. While the media and government complains about job losses, firm closures and the increased uncompetitive performance of the industries, industry itself seems to be waiting for government to bail them out!

At the moment I see only a few ways out of the hole that our industries are in. Firstly a more pro-active approach towards the use of technology and innovation is required. Government is not going to donate the machines, and nobody will give a firm the research. Firms need to invest in new technology. Secondly, at a collective level, industry bodies need to move from advocacy towards a more proactive approach of building value chains and industrial networks. Many famous developmental fads like value chains, incubators, clusters etc have their origins in the private sector, even if these instruments are often widely used and abused by the public sector. Why are we seeing so little investment in these instruments by the private sector for the benefit of a specific industry? Thirdly, industry needs to realise that both increased competition and increased globalisation have changed the rules. Just as governments have to deal with immigration and passport issues, business should become a bit more obsessed with shaping the economic, education and science policies of their countries.  If industry does not as a collective become more vocal about education standards, research missions or industrial support then we are in for a tough 20 years!!

Hey, what do you think we can do to inspire our industries in Southern Africa to become better organised and more involved?

How can we get businesses to start investing in the latest technology?

How do we get business to not only innovate in marketing and advertising (we are good at that) but also to invent new business models, new technologies and new solutions to the problems of the world?

Any ideas or proposals are welcome!!

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