RESEARCH and innovation have historically been the main drivers of economic growth more than financial investment. For that reason, investment in research and development has been the lifeblood of economic growth as it breathes new ideas, products and services onto the market. Countries that invest in knowledge creation and innovation tend to be trendsetters and enjoy stable economic growth.
BY TAPIWA GOMO
The essence of research lies in its ability to create new knowledge and innovative ideas — a process that often allows conversion of zero into items of economic value — with some focused on improving efficiency.
Armed with new knowledge, societies can either sell the knowledge in patent form or as products produced out of the new knowledge. And that comes with economic power of knowledge.
Research has always had a profound impact on human development, it was during the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, when technologies transformed Western societies from traditional means of production to technology-driven economic growth which had a huge impact on the standards of lives worldwide until today. Countries that were or are still epicentres of these industrial revolutions have experienced economic booms which made them superpowers.
The influence of research and development on economic growth was also witnessed in Asia since the second half of the 20th century with countries such as South Korea ranking among the world’s leading innovative nations.
Its economic transformation story is remarkable in that in the first half of the 20th century South Korea was a war-zone and an agrarian-based Japanese colony. As the country attained peace and adopted a protectionist policy in the 1960s, its leadership invested in research and development through its people and this made it a hub of global technology today.
Its success was tailored on a top-down innovation approach aimed at promoting close collaboration between research centres, private sector, government and academic institutions as part of the broader nation building agenda. Coming out of a war and a troubled past, the leadership wanted to wean South Korea from technological imports and to establish a home grown industry.
Research and development were central to the strategy mainly to identify new ideas and innovation spearheaded by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology and later the Science and Technology ministry.
This gave rise to new large-scale technological industrial groups owned and controlled by South Korean individuals or families which later transmuted into big global corporates such as Samsung, LG, Lotte, Hyundai Group, Com2uS and several others mainly in the consumer electronics and gaming industries.
Its strategy recognised the importance of investing in research and development through its people, probably a much cheaper and easier way of achieving economic growth with minimum borrowing from international financial institutions.
What does a struggling country such as Zimbabwe need to do to strengthen its research and development? The easier starting point is to convert the education system to focus more on research and development. It also entails resourcing research centres, schools and academic institutions and aligning them to the private sector and government institutions.
This ensures that the education system supplies both innovative knowledge and graduates to the industry who are ready to build on such knowledge to generate new and innovative products for the markets. Part of the income generated from the sale of the products will be used to finance the education system, thereby keeping the entire supply chain well-resourced and sustainable.
Most African countries’ education systems are designed to train labourers which explains why employment and unemployment are always high on the political agenda even when it is clear that politicians are unable to create jobs.
Even as the world braces to embrace the fifth industrial revolution, it is those countries that make massive investments in research and development which will reap the most benefits.
Laggard countries such as ours will wait on the sidelines to become consumers of products of the fifth industrial revolution or dumping grounds for products of the previous industrial revolutions in exchange for raw materials. We are not alone on this. South Africa, the continent’s economic giant, has remained passive other than being a consumer or end user of technology when opportunities are plenty.
There is a close link between investment in research and development and the ability of countries to be among the most innovative. Because of a strategy established more than half a century ago, South Korea has remained the most innovative country on the planet, followed by Germany and Finland. Switzerland and Israel rank fourth and fifth respectively.
While Israel’s presence in the top five may surprise some, the country has now the second largest number of startups in the world, from the United States. It has one of the fastest emerging first-class technology industries that are fostering entrepreneurship and is among the leaders in terms of concentration of scientific researchers and patent registration.
Any country wishing to wean its people from poverty should know that the future lies in research and finding new innovative ways of doing business and producing.
In the absence of this, we will continue to ship tonnes and tonnes of raw materials to countries that are investing in research and innovation.
Employment creation should not be limited to bringing foreign investment but should entail encouraging and resourcing our youth to innovate and use their creative ideas to grow the economy.