Innovation And Caribbean Futures

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” —Franz Fanon

The creation of a future for the Caribbean is a core responsibility of post independence generations. I will be using the term Generation 62 to define the group of people born just before or after the formal granting of political independence. For Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, this milestone came in August 1962. This is my generation and tribe; we grew up in societies that benefitted from the independence project in the Caribbean having reached this important milestone. This year 2012 the 50th anniversary of independence and provides an opportunity to recognise and to acknowledge that despite gaining or acquiring formal independence and the associated trappings of statehood,  independence is a journey on which we have only just embarked.

The Common Sense Convois is a fitting location to ponder and discuss the contours and intention of the independence project, not only because it can seek inspiration from one of the Caribbean most independent minded thinkers Lloyd Best, but because those who have designed the programme and format have provided a basis for unfettered and unconstrained debate and dialogue.

 

Innovation Imperative

I define innovation as a process of generating, acquiring, diffusing and using knowledge to produce economic and social benefit. In this conceptualization, innovation is considered fundamentally to be a process of managing knowledge. Innovation is regarded as being not a smooth process but one full of uncertainty that must be managed. Innovation requires intentional effort and investment and is not restricted to radical innovation or activities at the technological frontier. This definition contrasts substantially with views that define innovation as a science-centric process that is concerned with generating technological novelties through a process of accumulated investment in formal centralized research and development (R&D) or purchase of technological imports. It is a challenging definition for policy makers—who are by and large not comfortable with ambiguity and blurred operational boundaries or concepts that do not  fit into familiar types of standardized data, but it is a definition that better describes the nature of the innovation process as experienced and performed in developing countries.

My own autobiography is relevant here, because in a sense it defines how I approach what is to be offered. While at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine in the mid 1980s, I took two full year courses, which formed part of the undergraduate social science degree specialising in Economics. These were Caribbean Economic Problems taught by Ralph Henry and Science & Technology policy designed and led by Trevor Farrell.  Given the times of the day, the courses were rigorous, engaging and challenging and very firmly rooted in Caribbean (and developing world) consciousness and epistemology. A few years later I chose to do a thesis as part of my MBA at a North American programme and then carried out research in Jamaica under the supervision of Norman Girvan.

The work looked at technological capability building at firm level and led to a publication in 1990 in World Development, which is cited and included in university courses on what is now being termed “the learning school”.  Self determination, room for agency despite constraints imposed by rapid rates of technological change, distance from the technological frontier, weak local institutions, the perennial problem of small size in terms of people, finance and knowledge were all confronted as part of a social science and management education in a first-rate university with confident and inspired scholars as mentors. UWI in the mid 1980s was also a time of politics- there was the Grenada crisis, there was anti apartheid solidarity, there was the stirring of gender equality consciousness on campus and these were all inputs for forming a world-view. At a very personal level, there was the up close experience of police brutality and the struggle in small societies for social justice and breaking free of conventions.  In the midst of it all though, there was confidence and a sense of being in charge of one’s own destiny.  I am not able to say for sure what aspects of these foundational elements I take with me into an analysis of science, technology and innovation, a subject with which I have been absorbed for more than twenty years, but I can identify the Caribbean perspective in what I do and how I go about it.  My approach continues to be one that adopts a critical, questioning  gaze and one that is not satisfied with easy answers that apply only to standard categories.

This echoes a Lloyd Best argument and his disbelief that at Cambridge they were trying to teach him things that simply did not make sense.  A Caribbean scholar is one who is prepared to start from where s/he finds herself in order to make sense of the world from the inside out and not one who is content to begin with somebody else’s received theory.  With this foundation in mind, I wish to discuss the role of innovation in forging Caribbean futures.

 

Trends

In the Caribbean, we ought to be concerned with understanding innovation primarily because economic growth and development are increasingly relying on the ability of firms, institutions and countries to manage innovation and to enhance capabilities. Innovation strategies help countries deal with structural changes in their economies, and enable them to better respond to external challenges, especially in the nature of international markets and trade regimes. Innovation is an imperative for developing countries that seek to balance economic growth with redistribution of wealth and effective provision of essential public goods, such as education, housing and health.  Countries as diverse as Korea, Singapore, and Ireland have demonstrated that paying attention to these policies can make a difference.

There is considerable variation in how countries go about organizing these efforts; the strategies used in the developing world involve capability building and technological upgrading for which learning processes are critical inputs.  Context matters and therefore, the alignment of innovation efforts with local contexts and culture influences its effectiveness.  It has also been shown that innovating under conditions of scarcity is very different from doing so under abundance.  These strategies if they are to be effective require a judicious balance between acquisition of knowledge and capabilities from international sources and domestic capability building. In the current global economic crisis, economic policy makers are facing difficulties in applying strategies that facilitate and support creation of high quality jobs, encourage diversification and support transition towards a – towards a post-fossil-fuel  based “green” economy.

