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Wits University: Spawning innovation to change the world for good

Pelebox – an invention to cut down the time that patients spend waiting for medication in hospitals. SmartSpot – technology that improves the accuracy of TB testing.  JamLab – a continental hub to support innovation in journalism and media. PecoPower – a homegrown electrical off-grid solution for local communities. These are examples of innovations spawned at Wits that positively change the lives of people every day.

These are all multidisciplinary projects, with research impact, which span multiple sectors, involve elements of entrepreneurship and commercialisation, and advance the public good.

What is innovation?

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the Director of Innovation Strategy at Wits University describes innovation as the successful deployment of new ideas, inventions, or methods that benefit society, with a strong emphasis on collaboration and multi-disciplinarity across sectors.

“By breaking down silos, we can work across disciplines to find solutions to the major challenges that confront humanity, “he says. “The climate crisis is a case in point. We need the scientists and climatologists to help us better understand how our natural environment is changing and to model future scenarios, we need the social scientists to explain the effect of climate change on people and how behaviour can be changed. We need the ethicists, governors, policy- and lawmakers to guide communities and to keep climate offenders in check. By working together, we can develop innovative solutions that benefit both people and our planet.”

Another example is the University’s holistic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes medical researchers, social scientists, engineers, data scientists, legal experts, ethicists, teaching and learning specialists and community leaders who played an important role in leading society’s response to the pandemic both locally and globally.

Is all innovation tangible?

“Innovation generates outputs that are tangible including products or “things” like a PhD student’s novel infection control solution or an e-Zone or intangible processes, services, policies, and ideas like this research-to-policy unit advocating for effective decision-making in health,” explains Dwolatzky.

Is innovation only about technology?

“The erroneous view that innovation is limited to scientists and engineers developing and commercialising widgets must be challenged,” says Dr. Nicole De Wet-Billings, Assistant Dean for Research in the Wits Faculty of Humanities. “Innovation must not be restricted to digital transformation, technological developments, commercialisation, and entrepreneurship. Other forms of innovation include policy creation and influence, interdisciplinary interventions to address the ‘wicked’ problems of our time through research, critical thinking, advancing citizen participation in all forms of social life, and the enhancement of the functioning of public institutions and organisations for societal development.”

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Innovation must serve society through advancing knowledge and improving all aspects of lives and livelihoods. Creating a WhatsApp maths hotline for learners during a pandemic, increasing life expectancy and decreasing maternal and child mortality, and addressing inequality and gender inequality from the perspective of the Global South, are all innovative solutions to real world problems.

“Most importantly, innovation must be conducted in an ethical manner,” Dr. De Wet-Billings emphasises.

Innovation and arts-science collaborations

“There is now convincing evidence that arts-science collaborations can stimulate innovation at several different levels,” says Christo Doherty, Professor of Digital Arts at Wits.

Well established programmes such as the Swiss Artists-in-Labs programme, the Art|Sci Centre at UCLA, Le Laboratoire in Paris, and the Advanced Visualisation Laboratory at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign have demonstrated that collaborative programmes that bring artists together with scientific researchers have produced important benefits.

“These projects can transform the artists and scientists involved in them, and can shape scientific and artistic knowledge, not only as developed in the project, but also broader knowledge-making practices across the institution,” adds Doherty. “They can effectively reshape the institutional worlds in which they are situated.”

In South Africa, Arts-Science collaborations can bring in “other” knowledges from outside the sphere of the project, such as community knowledge, and political and ethical perspectives on the research. “The involvement of artists in scientific and technological can also greatly increase the impact and public engagement of the research, allowing a wider audience to explore and understand the research through exhibition of the artistic translation of the research processes and results,” says Doherty.

Watershed, the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival, and the Rock Art Research Institute at the Origins Centre are some examples of these successful innovative projects.

Does innovation mean more risk-taking? How do you create an environment for innovators?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” said Thomas Edison. 

“There is a strong correlation between innovation and a willingness to take risks,” explains Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Wits. “For universities to develop and grow an innovative mindset, it is essential that risk-taking is supported and encouraged.”

“It is important to create an environment that is conducive for innovation to take place,” explains Morris. “We need an innovation ecosystem that includes students and researchers based in institutional entities, physical and virtual hubs, accelerators, and incubators. This, coupled with research impact, entrepreneurship, commercial activities, external engagement opportunities and bespoke services for innovators, will undoubtedly foster innovation in a University setting.”

Can you develop a culture of innovation?

“Natural innovators and entrepreneurs self-identify at an early age and students must thus be drawn in early,” explains Dwolatzky. “In order to develop a culture of innovation, we need to develop a problem-solving mindset and run activities such as challenges and hackathons that allow people to find solutions to specific problems. We need to form communities of practice and create opportunities for people to discuss complex social and other problems, with the objective of finding innovative solutions.”

Stories of successes and failures, case studies, and role models also encourage participation in innovation activities, as well as engagement in national and international innovation challenges and competitions.

Innovation at universities

“Universities have a key role to play to meet society’s needs by turning knowledge into impactful solutions,” concludes Morris. “Innovation is what drives us forward and we have a responsibility to enable a space to create, collaborate, and engage in impactful innovation, across disciplines and sectoral boundaries. We must use our knowledge for the advancement of our community, city, country, continent, and the globe to produce outputs, both tangible and intangible for the benefit of humanity, for good.”

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