The concept to establish a centralised, technology-focused entrepreneurial community in South Africa’s Gauteng Province was first discussed in 2001. Four years later the foundations for a Science and Technology Park, the Innovation Hub, were put in place and the idea of an area dedicated to applied innovation in trade and industry to benefit provincial, national and global socio-economic development became a reality.
Now, in 2013, Chief Executive Officer McLean Sibanda says South Africa has come a long way as far as realising the inherent benefits of ICT – but, like many other sectors, challenges still remain.
“In 2000, with Y2K, there was a lot of uncertainty. The market had not realised the full potential of the sector and broadband connectivity was primarily business focused. By 2005 ICT had taken on a different dimension and its potential had been realised in many sectors. Today, ICT has moved away from being product focused to becoming an enabler…we are a highway, so to speak, and ICT broadband is helping in government’s delivery of services, including education. There is also the interconnectivity aspect of ICT, with new services being made available and delivered via mobile platforms. But, if we compare South Africa with the rest of the world, the challenge of regulation and rollout of technologies remains,” explains Sibanda.
Regulation is at the heart of broadband connectivity in Africa, including allocation of spectrum to enable technologies like LTE to make a difference in people’s lives.
“Regulators do play an important role in keeping us on the straight and narrow… but it is important that we look forward, look ahead… and learn from best practices. It is important to be proactive,” Sibanda adds.
He uses this point to help define the Innovation Hub. It is Africa’s first internationally accredited Science Park and a full member of the International Association of Science Parks.
It is also a subsidiary of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency, an agency of the Gauteng Department of Economic Development.
As such Sibanda explains that the Innovation Hub is well positioned to serve as an intermediary between entrepreneurs, businesses, industry regulators and government – all key stakeholders in the broader development of the ICT industry. It has an established channel through to decision makers and can influence policy to help direct how issues are being addressed.
There are similar sized initiatives in other parts of South Africa, including the establishment of a Science and Technology Park at the Vaal University of Technology, which is focused on the chemical industry, a healthcare/biotech initiative in Cape Town as well as the eMonti Science and Technology Park focused on economic development within the East London region.
The Innovation Hub’s status as Africa’s first internationally accredited Science and Technology Park means that it has a model that the organisers of similar projects are keen to emulate.
“It is being used as a reference park, we are working with Botswana on its Innovation Hub and we have received interest from Russia and Geneva based on entrepreneurship training and best practices,” says Sibanda.
Pretoria is considered a strategic location given the proximity to key industrial organisations like the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), as well as to various nearby academic institutions, including the University of Pretoria, and government departments.
“Gauteng is a central region for us because a quarter of the country’s population reside in the province and it contributes over 35% to the country’s GDP,” Sibanda adds.
Engaging the ecosystem, developing economy
The Innovation Hub covers several key sectors including IT, Biosciences, Green Technologies and Industrials. The intention is to help nurture and establish what Sibanda calls ‘pockets of excellence’ representing these key areas… however, IT is widely acknowledged to be dominant.
Operators of various levels – from entry level right through to established enterprises – engage with Innovation Hub to leverage off the benefits of this collective community.
The organistion is home to 47 businesses. These are made up of fledgling companies who utilise the Innovation Hub’s Business Incubator Program, including access to complimentary Wi-Fi connectivity and mentorship, as well as businesses looking to invest in commercial space to benefit by being part of a networked community of peers. It also includes industries and companies that want to tap into the intellectual property of the Innovation Hub and make use of its database of market research reports and the like.
However Sibanda also points out that the Innovation Hub is involved with collaborative projects with entrepreneurs and major corporations to apply innovation towards economic development.
An engineering and R&D project with Transnet and the CSIR is one example, but there are others that also involve the practical application of technology to help develop sectors, including Sappi, SAPS Honeydew and the City of Tshwane, amongst others.
Regular activities including product/ technology demonstrations, workshops and seminars are used to promote the objectives of the Innovation Hub.
Recently, the Innovation Hub has confirmed its commitment to partnering with Tech Demo Africa to shine the spotlight on technology, entrepreneurship and application in Africa.
Sibanda considers Tech Demo Africa 2013 to be an effective and established platform to showcase developments, the results of innovation and ongoing Research & Development, and generally the best the country has to offer.
The ongoing objective is to help create a more open society and show why technology innovation has meaning in the lives of everyone.
Chris Tredger, Online Editor