• Four policy steps to drive technological change

    David Ockwell


Speed read

  • Building technological capabilities in Africa is not just about research

  • Policy interventions are better targeted at later stages of the innovation chain

  • Innovation is a technical challenge, but it also interacts with social practices

R&D is only one of several interventions to build Africa’s tech capacity and innovation systems, says David Ockwell.

On 2 July, the African Union’s heads of state and government adopted the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024) — a decadal vision aiming to place science, technology and innovation (ST&I) at the “epicentre of Africa’s social and economic development”. [1]

As recent coverage in Nature summarises, the strategy has been criticised on several fronts, including: a lack of firm commitments from governments to funding or training, aiming beyond the limits of the continent’s existing financial resources, providing insufficient detail on how to realise the vision and planning to create new institutional structures instead of using existing ones. [2]

But a critical reading of the strategy, and of Nature’s critique, raises a number of additional concerns. Like many other approaches to ST&I for development, the new strategy fails to reflect decades of research and emerging literature in innovation studies.
Misunderstanding innovation
To begin with, the strategy document and the Nature story confuse ‘innovation’ with ‘invention’. Innovation is about improved ways of doing things, not necessarily new things. For example, a firm or farm that introduces a more efficient technology is innovative even if that technology has existed elsewhere for decades.

This confusion leads to innovation being treated as synonymous with, and measurable in the same way as, research and development (R&D).

“The strategy document and the Nature story confuse ‘innovation’ with ‘invention’. Innovation is about improved ways of doing things, not necessarily new things.”

David Ockwell

So, for example, Nature’s coverage cites the failure of African nations to meet their target of spending one per cent of GDP on R&D — as if this has material implications for ST&I underpinning development on the continent. In fact, R&D is only one small part of a much broader spectrum of social and technical activities that constitute innovation and contribute to technological change and development.

And there is no recognition of the incremental ways in which other developing countries, such as the ‘Asian tiger economies’, drove their economic success: through a slow, deliberate process of technological capability building while simultaneously building functioning innovation systems to support it.

This results in a failure to recognise that in many African nations — and across many technologies — the early R&D stage is usually not the most effective target for interventions that build technological capabilities. Interventions often are better targeted much later in the innovation chain, for example at demonstration stages — or, more likely still, through working with existing, commercially available technologies that are often sourced from overseas.

This is not to say that research expertise is unimportant and Africa shouldn’t focus on building its capacity — it should; but this alone won’t drive technological change and development.

With these basic misunderstandings, it is unsurprising that more recent insights from socio-technical transitions thinking are also absent. Simply put, from a socio-technical perspective, innovation, technological change and the creation of new markets for technology are not merely technical challenges, but are also processes that shape, and are shaped or constrained by, social practices and evolving local knowledge.

Taking energy as an example: cultural practices around cooking might define which alternatives will be viable and sustainable; but also dominant institutions and vested interests in kerosene supply might create a powerful inertia against change.

Such thinking seems a long way off from being reflected in most policy discourse — or many scientific discourses for that matter.

More than R&D
So if boosting R&D spending and related training is not enough, how can African and other developing countries more effectively use ST&I to drive human and economic development?

Clear policy pointers are emerging from research I have been involved with, which examined factors that drove market success for off-grid solar photovoltaic electricity in Kenya. [3] The analysis firmly rebuts the popular idea that the Kenyan market for off-grid solar technology is a free market-driven success. Instead, it is the result of a long history of capability building, often donor funded.

Since the late 1970s, a handful of organisations and other actors have engaged in a range of key activities at critical points throughout the market’s development: establishing accredited training courses for solar technicians, conducting market research and building a pan-Kenyan network of actors involved in solar technologies. The resulting lessons were widely applicable and proved integral to establishing long-term market development. The private sector then used this learning to help grow the market.

An excellent recent example is the work of the Lighting Africa initiative, which used similar capacity-building activities to create a viable local market for the sale and use of solar lanterns as alternatives to kerosene, with the additional benefit of being able to charge mobile phones.

The kinds of networking, advocacy and capability building activities described above can be distilled down to four key roles for policy: first, to build networks of diverse stakeholders working proactively together; second, to foster and share learning from research and experience; third, to promote shared visions among stakeholders; and, finally, to support diverse experimentation with technologies and practices.

It is time to shift policy thinking on ST&I for development away from R&D spending and towards using policy interventions as ‘innovation system builders’. The aim should be to build indigenous technological capabilities and well-functioning, context-sensitive innovation systems. It is innovation systems understood from a broader, socio-technical perspective that will provide the bedrock of technological change and development in Africa.

David Ockwell is deputy director of research at the ESRC STEPS Centre and senior lecturer in geography at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter @DavidOckwell