By Lungz Mathupha
For many the word innovation has come to have little – if no – meaning at all. You could place it side by side with the word ‘viral’. When innovation is discussed in SA, the Kreepy Krauly and Pratley Putty come to mind – but that was back in the 60s and 70s. What about the 21st century? What’s happening today?
These are the questions award-winning science journalist, Sarah Wild, seeks to answer with her latest paperback, Innovation. The launch event of her written work, much like the said book, opened up a can of worms dredged up from a forgotten place. Questions surrounding the meaning of innovation, where it’s being recognised and why, as well as why this should matter to you and me, were addressed.
Before I launch into some of these in a little more depth, I must assure you that according to Wild’s book we aren’t, in fact, an innovation-less society. We just aren’t doing it at the rate that would make it more noticeable.
It isn’t just because our government isn’t investing in R&D as much as other states – and not just your global leaders like America and Germany, but even in comparison to the other BRICS nations. But even the private sector isn’t rushing to invest in local innovation.
You’ll have to read the book to find out why that’s the case and why it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But what I can tell you, as promised, are a few other notable areas of interest the book grapples with.
Getting down to basics
Firstly, the definition of innovation is given from the premise of what invention means, “a product or process that’s new to the world, while ‘innovation’ is the first time it is put into practice, whether that’s using a process in a new place or a product in a new application.”
And to put it in even plainer context, Wild says it’s “ways of doing things more efficiently, streamlining existing processes, and creating new products and industries”. Through innovation, hopes are for a South Africa that all citizens are proud to call home. Sounds good to me, so where is it happening?
Spotting innovative ideas
Wild offers up a myriad of examples in areas including energy, health and industry. Those that stuck out for me include CSIR researchers’ solution to the widespread devastation caused by fires in certain parts of the country.
Through satellite data, they were able to develop an early-warning system to warn companies and citizens where fires have flared up – and even where they might ignite in future.
The iShack initiative, aimed at providing reliable, safe electricity to shack dwellers also piqued my interest. It was later linked with sanitation. Despite what the reports try to relay, there are still many South Africans using bucket or pit toilets. The sanitation projects described in the book are just some of the ways dignity can be restored if more people help to address the issue.
With the language of learning resurfacing as a major issue in our country recently, a look at Chapter 30 could encourage more ideas on realising how retaining our vibrant diversity doesn’t have to be the Achilles’ heel to global interaction.
There are many other stories, in this book and our communities, that often don’t get media attention. But the reality is contributing toward bettering SA is a collective responsibility. Innovation helps to stir an interest in what’s happening and how we can add to current efforts.