Category Archives: Innovation

Collaborative and open innovation in the global limelight

June was a hectic month. (That sounds like a parody of TS Eliot, but it really was a hectic month.) There is a lot to catch up with, so I will provide a series of posts, on a variety of topics. The general message seems to be that times are a-changing and that there is an increasing dynamic weight behind open access and open innovation approaches, particularly (but not only) for developing countries. With the major international organisations weighing in and with our new Minister of Higher Education joining the debate at UNESCO, these are indeed interesting times.

As a follow-on from the discussion of innovation and the SA IPR Act in recent blog postings, a  week-old UN debate is relevant, showing up yet again how much the SA legislation seems to be going against global trends.

The  Intellectual Property Watch Newsletter 0f 6 July reported that ‘innovation and technology will be key to emergence from the global economic crisis, according to speakers at a recent United Nations conference on innovation-based competitiveness. However, innovation should be collaborative and involve resources inside and outside companies and institutions.’
The “International Conference on Technological Readiness for Innovation-based Competitiveness” was organised by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on 29-30 June. According to the IP Watch report, a number of speakers at this conference spoke about the need for collaborative innovation, or what  Paula Wasowska, director for Central and Eastern Europe market development for Cisco Systems, described as “connected innovation.”  Connected innovation requires cultural change to collaborative sharing of information, skills and perspectives within organisations and between them, the customers and the partners. “Innovation happens when people work together,” she is reported as saying.

“Innovation is moving from the in-house to the connected global market place, from the isolated individuals to collaborative environment…from proprietary control to open source, from single specialties to multidisciplinary perspective,” she said, and customers have become a critical force of competitive data as they are an invaluable force of information.

In general, this conference seemed to signal the  general acceptance of a shift from a competitive approach to innovation to a collaborative one, even where the mega-corporations like Microsoft and Intel are concerned. This collaboration takes place in and between companies and non-commercial organisations. The ethos, as Wasowska points out, is one of open sharing.

Even more striking was the statement by Claran McGinley, controller at the European Patent Office, that the patent system for ICTs is not working. The important thing about open innovation McGinley is reported as saying, is that “it is a team effort and crosses boundaries.”

The full IP Watch report can be found here.

India Bayh-Dole legislation – a conspiracy theory?

An article by Latha Jishnu in the Business Standard in India in mid 2008 provides a succinct account of the secretive progress of a piece of Bayh-Dole legislation in India. It sounds rather similar to our experience in South Africa. The Indian Act has subsequently been submitted to Parliament. The Bill was apparently being passed around the various ministries without much transparency when the text of the Bill was published on SpicyIP, an Oxford-based blog. Similar secrecy seems to have been reflected in the South African, process. Although the original draft of the SA Bill was published for comment and the universities’ criticisms of what many considered an unworkable system were noted, it was very difficult to lay hands on subsequent drafts. People I know trying to track the final draft only saw it after the Act was passed, although it appears from personal accounts that industry players were probably consulted in a workshop (in India there appears to have been a workshop for the chambers of commerce and industry).

Jishnu’s article concludes: Technology transfers can and do happen through many channels, and the diverse methods now in use would be restricted by the new law, says Abrol. Nistads is one of the one of the 38 institutes grouped under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) whose chief, Samir Brahmachari, has been advocating the open source system (reported several times in this column) of collaborative, incentive-based research. What we need is some informed debate on what is India’s best interest at this particular stage instead of going for a wholesale import of an American system that could prove ineffectual. Otherwise, we could be headed for a nuclear deal in our science establishment — corrosive, divisive and ultimately ineffective. A series of SpicyIP blogs goes into the Indian legislation in some detail. It sounds much like what we are facing: The Indian bill, much like its US equivalent is premised on the assumption that intellectual property rights are the best way to drive innovation. The more IP, the better for innovation. There is plenty of literature that casts strong doubt on this lopsided view. Additionally, we’re seeing some great alternatives to the IP model emerging. Indeed, even as we speak, international scholars and activists are debating the merits of incentivising innovation through a variety of alternative means including “prizes”, “advance purchase contracts” etc. Closer home, Dr Samir K Brahmachari, Director General of CSIR, India’s premier R&D body, has been advocating an open source model in drug discovery. This is not to suggest that intellectual property rights (IPR’s) are bad in any way, but only to caution that IPR’s are but one way of incentivising innovation. Given that we are dealing with innovation and creativity, we must be open to trying out some of these alternatives i.e. we need to innovate within our innovation regimes! Particular stress is placed on the damaging effect that this legislation could have on access to medicines in India, given the above. Like our South African legislation, the draft Indian Bill also takes away the discretion of researchers and universities to make their own decisions on how best to make their research work for the public good. Both the decision to patent or a decision to use open approaches are subject to decision by a government office.

