Knowledge and Innovation: Building Bridges of Communication
Sibusiso Sibisi Public address: University of Witwatersrand, 8 May 1997 http://www.wits.ac.za/sibtalk.html
When I was asked to give this public address, my first instinct was to request an overhead projector. I was initially distressed at being told that I could not use one (and for good reason too), but upon reflection I am glad that this is so. The overhead projector is an indispensable part of the mode of communication to which I have become accustomed; that of scientific seminars full of equations, graphs and numbers. But while the visual image can be very powerful, the lack of spontaneity imposed by visual aids can also create a distance between speaker and audience. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to listen to someone who ``does not talk your language''. Indeed, as I wrote the paper it became increasingly apparent that there was something more fundamental that I needed to address: the theme of cultivating a culture of communication, upon which all else rests. This is the primary issue I want to explore today, and the manner in which it feeds into the theme of my original paper ``Some Thoughts on Research Direction: Innovation through Research-based Enterprise''. (This paper will remain available on the internet and upon direct request; as will the text of this talk.) Today is also an opportunity to break away from formal style; not to project my transparencies but to transparently project my thoughts, my visions and indeed myself. Accordingly, I shall pull a veil over formality and allow my narrative to freely explore the issues I wish to discuss. This informal exploration is a metaphor for something much more profound: the removal of communication barriers at all levels of interaction. It is on the basis of free communication that we can successfully discuss and implement constructive ideas. I would like to share a few of my own ideas with you today. These ideas may well already be on the minds of many people here. If so that is good, for it reinforces my own belief in them. I shall start by discussing the challenges facing higher education in South Africa today: delivering far-reaching access to knowledge and putting knowledge to innovative use to address the country's problems. I shall then turn to the ``new culture of communication'' represented by the Internet and how we might use it to maximmum benefit. I shall then discuss multi-pronged approaches to tackling the challenge of innovative use of knowledge. Finally, I shall turn to the main theme of my formal paper: technology transfer from higher education to industry through research-based enterprise.
The Challenges of Education and Innovation
Wits is located in Gauteng: the place of gold. Yet Wits has a resource much more valuable than gold: unlike gold, it expands as it is extracted and multiplies as it is distributed. This inexhaustible resource is knowledge: it is a resource which can and should be available to all people. The dissemination of knowledge on a large scale is a challenge facing all levels of education in South Africa today. But extraction of knowledge for its own sake is only a part of the story; it must also be used innovatively, to confront the challenges of the country. Putting knowledge to innovative use is a challenge primarily facing higher education and research institutions. As pointed out in ``An Overview of a New Policy Framework for Higher Education Transformation'' by the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE):
``higher education should consolidate its position as a major component of the National System of Innovation'' (The National System of Innovation underpins the Science and Technology White Paper ``Preparing for the 21st Century'')
Like any other world class university, Wits has a valuable investment in people and facilities built up over many years. We must further build upon this resource, with its well-established track record at teaching and research, in order to meet the demands of today. Like universities the world over, Wits has a structure of academic departments organised by discipline. But the enormous challenges cut across different disciplines and thus suggest a multidisciplinary mode of thinking. However multidisciplinary co-operation does not take place spontaneously; it must be actively encouraged. This takes us back to the theme of the removal of barriers to communication.
A New Culture of Communication
The dismantling of communication barriers is predicated upon people talking to each other; an activity which academics can be notoriously poor at. There are various ways of encouraging a culture of communication, such as organising Open Days. An occasion such as the Wits Open Day (10 May) is an opportunity to communicate the character and activities of the university to the outside world as much as to members of the university.
The Impact of the Internet
The most spectacularly influential contributor to the culture of communication in academia is undoubtedly the Internet. Increasingly, academics are telling the world about themselves and their work through their internet home pages. For example, I find myself learning a great deal about Wits via the Internet from Cambridge. I have spent many rewarding Sunday afternoons visiting numerous sites such as the informative and well-designed site on Rock Art research. The internet is a new mode of communication whose potential for teaching and research is quite staggering. It is much more than an electronic library; it has a
dynamic structure which allows us to backtrack and move sideways to other contextrelated documents as we read. This mimics the way we think and talk much more closely than the linear presentation of ideas that books force us into; and thus seems ideally suited as a vehicle for learning. That said, the Internet is a medium which should complement rather than replace person-to-person communication and the standard written word in book-form. We need to think imaginatively about how to tap the potential of the internet for education. Much has been said about the risk that the information age enhances the divide between privilege and deprivation by creating a new tension between the information-rich and the information-poor. While this calls for vigilance, we must not shrink from embracing this technology and all that it offers for conveying knowledge. Rapid developments in telecommunications and moderately priced network computers raise exciting possibilities. There is real scope for the country-wide equipping of schools and other institutions such as resource centres with Internet access in the foreseeable future. There is an interplay here between education and innovation. Hardware access is but one part of the story. Well-designed educational content material is the more important part. This is a ripe area for multidisciplinary effort. Such thoughts lead me naturally to a concept I shall refer to as an ``Institute of Ideas''.
