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Academics have long argued for developing countries to adopt "systems of innovation". Now it looks like politicians have got the message.

A consensus has been growing among policymakers in the developed world for several decades that the most effective way to put scientific research findings to productive use is to build "systems of innovation".

Innovation is a complex process, involving different actors and institutions, of which science is just one. Strengthening the system requires many policy initiatives to increase support both for each component and for the linkages between them.

More recently, enthusiasm has been growing — at least in academic and policy advice circles — for the idea that systems of innovation hold the key that links science to developing countries' socioeconomic needs (see The 'system of innovation' approach and its relevance to developing countries).

Getting politicians to take this message on board is difficult. In countries where components are weak discussing strengthening links is relatively meaningless.

But there are signs that the situation is changing, marking a maturity in the "science for development" debate that holds promise for the developing world.

Lessons from South Africa

Take, for example, South Africa. A systems of innovation approach was essential to link science and technology to the needs of the black community, argued Canada's International Development Research Centre, for example, soon after the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s

But government policies to establish such a system have had limited effect. The understandable priority  to engage blacks in the educational process was one problem. An excessive focus on government funding for innovation in companies is sometimes seen as another.

Indeed sometimes the government's commitment to build a robust system of innovation appeared little more than skin deep.

But this seems to be changing. An innovation agency to coordinate innovation funding and bridge the gap between scientific institutions and the productive sector is to be set up (see South African innovation agency takes shape).

Innovation is back on the agenda

Another example is Colombia. Systems of innovation for the country's sustainable economic growth and social development are not new; such a system was set up in the mid-1990s.

As in South Africa, putting this into practice has not been easy, which partly explain its drop down the political priority list.

But new hope is on the horizon. Colombia's vice-president, Francisco Santos Calderón, came out in support of accelerating the country's innovation system earlier this month (see Colombia's vice-president leads innovation drive).

These efforts could help Colombia reach Brazil and Chile's innovation levels. And it will send a powerful signal to other developing countries that systems of innovation must form the heart of development policies.

Actions not words

Challenges to implementing systems of innovation are acute for developing countries, yet so are the benefits — not only for local businesses, but for public services such as health, agriculture and environmental protection.

While the benefits are clear, they will not be achieved without political buy-in. It is one thing for politicians to make well-intentioned speeches about how important science is for the future of their countries. It is another for them to show determination to put it into practice, including creating systems of innovation.

The recent announcements in Colombia and South Africa are encouraging. So too are efforts by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, and UNESCO to place innovation at the heart of international development.

Hopefully "systems of innovation" is an idea whose time has come not only in academic circles, but in the political community at large.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net