Many developing countries, including South East Asian countries such as Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand; the BRICS – China, India and Brazil explicitly recognise innovation as the foundation for competitiveness, and industrial and technological upgrading. This gives rise to innovation policies that seek to generate investment in science and technological capacity, including for research and development and to create and strengthen linkages between major industries and the knowledge infrastructure, including higher educational institutions. These policies also encourage networking, including with international peers, and strong representation of business in innovation activities.   The innovation superpowers which include the Nordic countries, Switzerland and other large economies also have prioritised infrastructure that provides a foundation for innovation, which includes the schooling and education system as well as learning systems outside of formal education. There is considerable evidence that suggests that large-scale infrastructure projects can be used as a basis for developing innovation capabilities. In addition there has, particularly in recent years, been increasing concern over the extent to which the innovation system is delivering services to the non-formal economy and is integrated with local communities.

 

Good practice in managing innovation

Firms need to invest in building capabilities, which include a stock of resources that permit them to undertake production and differing degrees of innovation activity. Such capabilities are both in the nature of ‘human capital’ (i.e. specialist professionals, knowledge bases and skills/talents that are formally and informally allocated within specific organisational units, projects and teams) and ‘organisational’ (the firm’s internal and external organisational arrangements such as their routines and procedures, linkages, managerial systems, including the firm’s values, norms and beliefs that are reflected in its management style and behaviour e.g. in the form of entrepreneurial management or ambitious innovation strategies.  Using these resources, firms accumulate production-based and innovation capabilities over time in a managed process. There is compelling evidence that the performance with respect to innovation is influenced by the manner of, and the speed at which, the building of a firms’ capability proceeds over time.  This also determines the types and levels of innovative activity that firms can undertake.

For firms to be successful in innovation, even in developing countries, the usual rules of business strategy apply; therefore an effective competitive strategy needs to be non-replicable and differentiated.  The niches for innovation have been quite varied, for example, Chinese firms have concentrated on manufacturing, Indian ones on services, the Brazilians on energy while Russian on energy and commodities. Even within countries, the ability to realise success from these strategies is not equally dispersed across all firms and it takes financial resources, management savvy and knowhow.

Incremental innovation accounts for the largest proportion of innovation activity, which is undertaken in collaboration across a variety of actors including suppliers of equipment and customers. Therefore it is necessary to have strong and effective linkages and interaction between private sector and public sector organisations.  In countries with an outstanding innovation performance this has proven to be a key factor, while in many developing countries, outstanding firms have to innovate despite the local context in which they find themselves and cannot rely on their local innovation systems to be a source  of input for innovation activities.

 

Policy requirements

The assessment of policy requirements for innovation in the Caribbean draws on a review of the state of conceptual thinking on innovation policy and practice and benchmarking with countries around the world, and suggests the following recommendations.

 

• Align efforts with state of the art thinking. There is a growing academic and policy making community that recognises the importance of integrating and directing STI towards improvements in the production system as well as enhancing the science system itself. This focus is in line with the emerging traditions in innovation studies and the definitions and practice of innovation emphasised by the learning and capability school.

• Redirect science, technology and innovation efforts by significantly increasing the developmental focus. This is a challenging objective and will involve advocacy, evidence based policy making as well as research.  Some effort will have to be directed at strengthening the sense of the Caribbean as a proactive, innovative and problem solving region.  It would appear that Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean more generally is suffering from a crisis of confidence in its ability to innovate and to be innovative. Building on advocacy will assist the Caribbean in understanding what a strong innovative society looks like. In terms of signalling, there is, therefore, a symbolic role that the government and other social actors can play including using storytelling, role models and other interventions to build and strengthen a culture of innovation so that innovation becomes top of mind. Discussions in several  African countries, in North America among ethnic minorities and in the Caribbean indicate that psychological dimensions such as self-esteem and identity formation are critical in this regard.

• Place much greater attention on understanding the drivers of the innovative capability and performance of firms and more importantly the variation in this performance, with aspects such as the potential for firms to contribute to national development priorities. This focus on firm-level analysis is important particularly since the main do-ers and funders of innovation remain private sector firms.  This focus will also permit a challenge and enquiry into the nature of the response of private firms to public policy, by considering private sector firms to be active agents, whose innovation performance is only partially in response to signals originating from public sector institutions.

• Generate empirical evidence on the experience of specific sectors and communities of interest to shed light on variation and patterns of unevenness, particularly in respect of technology adoption and diffusion in the informal economy; as well as barriers and drivers that affect the entire economy, but have different effects at the sectoral level.

