By Frederick Philander WINDHOEK “Knowledge is no longer the preserve of a few. Business can take place from anywhere, without one even knowing where the operations are because the economy has for better or worse, become global.” This is the view of Dr Neville Comins, the Chief Executive Officer of a South African company, who delivered the keynote address at the 11th graduation ceremony of the Polytechnic of Namibia on Saturday. More than 1 000 students graduated. “One fact that cannot be avoided is that we are all part of this new age, and, whichever country we are in, it cannot be ignored. Firstly, the development and application of new technology has impacted on everyone’s lives, and secondly, in all spheres of activity, the demand for more skills and knowledge is growing. Those graduating today are therefore in a privileged position as our future knowledge workers in this new age, but with privilege comes responsibility,” Comins said. All countries that are developing strategies to grow the knowledge economy component of their nation’s overall economy, to grow skills through education, to see businesses active in these evolving technology and service sectors, or even tourism, recreation and relaxation, have defined a number of key factors to ensure that any valuable intellectual property is protected, stimulated and provided support for entrepreneurship, particularly in the higher-technology business domains. “The ‘export’ of knowledge workers and this brain drain is even more serious than ever before and attracting foreign investment, which in the new era is increasingly linked to available skills and know-how of the region. Furthermore, we must distinguish between the stimulation of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’. Innovation is the development of an idea unti1 it succeeds in the marketplace and has customers. Thus, when we set a vision of an innovative country, this must be measured in the economy, and not in publications,” he said. He further argued that many emerging countries, particularly with a colonial past, were historically the sources of raw materials with varying degrees of beneficiation, usually based on imported know-how and technology. “While this remains a critical part of these economies, the stimulation of local knowledge-based business must be seen as a parallel goal. Many successful examples such as South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, increasingly India, and China, etc. have emerged seeing growth rates rising to unprecedented levels. There is no ‘silver bullet’ which countries can follow as this requires understanding of the particular advantages and opportunities available, and mobilization of a number of different players from government, academia, business and civil society to plan and set the goals,” he asserted. In Comins’s view these are not short-term projects and require foresight, courage and tenacity to achieve. “Unfortunately, most African countries due to circumstances have only recently started on this road. I have been privileged to be part of such an initiative in South Africa. In 1997, the Gauteng Provincial Government realised that the traditional mining and heavy industries were not sustaining their growth and that it was essential to balance the economy by increasing the ‘smart’ business contribution and that of higher value-added manufacturing and business services. The vision is to create a high-tech cluster to stimulate, support and develop knowledge-economy business, and fol1owing an extensive evaluation of possible models it was decided to establish a science park,” the CEO recounted. We started in 2000, and wisely took the decision to pilot operations, firstly to gain experience and secondly to generate an active centre so that we could introduce both business and academia to the concept. “Three major activities grew out of this phase, viz., one of the first business incubators (to support start-up companies), now branded ‘Maxum’, the Coach Lab where post-graduate students and business could work together on real projects, and a networking organisation, called INNOV8 to harness the involvement of the relevant community. In parallel, based on the experience of our start-ups and many partners, the construction of core buildings on the main site started in 2003, with occupation in January 2005.” He went on to say that there are many aspirant entrepreneurs struggling with little support and a number of ideas generated in our universities and polytechnics, which are not encouraged or stimulated. “After one year over 50 companies are now resident on The Hub and this is in fact limited by the fact that buildings are full. The residential population is over 550. The INNOV8 community has grown to over 4500 and plays a key role in collaboration and providing many specialist services to the community. Further, major company investment is in progress which will lead to new buildings and growth. Thus, the future lies with us supporting this new generation of people, who have been given the skills to play in this new economy. In fact, youth is a distinct advantage and often where the ideas are generated, so it will be vital to retain the best, the entrepreneurs and future business leaders. We, in Africa, are just as able to be innovative in this new world as anywhere else if we have the resolve to meet the challenges,” Comins concluded.