Following global trends, we are investing in the modernisation of research and development infrastructure, and in particular, new instruments and facilities (like the Centre for High Performance Computing, and SKA) as key components in the drive to ensure that we have the capacity to generate new knowledge. By Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology
Africa is the second-fastest growing region in the world, with seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world. This growth can only be sustained through innovation and ensuring that innovation addresses the global challenges Africa faces.
As Africans, we must develop solutions to address our own unique challenges. As Africans we must position ourselves to compete globally with the rest of the world. As Africans we must foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly among our youth.
Who better than the youth to take advantage of the unprecedented growth in many technology sectors –in particular in mobile and information and communication technology?
The future for our country and the African continent depends on our development of talented scientists and entrepreneurs working in scarce-skills fields who can take up the opportunity to develop new technologies and innovative solutions for our pressing problems.
We are investing in the capacity to create and diffuse new knowledge.
Following global trends, we are investing in the modernisation of research and development infrastructure, and in particular, new instruments and facilities (like the Centre for High Performance Computing, and SKA) as key components in the drive to ensure that we have the capacity to generate new knowledge.
Access to the Internet is critical. Yet a number of challenges continue to hamper Internet access in South Africa – high broadband costs, limited research and development capacity, and a lack of innovative economic models for providing connectivity to rural communities.
What R&D-led projects are tackling these problems?
The DST has an ICT Research and Development and Innovation Strategy and a Roadmap (2013). The Roadmap is being implemented by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Meraka Institute.
It’s aim is to catalyse the development of an innovative, sustainable and indigenous IT industry that addresses a significant portion of South Africa’s IT needs, as well as attracting investments from global IT corporations in R&D and manufacturing facilities in South Africa.
The ICT Roadmap is aimed at increasing public and private investment in ICT research, development and innovation. In this regard, the DST recently developed a framework to guide its engagements with global IT companies such as Cisco and IBM. The framework provides an overarching strategic platform to harness the potential benefits that can accrue from partnering with the private sector. In the main, we expect the framework to stimulate public-private partnerships in IT research and development and innovation.
In the implementation of the ICT R&D and innovation strategy, collaboration with the IT industry and academia is of key importance.
Over the last three years the DST has invested R62 million in ICT through our Industry Innovation Partnership fund, although the fund has largely been used in co-funding with ICT multinationals. However, we are now targeting South African-owned companies, and in future Telkom’s 16 university centres of excellence could be the partners.
The DST also engages with industry and academia under its grand challenges and its Technology Innovation Agency.
The DST’s grand challenges – global change, energy security, space science, bioeconomy, and poverty alleviation – require strategic IT projects. These strategic areas are good platforms for various applications in climate change modelling and forecasting, environmental monitoring, and other natural science areas that employ the power of high performance computing, mathematics, computational science and software development.
Other countries have chosen the same or similar grand challenge areas. The US chose space applications, clean energy, biotechnology, and educational technologies. The Canadians chose the environment, natural resources and energy, health sciences, and information and communication technologies. The UK chose energy, the environment, lifelong health and global security as their “grand challenges”.
You can see the similarity in concerns. And it’s not that there are vast differences between countries in the north and the south, although of course there are vast differences in our development agendas. These are not simply grand challenges. They are global challenges that we all need to collaborate on and cooperate in solving.
Business is very active in the IT sector of the market and the role of government is often to work in those areas where the market does not work, for example, in the rural areas. So for example our Meraka Institute, based at the Innovation Hub, works with a wireless mesh network technology to provide rural broadband connectivity. The project forms part of the government-wide IT infrastructure rollout.
Or the Digital Doorway project that provides terminals in rural locations that are loaded with content and applications, which include science software, HIV/AIDS information and learning material, games, mathematics tutor, open-source software and music programmes.
Currently, more than 200 units have been deployed across the country, mainly in rural areas where access to computers is still a big challenge.
The DST’s Technology Innovation Agency provides a good opportunity for industry to develop niche ICT capabilities that could lead to the creation of new high-tech ICT enterprises. All of these are critical areas of research for the realisation of our national goals, but they also provide industry with a number of opportunities to enhance the contribution they are making to our country.
Our aim in the DST is to catalyse investment in key multi-disciplinary areas that will drive innovation in all sciences. IT is a cross cutting technology. Nano-technology is another, as its impact is felt in widely disparate fields, from medicine to electronics to IT. Radio astronomy is another. The relatively young science of radio astronomy has, to give only one example, made a major and direct contribution to the development of wifi technology, which has become an everyday part of our existence. Scientific discoveries tend to have unexpected spinoffs.
In closing, I hope I have shed a little light on how the DST sets about helping position South Africa and the African continent as leaders in IT. Our aim is to catalyse the development of an innovative, sustainable and indigenous IT industry that addresses a significant portion of South Africa’s IT needs, as well as attracting investments from global IT corporations in R&D and manufacturing facilities in South Africa.
With the increased investment in R&D by both private and public sectors, opportunities exist for bold interventions that will enable South Africa to secure a greater share of global markets in both R&D and manufacturing.
- Pandor delivered the speech at South Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference held at Hermanus