The Indian Acr aims to generate revenue through its provisions; however, SpicyIP argues, ‘In fact, the cost of operating a technology transfer office (TTO) often exceeds the money made from technology licensing. CSIR bears out this point well. While it generated approximately US$1 million in licensing revenues in 2004–2005, it spent more than twice that amount on filing patents.’

What is different in India is that there has been a strong activist movement, with a number of individuals and organisations tracking the progress of the Bill, unearthing copies of successive drafts, providing links to commentaries and analysis on Bayh-Dole in other countries  and generating debate. Useful for those who want to explore this issue in more depth.

But this particular budding conspiracy theorist, down on the southern tip of Africa, is asking why the secretive processes in both countries? And why does this legislation seem unstoppable? Is this a big-industry driven initiative and if, so given Obama’s view on scientific research development in last week’s speech, is this Reagon-style legislation what the US still wants?(1) And what of our new pro-poor government? What will our new Cabinet make of what they have been landed with?  Watch this space!

(1) It is to be noted that Professor Arti Rai, one of the authors of a very good article critical of  Bayh Dole’s relevance to developing countries is one of Obama’s IP advisors.

Innovation policy

The Australian federal government has just completed a review of its National Innovation system. Australian research and innovation policy-making tends to be broadly consultative, wide-ranging  and forward-looking, so I was interested to compare this with what the South African government is doing. Our IPR Act of 2008 is Bayh-Dole on steroids, insisting on commercialisation and patenting wherever possible, and apparently treating open innovation as the exception, not the rule. And speaking of rules, the Regulations impose layers of bureaucratic filters between the researcher and the innovation outcome.

I am still working through the Australian document to absorb its detail but it has some valuable insights and the overall thrust is clear: there needs to be a balanced system, in which commercialisation is but one strand of the innovation role that universities can play. Far from taking Bayh-Dole as gospel, there is a critical evaluation of such strategies and a re-evaluation of  what innovation policy should look like in the 21st century.

Moreover, the Australian government and the participants in the policy process are aware of the pitfalls in excessive patenting. They review the past record, warn against the damage that can be done by patent law that is not rigourous enough and advise against policies that could create patent thickets. Most interesting, there is a strong argument for this arena to be opened up, so that the participants in the innovation system have a strong say, rather than this being the exclusive domain of lawyers. This is a lesson that I think South African universities might need to learn – it appears that our academics are not engaging with the South African legislation, thinking that this is the domain of professionals.

This Australian policy document reminds me of a recommendation from Arie Rip at an  early stage of the South African higher education policy process (2000):

The common mimetic route is to define the nature of capacity-building in terms of what is now seen as important. This may well be a recipe to become obsolete before one’s time … [T]he world (of science and more generally) may well evolve in such a way that present-day exemplars will be left behind. So developing countries should set their sights on what is important in 2010, rather than what appears to be important now – however difficult this will be politically. 1

The IPR Act of 2008 is unfortunately trapped in the ‘mimetic route’ that Rip warns about here. But what about Australian thinking in 2009? Here are some extracts that give some insight into the thinking that will inform policy review down south:

On the commercialisation of research:

Research commercialisation is not a core role for universities. Nevertheless, universities can play a vital role in the commercial process. In cases where the benefits of research are best achieved through commercial engagement, universities should, where possible, attempt to partner with appropriate stakeholders to achieve these goals. Such instances are in the minority and universities more commonly play a role of commercial significance through provision of vital research advancement, workforce training and substantial international links.

On the protection of intellectual property rights:

[T]here is a caveat which is increasingly important: The development of intellectual property is cumulative. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Because new knowledge always builds on old knowledge, the property rights we have erected to encourage innovation can actually obstruct it.

On the need to open up the question of patenting and IP beyond the legal profession and the IP industries:

Nevertheless the consideration of policy … is dominated by IP practitioners and by the beneficiaries of the IP system. We need the expertise of lawyers in this as in many other areas of policy but it is imperative that IP policy make the transition that competition policy made over a decade ago now, from a specialist policy area dominated by lawyers, to an important front of micro-economic reform.

On access and dissemination for social and economic benefit

Along with the rise in support for access to information has come a growing recognition of the need for users to be able to search and interact with data and content. Legal frameworks must also be developed to facilitate access and reuse. This points to the need for an Australian National Information Policy (or Strategy) that optimizes the generation and flow of ideas and information in the Australian economy. As the National Competition Policy (NCP) involved systematically scanning Australian institutions to optimize the operation of competition to enhance outcomes so National Information Policy would scan Australian institutions to optimize the generation and dissemination of information for social and economic benefit.

Thus for instance, unless it seriously undermines its commercial objectives of sale of product, the ABC should err on the side of making its content available over theinternet unless this has large opportunity costs. The presumption against free availability might be overcome where it would involve the foregoing of substantial commercial revenue from the sale of the content or there are large costs of hosting the necessary internet bandwidth (although in this latter case, peer to peer means of distribution should also be explored as should the diversion of funding from other activities and/or additional funding).

