Developing a regional innovation ecosystem

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Jacqueline Barnett
Nelson Mandela University

Wendy Fisher
Regional Innovation Forum

Specific interventions to stimulate economic development often rely on single structures or programmes, typically driven by the government or public sector agencies. Examples of interventions are incubators, university technology transfer programmes, and funding programmes. Too often these fail because they do not form part of a regional innovation ecosystem. Without an ecosystem that is driven by the private sector, supported by research and academia, and enabled by the public sector, interventions will often remain dependent on government funding, with no market or companies to uptake the products or services produced.

In 2011, the Nelson Mandela Bay Regional Innovation Forum was launched with the aim of stimulating, promoting and supporting innovation in Nelson Mandela Bay, a metropolitan municipality of just over 1 million people on the southern coast of South Africa comprising Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and Despatch. The Forum is a loose association of 17 industry, academic and government stakeholders supported by the National Department of Science and Technology. While the region has a traditional focus on automobile manufacturing, it has significant potential to move into related manufacturing areas such as renewable energy. The region also has a strong and growing university but a large number of graduates leave the region after graduation for better opportunities elsewhere, and unemployment amongst unskilled and semi-skilled workers is high.

The Regional Innovation Forum has had some remarkable successes in a number of areas since inception. More importantly, the Forum has shown the importance of developing a regional innovation ecosystem to sustain and drive initiatives, as well as to spread the ‘innovation conversation’ between key stakeholders. While each stakeholder may still drive their own initiatives, the silos that existed previously are broken down and synergies between initiatives can be exploited. In addition, interventions supported by all three sectors can flourish. For example, the development of an incubator, Propella, was a direct outcome of discussions at the Forum. Propella is managed, driven and partly financed by the private sector, the university is a key stakeholder and shareholder, but public sector funding provided the impetus for establishment.

The emphasis of stimulating and supporting innovation in metropolitan areas, particularly in developing countries, should be on the identification and development of new or existing industries based on competitive and comparative advantages of the region, and identifying and strengthening the interactivity of enterprise and institutional players within these industries (Cunningham and Wältring, 2015). The Forum has gone some way to reaching this goal, but there are still gaps in the development of the regional innovation ecosystem. In particular, more businesses need to be developed that can absorb technologies, sources of funding to support businesses must be found, and entrepreneurs that can drive these businesses into global enterprises must be developed or attracted. Nelson Mandela Bay has a number of examples of innovation businesses that have flourished in spite of the lack of an ecosystem – the full development of an ecosystem will make it easier for more to develop, survive and grow.

This paper will focus on the need for a regional innovation ecosystem, the success of the Regional Innovation Forum in Nelson Mandela Bay, specific initiatives launched, and challenges experienced. Key success factors will be explored, and the difficult issue of measuring impact from initiatives such as the Forum will be discussed.