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Higher education in developing countries needs innovation infrastructure if it is to boost development, says Arnoldo Ventura.

Rapid technological changes and more sophisticated societies generate changing needs in developing countries and old methods, technologies and choices are not coping.

More innovative approaches are required to tackle social conundrums and to clear paths for progress. The ingredients for these must be the information, experiences and skills people get through higher education.

Underperforming

Many developing countries have reputable and long-established universities and technical colleges that receive commendable domestic and foreign financial support. The University of the West Indies, for example, has been around since 1949. But such universities have not adequately boosted socioeconomic development or safeguarded natural environments.

Latin America and the Caribbean has an average of over 700 researchers and engineers per million people, but their contributions to innovation and development remain low. The fact that universities in the region have not done as much for development as hoped is a constant lament of local politicians and other custodians of society. 

The global recession has meant many developing countries are losing markets for their goods, eliciting cries from their leaders for more science, technology and engineering graduates to improve productivity and diversify products, so as to salve economic woes. But past increases in student numbers have made little difference to innovation, suggesting higher education suffers more fundamental problems.

One key problem is a lack of collaboration between academics and industry.People's skills, knowledge, outlooks and energies are developed for and directed to isolated projects designed by specialist agencies for unconnected missions. So there is no synergy of accumulating beneficial effects. Many project outcomes or benefits are not sustained after research ends, and may not complement other initiatives in adjacent sectors or even departments.

And a misguided focus for higher education is adding to the difficulty. For example, in Jamaica, emphasising more academically inclined science and technology (S&T) programmes at the cost of tackling technical practicalities, is slowing the movement of knowledge into needed products and services. Moreover, misreading market demands has led to too much management, business and accounting training, which fosters wealth circulation rather than creation.

Well established higher education routines in solidly independent and separate faculties are often geared to honing specialised skills. They rarely consider how these can be harmonised to confront multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral development problems in, for example, agriculture and agro-industrial production, storage and marketing.

And projects designed simply to fill skill gaps will fall short of development aspirations unless they consider how those skills might actually be deployed.

Change is needed

Helping higher education confront development goals means fully appreciating the process of innovation, which in turn hinges on interlocking visions, collaboration, exchange, reciprocity, and cooperation. Progress will need a greater willingness to assess and take risks. And that requires a change in attitudes, particularly more tolerance of failure.

Weneed to adjust science, technology and engineering courses, making them more interdisciplinary, hands-on and inclusive of collective learning. The Mona School of Business at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica has a very successful technology management course, which is pitched to upper and middle managers who want to modernise outdated production methods. Others should follow suit by centering teaching not just on building capability by also on how that capability can be used to generate new ideas, forms, processes and products.

Others must also play their parts. Firms must learn to use new S&T capabilities more assertively. (The emerging Asian economies such as China, India and Singapore are already doing this.) Governments have to design and implement supportive incentives and funding policies more efficiently. And the S&T community will have to shed excessive individualism and empire building. S&T communities will have to work collectively and change a system where researchers seek individual promotion and recognition. Society must be patient and willing to shoulder the costs of installing innovation systems.

Essentially, we must create more caring and learning societies.

A role for funders

Foreign allies can help by providing targeted funding and expertise to create and stimulate innovation infrastructures. They should back attempts to commercialise research results through technological incubators, design centers, entrepreneurship clusters, science parks, pilot plants, and transfer and foresight offices in higher education establishments.

For example, the Mona Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of the West Indies is a fledging science park that has begun to tackle the problem of translating research results into commercial applications and providing graduate courses to achieve the goals and objectives of commerce and industry. There are other such initiatives in technical schools and universities in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Helping such projects will have the added benefit of boosting jobs and businesses.

Getting the best from such initiatives requires links between education and training and local socio-economic, democratic and environmental needs.

Some developing countries, such as Brazil and Singapore, are assembling networked teams that build innovation systems by encouraging unconventional thinking and confident sharing. Funding agencies should work more closely with these initiatives.

It is the quality and longevity of relationships — between suppliers and customers; domestic and foreign sources of technology; funders, suppliers and users of S&T; and between universities and other training institutions and firms — that really deserve thoughtful support.

Arnoldo Ventura, a former basic scientist, is senior advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica on science and technology.

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