Make innovation a campaign agenda



The question of running mates has occupied the country the last seven days as the process of making that decision reached the penultimate stage.

The leading formations could not postpone that decision any longer, with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) having given them an extension to May 16.

The conclusion of the selection process moves the country’s electoral process to the next level, that of campaigns, even though campaigns have been going on for a long time.

While individuals are a core component of any political competition, ideas are equally critical. The direction that the country takes and the speed with which it moves is determined by the kind of developmental ideas that candidates put forward during the election campaign and that they get to implement should citizens support those ideas by voting them into office.

Hopefully, over the next few weeks we will be able to see the manifestoes of the different presidential candidates and assess the content of their proposals. Thus far they have treated the citizens to slogans and snippets of what they have in mind.

What is needed though are the details of what exactly they would like to do, how they intend to go about it and the requisite finances to achieve those ideas. For the past two weeks, I have reflected on an area that has hitherto not received enough attention in the campaigns, yet it is critical. That is, innovation.

The University of Nairobi recently organised the Nairobi Innovation Week, an opportunity to display ideas that students and staff have and explore ways of commercialising those ideas.

The guest of honur at this year’s event was the chief executive officer of Safaricom. Listening to his speech at the opening of the event and some of the challenges that he threw at us in the academy demonstrated the importance of linkages between industry and academy in the process of enhancing innovation within the country.

The linkages that the event demonstrated are captured in the law on innovations. Passed by Parliament in January 2013 just before the Jubilee government was elected, the law elaborated on the objectives of the country in anchoring technology, science and innovation in the country’s socio-economic agenda.

The law and the institutional architecture it created is a recognition that the future of the country and the world at large is the knowledge industry. Therefore, Kenya’s aspirations to accelerate its movement up the development chain must be based on progress in innovation.

The current and even future industrial technology is around creativity and technology. Any country that expects to compete needs to recognise this and invest in building its human base and supporting efforts to identify innovations and then upscale and commercialise them.

The law is clear that the innovation space requires collaboration among several stakeholders. That is why it speaks about the need for the country to develop and manage a national innovation system.

It creates three institutions and tasks one of them, the Kenya National Innovation Agency with the responsibility of establishing and managing this system. The place of universities, industry and government is clearly stipulated in the sustenance of this system.

However, a critical group that needs to be socialised and activated in spurring innovation is the political class. The statement about lack of political will is one that is mentioned too many times as relates to several sectors of the society.

It may even be a tired complaint. It is one that sadly faces our quest to innovate. Politicians will hail the creative industry, but still operate based on the philosophy of traditional factors of production and an approach that sees physical goods and services and not intangible assets as the future.

Several months ago, I met the new Israeli ambassador to Kenya for lunch. He thereafter shared with me a book about Israel’s success. The book, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle should make for useful reading for those involved in developing political manifestoes.