The innovations that will successfully transform South Africa will be those that are right for the conditions and needs in the country, because innovation simply for the sake of innovation does not help the world work better. This is according to Abe Thomas, IBM South Africa Country General Manager, speaking from GovTech 2013 in Cape Town.
Thomas noted that the technological tools now exist to support innovation in myriad ways: “Today we can do it differently. We can monitor, measure and manage nearly any physical system. We have the ability to collect and analyse real-time information on everything from hospitals systems, to water quality in streams, to customer preferences. We can listen to the citizens and hear their voice.”
However, he noted, South Africa and Africa had to move beyond the traditional idea of ‘build it and they will come’. “Building out e-services to realise the e-government vision, needs as much thought applied to the benefits it’s going to provide as it does on the tools that are needed to deliver it,” he said.
Thomas stressed that a new mindset had to be adopted to ensure that innovation had to be applied in such a way that it met local needs and benefited South Africa and its people.
Thomas noted recent innovation successes in Africa, such as M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer and payment partnership between Vodafone UK and Safaricom in Kenya, which now has over 200 million transactions per month, over 27 million users and is the precursor in changing the mobile banking landscape for Africa.
In South Africa, the National Planning Commission used IBM technology – called Jam technology – to give access to South African’s to inform the priorities of the NPC Plan. And the City of Tshwane has embraced crowdsourcing to try and reduced their water wastage, which could contribute as much 25% – by asking citizens to help using a mobile app.
Thomas said: “These events may seem random, unrelated. But they are all instances of the same phenomenon: a new way in which organisations of all kinds are learning to compete in a new landscape. You can call it innovation at its best. Innovation that matters happens when we take the challenges in the fabric of society and address them. To do this you really need to differentiate between types of innovation – and who will benefit from it. Essentially, different innovations speak to different people.”
Noting that IBM invested over $6 billion a year on research and development, with a strong focus on its Smarter Planet concept, Thomas said: “We have noticed in our work with clients that it was the forward-thinking leaders in business, government and civil society who were able to convert their business or government systems and department’s processes to achieve short term efficiency, that improved long term sustainability and also contributed to progress in society. These forward thinkers tackled complex problems that were historically difficult to manage because of their size and complexity by using new ways of monitoring, connecting, and analysing the systems to develop new ways to manage these systems. Today you’ve heard about the newest technologies: cloud, smart mobile devices, analytics and social networks. But here’s the key point: it isn’t just a change in tools, it’s a change in mindset and organisational culture that we have to embrace.”
Thomas gave IBM’s commitment to working with the public sector to help made this mindset change and called on the ICT sector to lead the way to reassessing how to serve customers and citizens, in order to build a smarter South Africa that delivers the benefit to the people and changes the very nature of service delivery for the better.