An Institute of Ideas
I now wish to turn to ideas inspired by my observations and experiences abroad. Cambridge University has an establishment called the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, whose primary brief is to conduct multidisciplinary research on applicable topics. The Institute hosts researchers from diverse institutions in academia and industry from all over the world to work on specific multidisciplinary programmes over fixed periods of 3 to 6 months, say. Past programmes have included the modelling of infectious diseases, financial modelling, and other topics within mathematical sciences. At the end of the programme, the reports and papers arising therefrom are available on the Internet and in hardcopy form for any interested member of the public. Although it has only been going for less than 5 years, the Isaac Newton Institute has proved enormously successful at fostering multidisciplinary interaction. It provides inspiration for an ``Institute of Ideas''; a less specialised concept of similar structure. One envisages an Institute whose programmes are not restricted to mathematical sciences and need not be at the cutting edge of research. Suitably chosen to reflect the needs of South Africa, such programmes might be no more than a review of the state of the art in that field or a ``foresight programme'' on the perceived opportunities for innovation and enterprise in an otherwise established field. The programmes might involve a component of expository lectures open to the public in addition to more formal programme seminars. An example of a foresight programme is suggested by the opening up of the global telecommunications industry following the World Trade Organisation Agreement of 15 February 1997. It is estimated that there will be a \$1,000bn boost to the world economy over the next 10 years arising from the agreement. When the stakes are that high, it would be helpful to know what the prospects for the enterprising South African might be, particularly with the expected relaxation of the Telkom monopoly
in 2002. This is the sort of study that could be conducted by the Institute with the help of a group of experts in the field from academia and industry. Examples of potential programmes abound. Returning to the subject of education via the Internet; one can imagine a very far-reaching multidisciplinary programme on educational Internet content material. Inspired by the recommendations of such a group, one can further imagine academics from areas as diverse as computer science, languages and history together constructing material in such areas as computer animation of traditional folk stories with dialogue in the various languages of South Africa. Perhaps in time kids (and grown-ups!) might be able to interact with such applications; such as interactively translating the dialogue for themselves. These exciting possibilities may seem remote now but they may be realisable sooner than we think. In time, the Institute could evolve to a conveniently accessible and authoritative electronic and walk-in resource centre on a range of ideas. Such a service would play the role of
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being a science and technology educational resource centre remotely accessible to schools, say, or serving as a physical walk-in centre. informing the private and public sectors and academia alike on areas of further research or potential commercial investment. being a fountain of inspiration for innovative start-up companies
This would, of course, enhance the profile of Wits in all the quarters referred to above. The concept of an Ideas Institute is a logical precursor to more ambitious technology transfer programmes from higher education to industry. Some projects would, no doubt, be privately commissioned, so that the Institute could double as a clearing house for consultancy work. The Institute would then farm the work out to researchers in the appropriate fields. Such an industrial liaison role relieves academics with teaching and administrative duties from spending an inordinate amount of time chasing industry projects.
Universities and Innovative Enterprise
There is much to be learned from the experiences of other countries in the relationship between universities and innovative enterprise. Silicon Valley has grown out of Stanford University into the most successful cluster of enterprises in the world. In recent years Cambridge University has seen the formation of over 1,000 companies and the creation of 30,000 new jobs on the basis of science and technology. These spectacular successes have arisen from the tenacity of individuals and institutions with a vision. Apart from job creation, these activities have resulted in considerable financial gain for the universities themselves. The Ideas Institute can be guided through an evolution process to a structure encompassing the incubation of start-up enterprises spawned from or related to academic activity. Such ``Incubator Centres'' are well-studied, and they can promote
activity of technology transfer more efficiently than traditional ``science parks''. The activities might involve low or high technology, as driven by the perceived needs. I shall not dwell on this issue here as it is taken up in more detail in my original paper, but I am more than willing to discuss it further.
Gauteng hosts a numerous higher education and other research institutions as well as numerous small and large technology-driven private sector establishments, quite apart from government departments. With its strong science and technology base, Wits is eminently well-placed to spear-head the implementation of ideas discussed here:
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Imaginative use of the Internet An Institute of Ideas An eventual Incubator Centre for innovative technology transfer
Success is predicated upon more than mere policy decree; it requires financial resources, but we can start from humble beginnings. Most importantly, there must prevail a culture of communication amongst all parties involved. Finally, the most important aspect of communication is the ability to listen. You have listened to me; it is now time for me to listen to you. Thank you.