The advantages of  open science

To drive cumulative knowledge creation researchers and others must have access to high quality data and information on developments not just in their field but beyond. For instance, Jeff Furman and Scott Stern have calculated that Biological Resource Centres that are repositories of biological materials (including cell lines, microorganisms and DNA material) have boosted cumulative scientific knowledge by three times more than alternative institutional structures 2.Australian physicist Michael Nielsen has stressed the importance of unlocking scientific information in scientific journals to make it more easily discoverable, searchable and useable to enable the cross-disciplinary search for knowledge:

We should aim to create an open scientific culture where as much information as possible is moved out of people’s heads and labs, onto the network, and into tools which can help us structure and filter the information. This means everything – data, scientific opinions, questions, ideas, folk knowledge, workflows, and everything else – the works. Information not on the network can’t do any good.3

There is a lot more in this report – I recommend that South African researchers read it as they engage with our legislative process with an eye to preserving their expertise and independence in the process of ensuring that their research has maximum national impact.

1. Rip, A. (2000) Fashions, Lock-ins and the Heterogeneity of Knowledge Production. In Kraak, A. (ed.) Changing Modes: New knowledge production and its implications for Higher Education in South Africa. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

2. Furman, J. and Stern, S., Standing Atop the Shoulders of Giants: The Impact of Institutions on Cumulative Research, National Bureau Economic Research Working Paper. 2004.


IPR Act Regulations – IP under uncertainly in South Africa

Derek Keats. the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Knowledge management at Wits University has posted a series of blogs in the proposed Regulations for the implementation of the IPR Act. He thinks – and I agree – that they will probably be unworkable and that they will almost certainly act as a hindrance and not a help to research effectiveness in the country.

Some of his comments:

Most importantly, innovation thrives in the absence of impediments. Every time a researcher must go to NIPMO for permission, there is another barrier to innovation. More barriers equates to less innovation. This is a sine quo non, and cannot be changed… These regulations will stiffle innovation, not just in software, but in almost every sphere of research endeavour. They are bad for innovation, they are bad for research, they are bad for business, and they are bad for South Africa. Research innovation is something that is made from a harvest of passion and energy, and the capacity for the unfettered creativity that universities make possible. Anything that reduces that capacity for unfettered creativity, and creates the risk of a passion drought will undermine innovation and lead to less, not more, innovation. This is something that I know with as much certainty as I know I have 10 fingers (currently). Much as software patents favour existing large companies, and make
it difficult for a new company to become large, these regulatins will have a small negative impact on the research superstars, but will make it much more difficult to become a new superstar, and will drive
passionate people away from research into other carreers. Academic freedom is important to people, and people do innovation. Trample on it at your peril!If you look at the range of work that these regulations cover, which
is effectively all knowledge work undertaken with public funds, the range of knowledge needed to make non-spurious decisions is enormous. The level of talent that will be needed for the imlementing body,
NIPMO, to work is very high. These are not decisions that can reasonably be expected to be taken by inexperienced people who have just completed a masters degree. They need experienced researchers,
with doctorates and many years of research and development experience. Such people simply do not exist in South Africa. They could be taken out of the Universities, but then that would undermine the innovation process they are supposed to be managing. So where will they come from?

Finally, he makes a set of useful suggestions on how things could and should work:

  • Leave critical decisions close to the site of the action,
    where people are most familiar with the challenges and opportunities
    and can act in an agile manner with the minimum of delays;
  • Ensure
    that the services are available to assist with commercialization of
    research, including legal services, product development assistance, and
    that these are available with minimum of fuss whether a proprietary or
    open source business model is followed;
  • Ensure that there
    is a National fund to help startups fight patent challenges from patent
    trolls and other holders of spurious patents, especially large
    multinational corporations with large patent portfolios which may
    contain numerous dubious patents;
  • Recognize that the vast
    majority of researchers are not doing research that will lead to
    commercial products, and do not bring the whole innovation regime in
    South Africa under these regulations, where social and cultural
    innovation will be stiffled; rather provide means to assist and inform
    such researchers to find commercially or socially beneficial uses for
    their research when they tell you they would like your help;
  • Where
    software and documentation in various forms are concerned, accept the
    National Policy on Free and Open Source as also being an important
    guide for action among responsible, knowledgeable researchers.

I hope Wits University’s reposnse to the Regulations will incorporate all o of this.

Repositories at UCT

A new blog – OER@UCT – is charting the process of setting up an OER repository at UCT:

In the next few months we will be documenting our progress as we attempt to build a repository of UCT open resources.  We are trying to encourage faculty and students to contribute to our repository buy adopting Creative Commons licences which enables content to be easily shared.

