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  • Jerry Schuitema

What would Leonardo do?

Distractions from contributing to the great age of innovation.

Leonardo Da Vinci was a truly remarkable human being. This 15th century “Renaissance Man”, not only left an enduring legacy in his art, but inventions and observations that bear testimony to his incredibly diverse mind and insatiable curiosity. These covered anatomy, flying machines and weaponry, architecture and water and land machines. They were so ahead of his time that only years later, indeed sometimes centuries later, some were tested and found to have worked!

Da Vinci must rank as one of the greatest inventors of all time. Yet he certainly does not stand out as one of the great entrepreneurs in history. Which points to some subtle distinctions between invention or discovery; innovation itself, and entrepreneurship. Invention is the idea; innovation the functional application of the idea and entrepreneurship, the commercial deployment of both. These roles are often, although not necessarily, found in one person. But they are all crucial to invention finding full expression in the difference it makes to mankind.

So where are the Da Vinci’s in our midst in South Africa? They are everywhere, albeit on a much smaller and less impressive scale. Daily, natural curiosity and intuition drives each of us to question whether there is not a better way. Often enough, that finds some expression in an invention – from cow-poo power to a CAT scan that made its mark on the global stage. But do we effectively bring those three legs of discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship together to establish fullest impact?

The statistic tends to show that we do not. There are many global measurements of innovation in different countries and despite some impressive individual achievements (see top ten inventions here), we do not rank very highly in most of them. The Bloomberg comprehensive index does not put us in the top 50, where countries such as Malaysia, Ukraine, Tunisia, Argentina and Kazakhstan have a place. The International Innovation index gives us a more favourable position of 34th of the 110 countries measured. The authoritative Global Innovation Index, in its 450 page report for 2016 (see full report here), ranks South Africa 54th of 128 countries.

The mixed findings between these and other highly ranked research efforts illustrate the multi-facetted and complex nature of innovation. The three mentioned do not agree on even the top ranking with Bloomberg and the I.I.I. placing South Korea first and the G.I.I. placing the country below the top ten. It has Switzerland first.

But rankings aside, there is universal recognition that innovation is arguably the most important catalyst in ensuring sustainable prosperity for a nation. Even a superficial analysis of country prosperity over an extended period unequivocally shows that.

Getting there presupposes that the national economic goal itself obsessively nurtures and promotes it, and creates an environment in which it can flourish. That rests on 2 key interrelated pillars or choices: between being market driven or production driven; and between focusing on wealth creation or wealth distribution. Any talk of “adding value”, “establishing a manufacturing sector” or “beneficiation of raw materials” is just that – lip service in a confused understanding of what these really mean.

Then it becomes useful to reflect upon countries that consistently rank in the top of the most innovative and in economic health measurements.

Correlation is not proof of cause, but when correlation is fairly consistent over time then it certainly provides a good indication of cause. An important deduction that can be made from the innovation table is not what those countries have but rather what they, for the most part, don’t have – and that is natural resources or commodities. It boils down to simple logic, the more material resources you have, the less you focus on the development of people. In the second table, where there are more resource rich countries, those that succeed are also those who pay attention to human development. But even then, only three with abundant resources make the top ten.

Which works against the first imperative of innovation – being market driven rather than production driven. It is often argued that commodity producing countries are by nature open market-driven economies because they are so dependent on commodity markets. There’s a huge difference between being market driven, and being dragged by the market. The first is being a master; the second a dependent slave. The first is having an external focus; the second being internally focused.

The long established key requisites for national prosperity are: having an external focus and developing people. Commodity based nations seldom do either. Which naturally drives them into the second iniquity: a focus shift from adding value to people’s lives and creating wealth, to distribution of wealth that comes from simply breaking rock and digging big holes. This may work in the good times, and distracts these nations from being market driven. But when commodity markets slump the wealth distribution focus leads to greater government encroachment and state dependence.

Economic theory tends to put homo economicus in a production context rather than a social context. This is more so in commodity producers and blunts an important understanding of adding value – that of being useful to others.

As a humanist, it most likely came naturally to Leonardo Da Vinci.

You only have to gaze at the Mona Lisa to appreciate that.

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