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Developing culture of innovation Who should take the lead ?

Sunday, July 6, 2014
Minister of Planning Bhoe Tewarie

Innovation is the lifeblood of businesses and economies. Critical for innovation to take place is the growth of a research and development (R&D) capacity. But T&T may not be coming up to scratch in this vital area, a fact that elements of this country’s public and private sector have acknowledged. Minister of Planning Bhoe Tewarie said as a rule there was not significant spending by invidual companies on R&D and that this could be attributed to T&T’s business environment.


“The businesses basically have evolved as trading businesses (buying and selling). Beyond that there is the energy industry which has been dominated by the multinational sector and they rely on research from their international resources. The other companies in the country live in the context of knowledge and technology transfer and don't go beyond that." Tewarie said that this raises the issue of how we might create bridging institutions that facilitate R&D, cluster formation, development and expansion.


As a solution, he raised the theoretical concept of the "Triple Helix" being applicable to T&T if the business environment itself has to evolve into being culturally innovative. Tewarie said: "Normally in countries you tend to have the triple helix model in terms of organising research strategy which is a collaborative mix between university research, private sector funding and government funding."


Dr. Tewarie said, "This is the way we may go in terms of funding specific clusters or specific areas of diversification." The ministry has also been working on a National Innovation System in collaboration with the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), the United Nations Development Programme, the European Union and the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). 


Of the programme, Tewarie said:  "At the end of the day, the national innovation system becomes a combination of state, private sector, university collaboration type institutions, cluster-related research capacities built up with a very targeted focus and individual company research that may or may not draw on other research capabilities." He said that with a well designed national innovation system, the country can begin to intensify the pace at which innovation is harnessed in the existing system. 


“The main thing is not the research but the application, the creation and the innovation." He thought the strategy should also take into account formal and informal systems of education that tap human imaginative capacity. 



On this, Tewarie said: “The most important thing we need to understand is that sustainable development is not possible without perpetual innovation and perpetual innovation is not possible without tapping the human imagination and creativity. We need to understand that human imagination and creativity is not limited by a person having little education. If that were the case we would not have developed pan." He continued, "nor is it stimulated more by people who are wealthy because a lot of the world's innovations and inventions are created by poor people or people who are not necessarily wealthy."


He said: "Once you understand that the human imagination is important from a policy point of view, you will appreciate that an all inclusive strategy that embraces the innovation for sustainable development paradigm has to be embraced. You have to admit that the most important resource to your country is the inexhaustible resource of the human imagination, which is very different from human capital and intellectual capital." He also thinks that both brain power and imaginative capability are needed.


He referenced Carnival to exemplify the imaginative capacity of Trinbagonians - an ability he believes Trinibagonians do not take seriously as and he said the nation has been unable to translate that creativity into a source for industrial innovation. 



 Dr. Tewarie’s apparent assessment, that the private sector has been unable to develop creative thought into industrialized innovative concepts, prompted the Sunday BG to ask the Planning Minister, who he thought should take the lead if T&T is to develop a culture that supports innovation - the private sector or the public sector. According to the minister, the answer depends on what is needed.  


"The national innovation system should be a range of public sector funded institutions that can establish research and innovation capability which can be applied across the system and that can transfer knowledge across the system." As for the private sector linkage to that, Dr. Tewarie said: "There needs to be a model which creates the conditions for private and public sector funded research which is focused on specific areas."


He believed private companies needed to do some research of their own, which he said could be accomplished in two ways - research specific to them using, university resources or, creating the conditions for collaboration in their sector.



Private sector should lead the way
But as the public sector is making its push to grow the country’s imaginative capacity, CEO of Ixanos Ltd, Stephen King sees the private sector leading innovation development. However, he told the Sunday BG that only a small number of private sector companies are set up for innovation, outside of the international organisations and not given the opportunity to maximise their potential.


King, who is the son of former Planning Minister, Mary King, said: "The multinational funding agencies seem to be funding a lot of the public sector projects and there seems to be some sort of hidden agenda where external companies get the large projects, so it really dampens any efforts by the smaller companies in Trinidad." Drawing reference to his own experiences with the situation, King's said his did not even consider bidding for projects funded by multinational agencies. 


"As soon as I see a tender funded by IADB or any multinational funded agency, its pointless even looking at it because you know where its going," said King. The Ixanos CEO also said that having worked with the State sector, he does not think that it makes innovation possible. 



He illustrated: "We have developed a system with some of the ministries which is along the lines of monitoring, planning and evaluation. These systems don't exist off the shelf. They tend to be used by the multinational lending organisations and are web-based systems that help them manage their funds. "



He continued: "We have developed the framework with a few of the ministries - the ministries of Planning, Gender, as well as, Sport. They were involved in the development, from its concept to how it should work. We are now trying to get pilot projects put in place and what we're finding is the Permanent Secretaries are saying they don't know how to implement it."


King said the implementation end of systems innovation needs to be settled from a public sector perspective so that decision makers understand the process. He added: "If it is we are developing systems in Trinidad, especially since the government is the largest spender, they need to know how to implement them.” King said that his company's ethos is to build systems infrastructure for T&T and eventually export. 



He said: "What we're finding is that the Trinidad set-up is risk averse and they tend to buy products from outside without even proper evaluation. Local development tends to be dampened by that culture." He thought this culture was slowly changing given what government was trying to do.


As for a collaboration between industry and universities, King said the opportunities are there but it is up to the private sector to seek them out. He said that his company constantly relies on the expertise of lecturers at UWI and has even taken on students for mentorship.


"The professors have been very good to us, literally, even consulting for free on some of our projects. Ixanos employs from UTT and UWI, 100 per cent. The students are open to working and developing. We mentor a lot of the students in the engineering department and we share with them some of the industry problems which gives them a better insight into what they can concentrate on to have a real product." 


With Ixanos' close ties to university education, King said UWI has asked the company to take on different project groups of 8-10 students annually to mentor in software and innovation development, which they have been doing for the past five years. He said the company plans to move to the Tamana Inteck Park where it will continue to use both students from UTT, who King said, have a more practical approach as well as students from UWI, who he said are more academic, giving the perfect balance for research.


-with reporting by Kwame Joseph


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