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Incomplete Innovation chain
There is increased emphasis on and funding for innovation and entrepreneurship. For some inexplicable reason they are linked together like Siamese twins. An entrepreneur can be defined as a risk-taking businessman and hence one may safely say that there are few entrepreneurs here in T&T. An innovator, on the other hand, is one who is predisposed to trying new ideas and ways of doing things through novel processes or devices.
There are many innovators who are rich with ideas and who live in poverty or its neighbourhood. Likewise there are many conservative businesses (like the local banks and retail businesses) that may care not a hoot about innovation but take calculated risks and are extremely successful. So it is important to distinguish this in order to ensure that the drive towards innovation is properly focused.
Innovation itself is a very broad term and needs to be defined within appropriate boundaries. There is innovation in business processes and innovation in the design of products. An example of business process innovation is the paying of your electric bill automatically through your credit card. It is innovative in that you no longer have to wait to get your bill, the receipt of which may depend on the vagaries of the postal system.
It is beneficial to both the utility and the customer in that both are fully apprised of revenue and cost streams respectively. Product innovation involves the use of new materials or form etc. So, for instance, the use of wood and foam (to form padded chairs) to replace the hard, uncomfortable sheet metal seat and back in iron chairs represented innovation through the use of new materials to provide a lighter and more comfortable chair.
Further innovations resulted in the lightweight canvass folding leisure chairs. While there are some common elements of the innovation chains for both categories, there are also unique distinctive elements and they need to be in place for the process to be successful. Product innovation has the potential to really contribute significantly to the process of sustained economic diversification and hence some emphasis should be placed on it. Unfortunately, this has not been and is not the case.
This may be due to the fact that policymakers themselves are not fully conversant with or experienced in the practicalities of the product innovation chain. Sure, there are many scholarly papers and books in which the broad functional elements of the chain are described and which are imported wholesale for implementation here. These efforts are predisposed to failure in that such papers are written with specific assumptions in mind which many a time may be invalid in this part of the world.
To give an example: some years ago a local car assembler came up with a design for a vehicle for the adventure/tourist market. Cars have to be insured and hence safety standards must be met. To do this, analysis of the strength of the roof system had to be done. No one at the premier tertiary-level regional institution could do it. Naturally there were no local or regional private businesses that could. The idea, well…remained just that.
Ideas form the first link in the innovation chain with the product being the last. These two extremities are linked by a series of technical processes. In the case of developed and emerging economies, these are provided by a mixture of private enterprise, national and tertiary-level research institutions. The situation here is quite different. Fledgling, fragile but positive seedling steps have been taken in initiating the process of providing, if not all, an adequate range of such technical services.
One gets the sinking feeling that these seeds are in mortal danger. Regrettably, it would appear that there is a definite lacuna with regard to the critical importance of engineering in developing products and services. Trinis have demonstrated that they are a creative people as evidenced by the achievements in art and culture. That talent is yet to flow into the domain of innovative products in a meaningful and adequate fashion. A significant reason for this is the lack of technical services to complete the innovation chain.
• Prakash Persad is the director of Swaha Inc.
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