• Build technological scanning capabilities in the Caribbean, and extend this capability to assessing other parts of the developing world as a source of know-how. This role can be carried out by public sector organizations and would require technological skills in universities, public research labs and in line ministries.  In order to perform this function effectively, some knowledge of technological trends and fundamentals is required.

• Strengthen the importance of ICT as a generic technology in order to reap both the benefits of a fast growing innovative sector and its role as a source of intermediate inputs that improve the performance of many other sectors.  Efforts to accelerate application of ICTs and provision of affordable, high quality and high speed ICT infrastructure require greater attention and focus.

• Accelerate capability building in policy making and delivery capacity; even if the diagnosis takes the thinking in the right direction, there will still be more effort in order to deliver on this mandate. The efforts undertaken by developing countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Chile and Brazil provide good examples of focused efforts.

• Reduce the disconnection in terms of planning and design. The evolution of the science and technology system, its planning and design has been disconnected from social and economic planning and objectives. There needs to be more focus on interconnectivity, purposefulness and service.  There should be an effort to produce a deeper understanding of the process of innovation itself and how this is expressed in the Caribbean.  Given its significance for social and economic development, there should be an ongoing system of data analysis, monitoring and evaluation be instituted with sufficient resources and careful design. Baseline studies of the system as a whole as well as focused assessment of specific components or interactions will go a long way to generating evidence based inputs to policy processes, and will significantly improve the measurement of innovation and its outcomes.

• Increase focus on demand-centred and user-centric innovation including by strengthening the internal linkages between the citizens and consumers who can benefit from innovation outcomes.

 

Challenges

Many countries struggle with efforts to integrate innovation policy with general economic policy and industrial policy.  This is often because the philosophical bases for innovation policy and economic policy are quite divergent as well as the locus of strategic responsibility. Typically, industrial policy and economic policy lie in the domain of trade and industry ministries or planning ministries, while ministries with responsibility for science and technology are given the innovation mandate. There is also some uncertainty in terms of where the links are to be made between innovation, entrepreneurship and small business promotion.  Beyond the difficulty in assigning the responsibility to lead the effort across various government departments, there are often a number of implementing agencies and these institutional arrangements can become complex and convoluted without simple, clear lines of responsibility and accountability.

In this context, cross-ministerial collaboration remains very difficult in the innovation domain. Trade and industry or planning ministries are typically powerful and large, while ministries with responsibility for science and technology are not well resourced and have little political clout. There is little cooperation and  officials in respective departments often demonstrate only passing familiarity with the policy objectives and instruments used by their counterparts. The more ‘technology-focused’ programmes of industrial policy are often not seen as part of the core mandate and were not well understood or regarded as central. There is a high incidence of cognitive distance between senior and middle-level officials operating in respective  ministries. Certainly, among senior decision makers and officials of science ministries, there are likely to be a high proportion of scientifically and technologically trained personnel. This often leads to innovation policy being perceived and operationalised as though it is synonymous with promoting science and technology per se, as opposed to creating conditions under which science and technology produce services for society. This exacerbates the disconnect with the rest of government and society and serves as a disincentive to the innovation mission being considered to be relevant. For the highly trained and well qualified professionals in science ministries this could be a source of frustration.

Innovation performance systems are very rudimentary. Decision makers lack reliable metrics and indicators and therefore there is often reliance on data that is out of step with the nature of the innovation process in developing countries.

 

An agenda for research and action

Innovation should be understood from the ground up and this will require contextually based approaches  that takes development and social realities as the starting point is needed.  There are gaps in understanding that need to be filled and these include:

• The innovation process in firms and organisations

• Innovation systems features and how this affects innovation performance and its contribution to socio-economic development in the Caribbean

• Building a culture of innovation in the Caribbean : barriers and drivers

• Enhancing risk-taking among public and private sector institutions in service of development

• the Caribbean as a global player in science, technology and innovation systems: knowledge flows and technology circulation

• Need for smart metrics and indicators to uncover invisible innovation

• Understanding the innovation lifecycle in the Caribbean

• Fostering regional cooperation in science, technology and innovation

 

This approach is likely to deliver better integration of science, technology and innovation with broader development objectives, a gap which is acknowledged and is of great concern.

 

Leadership

I regard leadership as being a process by which visions, dreams and aspirations are transformed into manifest realities. Within this context, then, leadership requires collective engagement, sustained disciplined effort and the application of mental, emotional and spiritual faculties.

The agenda that I have outlined for science, technology and innovation that contributes to human development is ambitious and will require a complex process in which there is serious interaction and engagement among a number of different social actors.  This project is too important to be left to a single stakeholder. Particularly because of the need to augment signals from the market, there is need for public leadership, in order to ensure that the broadest public interests are served. Governments must be involved. However, our governments should be accountable to and work with the private sector and civil society including NGOs, academic and research institutions and international agencies.

