South Africa: An upcoming provider of sustainability innovations?

Project Lead:
Andreas Stamm

Project Team:

Andrea Friederichs
Sarah Hees
Philipp Kauppert
Luisa Reichert
Benjamin Smale

Time frame:
2008 - 2009 / completed

Co-operation Partner:

Institute of Economic Research on Innovation of Tshawane University of Technology

Project description

Research Question:

South Africa has a relatively strong and mature Innovation System, with a series of world standard performing organizations, established funding agencies and clear governance structures. In the last years, the government has implemented a series of strategies, programmes and instruments to further strengthen the system and enhance science and innovation capabilities. The ratio of R&D spending to gross domestic product has significantly risen, and the international linkages of research and higher education organizations have been strengthened and amplified. Based on this progress, the government of South Africa in February 2008 approved an ambitious Ten Years Plan (TYP) for the development of an effective Innovation System (Innovation Towards a Knowledge Based Economy). Production and dissemination of knowledge shall lead to enhanced economic growth and enrich all fields of human endeavour.

Science and Innovation are crucial instruments to meet the challenges related to global change and to achieve the transition towards sustainable development on the level of nations, regions and the globe. The TYP refers explicitly to five grand challenges to which increased knowledge creation shall respond, among them, energy security and science and technology in response to global change.

To what extent is South Africa’s innovation system actually responding to the challenges of national, regional and global sustainability? What are the main actors in science and innovation for sustainability? How dynamic are scientific and innovation capabilities developing? How do the actors assess the political framework conditions and incentive systems? Where do they perceive barriers to a faster development and diffusion of sustainability innovations? Which lessons may be drawn for policy makers and for the international science & technology and development cooperation?

These are the guiding questions of the research project postulated by the German Development Institute (DIE). The research will be based on the conceptual approach of National Innovation Systems, developed since the 1990s by economic and social researchers and increasingly being applied by science and technology policy makers. In order to get an adequate insight into the innovation processes the research will be structured along different Sectoral Innovation Systems (SIS). The following list of SIS has been established, based on a number of interviews with stakeholders and experts of the South African innovation system, it is still open to modifications:

  • Forest, timber and wood-based products: The research will focus on resources-saving technological innovations along the wood value chain and comprise organizational innovations at the upper end of the chain, that contribute to the overall sustainability of the sector.
  • Renewable Energies: The research looks at different types of renewable energies and its development in South Africa: Solar (thermal and PV), biomass, wind and waves. It still has to be decided, whether these fields can be covered completely or if a selection has to be made. This depends among others on the size of the research team that can be brought together.
  • Hydrogen Economy: One team could possibly explore this highly innovative technology field and the potential that South Africa has to become a competitive provider of hydrogen based solutions.


The research will be based on a series of common hypotheses and issues that allow for a cross-sectoral analysis and may help to develop appropriate recommendations for policy makers and the international cooperation. Some of these common issues will comprise

  • the links between different elements of the SIS (public research, private sector)
  • the available human resources,
  • the international cooperation of research and higher education organizations,
  • the absorption of incentives and other instruments of innovation policy by the SIS.


There will be a collaborative effort between Germany and South Africa.


The Institute of Economic Research on Innovation of Tshawane University of Technology will be the formal research partner in South Africa. Other organizations have also shown their interest in supporting the work, among them the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University and CSIR Natural Resources and the Environment (Stellenbosch).

It is intended to carry out the research in a collaborative effort between postgraduate researchers from Germany and South Africa. Matching the five researchers from Germany with an equal number of postgraduates from South Africa can significantly enhance the research capacities. CSRES has already announced its interest in assigning two students of its postgraduate program in renewable and sustainable energy studies to the research team. The selection of the South African researchers would be done in close collaboration with IERI and other national partners.