Given a colonial history that stretched for more than 450 years and a post-Independence period that has been dominated by energy resources, it would be correct to say that innovation and entrepreneurship do not form part of the natural DNA of this country. The colonial history means that countries like T&T were locked into the production of one or two crops whose cultivation depended on minimising or eliminating the cost of labour. For most of its existence, there would not have been too much innovation or entrepreneurship on a sugar plantation in Caroni dominated by slaves with a few overseers and owners. In fact, the plantation system, in all of its many manifestations, actively discouraged innovation and, latterly, entrepreneurship became associated with buying foreign goods as cheaply as possible and selling those goods on the local market.
While there has been some innovation and entrepreneurship in the post-colonial period, the boom and bust nature of this economy, which has been driven by the world market forces and the demand for our natural resources, has not been conducive to either innovation or entrepreneurship. In the past 50 years, there have been periods when T&T has survived and some periods when the economy has thrived even though there has not been a national focus on innovation or entrepreneurship. The days of basing the economy on devising the appropriate tax regime and simply waiting for the price of oil or natural gas (or sugar or cocoa) to go up are over–never to return. In whatever direction the local economy heads in the future, it is clear that if we are going to be successful in the future, innovation and entrepreneurship will need to become embedded deep within the culture of the country.
For these reasons, we would like to place on record our wholehearted commendation to the leadership of the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business for last week's launch of two new research centres–the Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and the Centre for Corporate Responsibility–at the institution. The real challenge that the Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation faces is changing a culture that at best abnegates and at least diminishes the importance innovation and entrepreneurship. This culture is manifest starting in our primary schools and going throughout the education system to the universities where the emphasis is still too centred on learning by rote rather than critical thinking. The rewards of the education system have tended to go to those who can learn the most in the shortest space of time rather than those who can solve unique problems using new approaches.
Thankfully, much of these weaknesses in our education have been identified and are being removed. Another big challenge that the Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation faces is in changing the attitudes of the country's private sector to risk. It is interesting that at the launch of the centre, the executive director of the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business Prof Miguel Carrillo presented some research on the existence of certain key words in the annual reports of some local companies in the last two years. Prof Carrillo found that the word "risk" was mentioned 1,109 times while the words "experimentation" and "exploration" were not mentioned at all. That says a great deal about the attitude of many local companies to risk-avoidance rather than risk calculation and mitigation. For the economy to be successful in the future, the private sector will need to embrace innovation and entrepreneurship even as the Government reverts to its stated role of being the facilitator of national development rather than the lead player.