Message from the NSTF Executive Director


Thinking innovatively about the ‘triple helix’

Any person or institution that has tried to implement the theory and policies of innovation, or government department that has tried to stimulate innovation will tell you that it is not easy. I assume that is why the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) is being renamed as the ‘Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)’ in a renewed effort to champion innovation and move the country forward. There is a new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, where innovation is given a prominent role. There has been a particular focus on innovation policy and attaining widespread implementation thereof for many years. The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) was set up to facilitate processes and the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) was established to facilitate in all matters regarding intellectual property (among other initiatives). There has always been an awareness that innovation requires collaboration. Whenever discussions are held involving matters around innovation, someone usually points out that there are hardly any business people in the room, and probably no entrepreneurs. I have often heard this at meetings.

In practice, however, many projects are implemented with stakeholders from the triple partners that are entangled in the ‘triple helix’ model. There needs to be greater awareness of the amazing work that is being done collaboratively in South Africa. The partnerships are seldom referred to as ‘triple helix’ but many are exactly that.

I attended the international Triple Helix – a Catalyst for Change Conference in Cape Town from 9 to 10 September (with thanks to the South African Innovation Summit (SAIS) that also organised the Triple Helix Conference back-to-back with their annual Summit). It was a very packed programme because there was so much to share about collaborative projects and models for collaboration from around the world.

Often people would refer to the ‘quadruple helix’, the fourth strand being civil society. This is an important aspect, often listed as stakeholders in South Africa’s attempts at inclusiveness of all sectors of society.

The South African context as backdrop to the Triple Helix (TH) conference:

  • Awareness of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) has taken hold of South Africans. There is lack of understanding and fear of the loss of jobs. Most recently bank employees were planning to go on strike because of the announcement of retrenchment of thousands of employees. This is the clearest demonstration that we have had of the implications of the roll out of 4IR technologies.
  • South Africa in general has only really taken the 4IR seriously for the past year or two, although the science community has been aware of it and working on 4IR technologies for many years.
  • Higher Education and Training and Science and Technology now share a single ministry.
  • The South African economy is in crisis and the newly elected ANC government is trying to repair damage caused by its predecessor – to the economy, wide-ranging structures of government, and the very fibre of South African society.


This context points to opportunities:

  • Reskilling of retrenched workers is widely touted as the solution to job losses. But reskilling is not instant and has to be done in the context of industry and business. Not everyone is suited to entrepreneurship, although the creation of small businesses is part of the solution. Industries, including mining, have to adapt and work in new ways – both to remain profitable and to absorb retrenched workers. There is opportunity for government, industry and researchers to collaborate on specific initiatives/ventures to (urgently) effect some of the necessary transformation.
  • Education and training need an overhaul. Again there is much talk and innovative projects here and there, but the change has to be systemic. As in everything else, this requires collaboration between government (national and provincial), industry and academia. This seems obvious but is again challenging to implement. At NSTF’s recent discussion forum on Advanced manufacturing and automation, Dirk van Dyk made a strong argument for industry to take a leading role in training, working closely with TVET colleges instead of leaving the required education and training up to them alone. This is one area where there is a dire need of reform. Technologies are evolving too fast for colleges to keep up (especially regarding up-to-date equipment) and the practical expertise is out in the field, not behind college walls.
  • In a sense the merging of the two ministries is good news. There should be more opportunities for government, higher institutions of learning, scientific researchers and innovators to work more closely together. The risk is that the third strand of the helix – industry – will be left out. There is a need for concerted effort to retain the whole triple helix relationship in every critical area.
  • There are opportunities for South Africa to ‘leapfrog’. Prof Keun Lee (Professor of Economics at Seoul National University, Korea) wrote the book: The Art of Economic Catch-up: Barriers, Detours and Leapfrogging in Innovation Systems, Cambridge University Press, 2019/04. His work indicates that a few specific niche areas in 4IR technology (or just one) should be identified and intensively supported by government. Challenging as this is, there is much to gain if successful. It is critically important for South Africa to take urgent steps to catch up once and for all. Of course the role-players have to work closely together. The South African company Jendamark is a good example of what is possible. This innovative company designs and manufactures highly automated assembly lines. Mr Yanesh Naidoo, Sales and Design Director, spoke at the recent NSTF discussion forum on Advanced Manufacturing and Automation. Jendamark’s market is currently mainly overseas instead of in South Africa. Government support to a cluster of similar companies would enable local smart factories to be established in the automotive sector, revitalising this historically productive sector.


Back to the triple helix concept

The website of the Stanford University’s Triple Helix Research Group explains:

The concept of the Triple Helix of university-industry-government relationships initiated in the 1990s by [Prof Harry] Etzkowitz (1993) and Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (1995), encompassing elements of precursor works by Lowe (1982) and Sábato and Mackenzi (1982), interprets the shift from a dominating industry-government dyad in the Industrial Society to a growing triadic relationship between university-industry-government in the Knowledge Society. 

There is therefore a more prominent role for the university in this era – not (just) as educator, but crucially in its role of producing research and development leading to innovation.

The Triple Helix Association (THA) has the following Working Groups, indicating its priorities:

  1. Innovation Policy Implementation Nexus (INNOPIN)
  2. Triple Helix Actors, Governance and the Region (THARG) Full title: Triple Helix actors in the regional development ecosystem: enhanced governance and value co-creation.
  3. Science Parks and Incubators
  4. University-industry Partnerships
  5. Knowledge and technology transfer
  6. National Innovation Systems and Models
  7. Entrepreneurial Universities
  8. EU Funding Watch

The THA has local chapters in Brazil, Germany, Greece, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Pakistan. Given the importance of making collaborations work, shouldn’t South Africa have a Triple Helix Chapter?

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.