To be effective in this leadership process, our leaders will need to adopt a transformative leadership style that is non authoritarian, and is based on solidarity and service.  We need leaders who empower others and serve as champions. At a personal level, leaders must express integrity, commitment and take personal responsibility.   Leaders will also need to build their capability to work collaboratively in multi-stakeholder networks. This is particularly important in order to sustain and renew the vision and to evaluate and fine-tune strategies and tactics.  Since the possibility of creating knowledge societies is intensively influenced by global forces and patterns, our leaders will need the capacity to confidently engage with the world in the service of the region.

This process of transformation will also require a mindset change across society and particularly among leaders.  Science, technology and innovation has for the most part now had a developmental orientation.  There is a high degree of capture of the policy mission by the science elite and governments.  In the private sector the fruits of innovation can more likely to be fancy gadgets than goods and services that are pro-poor and pro-development.  When there is wholesale reliance on market forces, innovation processes are skewed in such a way that there are significant disparities across countries and within social groups.

In particular, rural people and the urban poor are not well served and patterns of gender inequality often exist.  The patterns of inequity in the distribution of wealth, knowledge, and power, which are found in wider society, are mirrored in the fruits of the innovation process. There has also been an increasing concentration of research and development in large, international firms and an intellectual property regime that limits the public flow of knowledge and information. There are some signs of these patterns beginning to change as a result of constrained innovation and frugal innovation patterns, about which I am happy to say more during the discussion.

Let me illustrate how adopting a different approach to innovation can yield benefit by describing a transformed ICT sector.  The ICT sector in developing countries is defined by classic market failure, a situation wherein social benefits exceed private benefits. The applications for ICTs in the delivery of education and health services are not as broad ranging as they could be and the direction of ICT policy is narrowly focused and does not attempt to increase the multiplier effects of lower prices and improved quality for the enterprise sector. Opportunities to use ICTs to stimulate participatory government at all levels, including within local communities have not been seized.

It is possible to transform and move towards a knowledge society that facilitates development, with a pro-poor and pro-development agenda. To make progress on this path, it will be necessary to avoid the latest fads that originate from well-meaning or self-interested outsiders.  It will be necessary for the Caribbean to develop home grown strategies and to build the necessary intellectual, policy making and diplomatic capabilities needed to implement these strategies.  The region should avoid strategies that either focus on creating ICT enclaves (free trade zones by another name) or on programmes that cater only for the elite. We will also need to be mindful of the political climate in which all development efforts take place.  Undertaking this transformation will require creative leadership.

Caribbean society will have to undergo change in order to harness the potential of innovation in the ICT sector.  Knowledge societies are creativity intensive and require access to higher-order thinking, analysis as well as reflection. The education and training systems that support these processes will look and feel very different from traditional systems in existence today.  Familiar daily processes of entertainment, household management and communication are in turmoil and change. Our societies face the challenge of managing these processes and capturing benefits for society without losing cultural integrity, stifling talent or promotion intrusions into privacy.

In most settings, entrepreneurial private sector companies will lead the way in the creation of a knowledge society, particularly because they sense and are pro-active to change in socio-economic environment and context. Entrepreneurs are agents of change and part of the productive fabric. Their activities are often so transformative that they can also be destabilising, as such, Schumpeter described entrepreneurs as catalysts of creative destruction. The mobile communications sector in the developing world has provided examples of world class, dynamic and path breaking companies emerging from Africa and Asia including two Africa-born companies such as MTN and Celtel (now Zain group).  Caribbean regulatory and policy environment will have to be conducive to the emergence of indigenous, large players.

 

Conclusion

Innovation policy has traditionally been concerned with objectives such as: the generation of new scientific knowledge, making government investment in innovation more effective, enhancing diffusion of knowledge and technology and establishing right incentives to stimulate private sector innovation to transform knowledge into commercial success.  Scholars have suggested a number of policy interventions that are required by state, private sector and other stakeholders that go well beyond investment in research and development (R&D), to include encouraging entrepreneurs, supporting active technology acquisition, facilitating university-industry collaboration, developing clusters and science/technology parks  In addition to these areas of concern, we will also need to undertake  awareness-raising, execution of flagship projects that can demonstrate the importance and relevance of specific experiments and work to ensure alignment with development objectives.

Transforming science, technology and innovation so that these important processes contribute to all citizens is an ambitious and worthwhile objective and one that is critical for the future. Systems of innovation and cultural processes that support them are shaped by social and political forces. It is incumbent on leaders, including those assembled in this room, to ensure that in the future we in the Caribbean take account of and recognises the significant benefits to be realised by harnessing innovation.

 

Gillian Marcelle is a Trinidadian who is Associate Professor: Strategy and Innovation at Wits Business School in Johannesburg, South Africa

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