How can businesses and universities cooperate to foster innovation, create value and build more resilient communities? This was the topic of discussion at the recent Technopark SRA/Stellenbosch University partnership breakfast led by the director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), Prof Piet Naudé.

Innovation In the Age of Information

In 1989, Apple’s Chairman of the Board, John Sculley, noted that the transition from the industrial to the information age would see the key economic resources in the world become “knowledge, individual innovators, and information”.

At the time, Sculley saw the United States as a nation living beyond its means. Stagnant organisations and modes of operating were stifling the country’s ability to create the value necessary to sustain future growth. Generating value would rely on fostering innovation, which in turn would necessitate re-designing the way organisations go about innovating. For this to happen, the alignment and collaboration between business and higher education would be a central pillar.

Fast-forward to South Africa in 2019, and this topic again comes to the fore. It was the central subject discussed by Prof Piet Naudé in his recent address to delegates at the Technopark SRA/Stellenbosch University partnership breakfast. How can businesses and universities cooperate to foster innovation, create value and build more resilient communities?

Cultivating Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

The relationship between business and higher education can, according to Prof Naudé, be equated to an old, worn-out marriage. The parties live together in the same house and rely on each other for economic and intellectual support, but at the same time seem to move forward on different tracks, each oblivious to what the other is doing. While the business community looks to the university for its future workforce, it also sees an old institution hungry for donations but not tackling problems of immediate business relevance. While both business and the university can benefit from short-term financial and intellectual exchanges, there is real value in long-term mutually beneficial partnerships.

1. Fostering Innovation

Both business and higher education in Stellenbosch share an interest in the town becoming a place where intellectual capital is transformed into economic capital with a view to changing the world. There is business value in intellectual research when companies tap into the resources of the university to explore relevant topics. From how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will impact agriculture to the disruptive effects of Fin Tech, the university has the material, human and institutional resources to explore real current and future business problems.

2. Value Through Life-long Learning

In the knowledge economy, higher education equates to real value when the people that graduate from universities enter the job market. However, knowledge acquisition should not stop after having left the university. Businesses should invest further in their workforce by exploiting the life-long learning opportunities on offer at universities like Stellenbosch University. Continuous training in areas of technology and business management helps to produce an agile and informed workforce that can contribute to innovation, and competitive advantage and add to their company’s bottom line.

3. Building Resilient Communities

Possibly the most enduring value in business and university partnerships lies in the goal of building resilient communities. Resilient communities are those with the sustained ability to utilise available material and cultural resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations. Such communities rely on strong institutions, cultural cohesion and equal opportunity.

The university is not only a strong economic contributor to the town of Stellenbosch, but an active agent of change through community development and outreach. Partnerships in areas of corporate social responsibility are not only beneficial in terms of tax, but more importantly in building stronger communities that house an educated civil society with a strong voice.

The Key is Commitment

For business, cultivating a relationship with a university over a period of years can yield innovative research projects and products, skilled employees and philanthropic opportunities. On the other hand, universities can benefit by aligning their study offerings and research endeavours with real world demands and problem solving. However, mutually beneficial relationships can be difficult to build and maintain. Both parties must invest resources, time, and capital while cultivating trust through consistent communication and positive interactions. Both parties must continue to court each other by finding shared endeavours to pursue, discussing plans for the future, and celebrating joint successes.

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