The first blog (posted on 1 April, but no April Fool’s joke) has a nice quote about the impact of open resources:

“Open resources are the path to humility. They are an invitation to experimentation and collaboration. The more open the resource, the less one is committed to a single pedagogical path or theory, and the more one can profit from the insights of strangers, or collaborate with people one has never met.”  (Bissell, Doyle)

The OER@UCT blog has now posted an account of Hussein Suleman’s Teaching with Technology seminar last week at which he spoke on Open Access in a Closed Institution – Hussein’s view of UCT;s progress, or lack thereof, in creating an institutional research repository. From the OER@UCT blog:

Hussein spoke very briefly about the OA movement and some of the rather interesting developments in this area.  Large institutions around the world are pushing for open access and taking measures to ensure that their own research outputs are made available.  MIT (always a leader) has created a repository using the opensource dSpace software platform.  This also includes over 20,000 thesis going back as far as the 1800’s!!!
It makes good academic sense to do this.  For lecturers it creates an opportunity to collaborate and share research.  For students it provides access to high quality research and makes it easy for the growing “just google it” generation to do what they do best.

Have you ever been searching for an older news clipping, found it on the newspapers website, and then been asked to pay for the article?  I have found this incredibly irritating.  Why should I have to pay for old news?  This is an random rant – but the discussion really led me to think about it. …

Here at UCT the idea of an open access repository for research has been under discussion for some time.  Certainly our research output is scattered throughout the internet and in journals around the world, but can we account for it and provide details about it?  Can we tell how many times those articles have been cited, or read?  An open access digital archive could answer some of these questions.

Hussein says he had developed the UCT CS Research Document Archive for the Department of Computer Science here at UCT simply because he could not wait any longer for a university wide initiative to happen.  They now archive their publications and are able to provide details of how and when articles were accessed. The Law Faculty has also felt the need for a digital archive for their own research and have launched UCT Lawspace which also powers dSpace.  So it is clear that a unified system would be of great benefit if not only for these two faculties…

When I think of OER resources in the context of UCT I think of research output almost immediately.  Research papers, handbooks, conference papers, and articles will make a tremendous addition to our project.  Having them searchable and accessible will be of tremendous benefit in terms of reputation.

As Hussein reported in his talk, UCT is moving now to create an institutional repository, with funding from Carnegie. The question he raised was, Why has it taken so long?  and ‘Why does a university as prominent as UCT not invest in the creation of its own  repository rather than waiting for Carnegie to offer funding. It was clear from the information that Hussein provided that UCT has fallen badly behind other South African universities in adopting more open approaches to its research dissemination, with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal the only other major South African university without an institutional repository.
One of my reflections on what Hussein was saying took was that there is a good deal of wastage in a university like UCT which produces very high quality research right along the spectrum of basic and applied research, but tends to favour the former in its research publication policy. The push at UCT is to get academics to publish as much as possible in  ‘internationally accredited’ publications. This is a dual push – to enhance the research prestige of the university through increased citation impact and to earn the very generous subsidies paid by the Department of Education for such publication. While there is a list of South African accredited journals, the statistics show that UCT – probably the country’s and the continent’s leading research university – tends to publish journal articles rather than books and to publish these articles predominantly in ISI listed journals. In UCT’s publication list submitted to the Department in 2005-6, only 78 out of 622 journal articles listed were in locally accredited journals. (There were 23 South African journals in the international indexes at that stage, so there would have been some overlap between local and international publication, but not much.)  In other words, to put it bluntly, given the profile of the journal industry that UCT favours, it exports most of its formal scholarly publication to commercial journals published by multinational conglomerates in the USA and Europe.
In the mean time, back home, our ever-inconsistent government, which pressurises South African universities to publish in this way in the name of global competitiveness, also berates those same universities for not doing enough to resolve our very pressing development issues, particularly unemployment and skills shortages. If one delves into the UCT record, it is clear that formidable levels of skill and intellect are being devoted to just such tasks. There are a large number of research units and collaborative research ventures devoted to interfacing high level basic research with community needs. These research units often publish a range of online policy papers, research reports,  discussion documents and data sets. Other units produce training materials and community handbooks. It is clear that the university has made a formidable contribution to policy development in health, poverty reduction, industrial and skills development, to name but a few.
Trying to find this rich record of research publication is, however, a mission. The publications are there, but buried in departmental websites that are in turn buried inside the university website. As good as this website is, this is just too many clicks away from discovery. The question I has to the senior administration was ‘UCT is a major player in the development of an AIDS vaccine in South Africa. Why, if you google AIDS vaccine South Africa, does UCT’s name not come up?’
Clearly, UCT could do a lot more using open access publishing, a strong repository system and some marketing of its wider range of publications, to demonstrate the contribution that is makes in return for taxpayer contributions.