Innovation by David Macfie

Innovation is key to the new world economy. It has to spring from futuristic thinking as opposed to reliance on ideas from the past. Across the globe, this realization has taken root and Innovation Hubs are springing up all over the place. Many of these are focused on ICT, but others are problem focused as opposed to technology focused. I favor the latter approach. I did some research and found that many such hubs consist of the following:

  1. They are based in a “Science and Technology Park” with specialized buildings and technology infrastructure designed to attract “Innovation Partners” (Local, national and inter-national) to lease property there.
  2. They have support programs for start –up entrepreneurs. These include training and education, mentorship, funding, business assistance and so on.
  3. They support networking with interested parties everywhere.
  4. They encourage initiatives that will benefit the community, the nation and the world, including by creating down-stream employment opportunities.
  5. They, generally, have strong links to Research groups (like universities and Research Organizations like the CSIR) and encourage and sponsor research programs
  6. They often focus on Electronics, ICT, Bio-Science and advanced manufacturing.
  7. They have focus on sustainability of natural resources such as land and water, and on the “greening” and sustainability of the planet in terms of energy, food, water, housing and so on.

I agree with many of these focus areas but, my biggest problem with this is that a lot of time, energy and money has gone into the “Flagship” – the Science and Technology Park. While this looks great on websites and in Brochures, I don’t think it is fundamentally required for an Innovation Hub.

Innovation happens between people with enthusiasm, energy, creativity and the wherewithal to deliver. Most of these types of people that I have met are not too fussed about the luxury of their surroundings. So I would play down the large initial capital program on a park. I would rather concentrate on creating adequate accommodation (even in separate buildings – perhaps unused ones) and providing excellent infrastructure for connectivity, networking and processing power. Meetings in that environment will happen with Skype or video-conferencing not in luxurious boardrooms. The overall focus should be on results not papers.

Also concerning the focus areas, there should always be the proviso that each should be prefaced with a different kind of thinking. For example, I am not convinced that research into better mining methods is the way to go – mineral-resource based industry is a dying breed – the resources are running out, getting them out the ground is increasingly difficult and expensive, the process is dangerous and so on.

I believe that Initiatives must focus on the needs and wealth creators of the future not of the past. Here we should be looking at human resources rather than natural resources and Human Capital as opposed to Financial Capital. We should be looking at new ways of building wealth rather than depending on traditional sources.

What I also think is critical is a focus on initiatives to do with sustainability across the board. Here we need:

  • To utilize re-usable and sustainable energy sources like sun, wind, geothermal heat, waves or water and ultimately nuclear fusion.
  • To better plan and manage the world’s food supplies for people and livestock and to initiate innovative ways of protecting and replenishing food sources as well as finding and introducing new ones.
  • To conserve the planet and all the resources in it. (Particularly water) This involves a considerably better understanding, across all people, of conservation attitudes, knowledge and capabilities to contribute to conservation at a personal level.
  • To build structures (Houses, offices, etc.) that conserve energy rather than using it up – cool in summer, warm in winter. There are many ways of doing this with simple additions to existing building practices, but again we should think differently to invent better materials and methods to replace traditional building.
  • To provide all people with a consistently acceptable quality of life in terms of health, education, leisure, employment and remuneration, accommodation, transport and, safety and security. All this from the cradle to the grave. This presupposes a different and better way of spreading and utilizing wealth.

In these cases we also must take a different view. For example, the sun in Africa is an obvious source of re-usable energy but it is expensive to set up – an eight to ten year pay back for any decent installation. Either we must invent significant improvements to existing technologies to make them quicker and cheaper to produce and install OR we must invent new technologies that do the job better and cheaper. An obvious example here is in the area of water supplies. Particularly in Africa and other hot countries with coastlines, water supply shouldn’t rely just on rain. This is made more evident by the effects of global warming, which make rainfall unpredictable and unreliable. In these countries, solar powered desalination plants should be considered essential and should be erected, as soon as possible in suitable places along the coastlines.

Another example in the area of food production. In the old days in England, particularly in the poorer areas, land was set aside for “allotments”. Here people could rent (or be given) a piece of land where they could grow enough fruit and vegetables, and raise enough chickens, to sustain their family through the year. Some people weren’t keen on the work involved, but many managed to make this work consistently throughout the year. Hydroponics could be added to this idea and education and training could be provided to get people going with on-going support along the way. Allotments could be provided in several places throughout human settlements so that people didn’t have far to go to reach their plot and people should be taught how to harvest in such a way as to get seeds for next year as well as produce for this one. Another example, as an alternative to chickens, is “Fish Farms”. We also have to develop additional food sources that we haven’t considered before. (Processed insects and grubs?)

The obvious counterpoint to managing food supply is to manage population growth. Today, it is a truism that the world’s population is growing too fast and is already too big to be sustainable with present approaches to feeding. Many people are constantly on the verge of starvation or die of it. This is just asking for trouble – famine, disease, conflict over resources and many other inevitable outcomes of this imbalance.

We need to look at population differently and manage its growth. This may require different thinking about life and death than currently prevails. What is certain is that we must achieve a balance between population size and sustainable resources. Without that we are losing the battle faster each year. This whole area requires considerable innovative thinking.

There are many other areas that may be investigated, but fundamentally we need a new world order to ensure the survival of humanity on earth.

In conclusion, we all know the world is constantly changing. Our real challenge is to use our minds and our ingenuity to make sure that the changes consistently benefit all lifeforms on earth to the betterment of the planet, rather than continuously and selfishly looking after “Number 1”.