University of Johannesburg: Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula reflects on Africa’s transformation and adapting the innovation systems framework to the continent

​It is widely acknowledged that innovation is a main driver of modernisation and development. The promotion of innovation has become commonplace across the world, with countries dedicating resources and setting up policies and institutional structures to support innovation. However, African countries have lagged in developing innovation strategies as compared to other regions in the world.

According to Erika Kraemer-Mbula, a Professor of Economics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the aspiration to grow our economies through innovation and technology should be guided by a broader aspiration for transformation, addressing inequality and environmental sustainability. She said “Africa should be at the centre of global discussions about transformation”. However, the way we look at the capabilities needed and the dynamics related to the emergence of new technologies, still need to be adjusted and refined in order to adequately capture system-wide transformation in Africa.

Professor Kraemer-Mbula pointed out that some of the main issues surrounding the theoretical debates on innovation in Africa relate to the adoption of theoretical frameworks developed in industrialised counties without much contextualization, when she delivered her professorial inauguration address, “Innovation through the looking glass: Reflections on Africa’s transformation”. Prof Kraemer-Mbula’s inaugural address took place in the University’s Ubuntu Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Monday, 11 October 2021.

“I have aimed to contribute my research to a narrative of African development that is Africa-driven, building on what we have: blending frontier technological advances with local knowledge, mobilising the transformative power of the grassroots and ultimately putting innovation at the centre of a developmental agenda that will guide systemic change in the desired direction,” she said.

She highlighted that the field of innovation studies has expanded rapidly over the past 30 years or so, largely drawing from evolutionary economics and driven by an underlying interest to inform policy. “There is now a well-established global community of innovation scholars in developed and developing countries alike. Although, this has manifested in a research agenda where aspects that are central to Africa continue to receive limited attention”.

Prof Kraemer-Mbula discussed some of her contributions to adapting the innovation systems framework to the context Africa, exploring the connections between research and social impact, capturing innovation in the informal economy, and portraying African perspectives on the fourth industrial revolution, among others. “This is particularly important in current times, when our environmental and social sustainability are at stake. A time when the deep destabilisation and uncertainty we face are pushing us to reimagine the role of public policy with a focus on resilience, sustainability and impact.”

Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula specialises in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy analysis and innovation systems aimed at transformative change and sustainable development. This means that her work is primarily driven by rethinking theoretical frameworks and gathering new evidence that can help guide the development of tailored solutions that respond to Africa’s pressing needs.

Two years ago Erika was awarded a Tier-1 Trilateral Research Chair “DSI/NRF/Newton Fund Trilateral Research Chair in Transformative Innovation, the 4th Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development” co-funded by the NRF and the Newton Fund. This Chair is a partnership between UJ, the University of Sussex in the UK, and the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Kenya. In her role as Chair she has built a dynamic team of national and international researchers that engages in cutting-edge, inter and transdisciplinary research. She is committed to building the capacity of younger scholars, to help develop the next generation of African thinkers that can drive a much-needed transformative change in our continent.

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