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Understanding Innovation

What is innovation?

Innovation is the successful deployment of new ideas, inventions, or methods that benefit society, with a strong emphasis on collaboration and multidisciplinarity across sectors.

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 or research that tackles how data from your health app is used.

Is innovation only about technology?

“The erroneous view that innovation is limited to scientists and engineers developing and commercialising widgets must be challenged. 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. Most importantly, innovation must be conducted in an ethical manner.” - Dr Nicole De Wet-Billings, Assistant Dean for Research in the Wits Faculty of Humanities.

For example, innovations to increase life expectancy and decrease maternal and child mortality, addressing inequality and gender inequality from the perspective of the Global South, are all innovative solutions to real world problems.

Can innovation be present in arts-science collaborations?

“There is now convincing evidence that Arts-Science collaborations can stimulate innovation at several distinct levels. 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.”  - 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 Visualization 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.

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.

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.” - Thomas Edison 

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

The Wits innovation ecosystem 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, aims to foster innovation at Wits.

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. 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.” - Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of Innovation Strategy at Wits University

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.

What is the role of innovation at universities?

“Universities have a key role to play to meet society’s needs by turning knowledge into impactful solutions. 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.” – Professor Lynn Morris, DVC: Research and Innovation at Wits