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Why aren’t more T&T businesses as innovative as they could be?

The trinidad Guardian / Two of the trendiest buzzwords over the last decade have been “innovation” and “disruption”.

Fundamentally, though, how much innovation and disruption can T&T and its enterprises effectively achieve? Dissecting such a question requires two simple insights about our country that essentially also flows through the veins of many businesses in our twin-island republic:

1. T&T has done little to imbibe a culture of innovation in its citizens and

2. Our local expenditure on research and development (R&D) needs improvement.

A note on point two: there are a number of companies that have funneled resources into creating a more innovative approach to business and have reaped the rewards. We do have truly innovative companies here. However, collectively, our enterprises have typically been more reactive than proactive when it comes to pushing the innovation agenda. There are ostensibly many reasons for this. The reality is that innovation is actually much harder than it might appear.

Those who have managed any semblance of innovation as businessmen and entrepreneurs have done so largely against a difficult cultural tide.

In fact, many who have succeeded would have been considered pariahs for trying to do anything remotely innovative in the first place. This cultural attitude pales in contrast to societies that have managed to achieve innovation at the highest level.

Effort and application seem to matter far more than the end results in such countries. Failure, though undesirable, is factored in as a potential outcome in any innovative endeavour- it comes with the territory.

Can the same be said for T&T?

Do we embrace the doer, in spite of the fact that doing comes with the risk of failing?

Or do we have a society that knocks innovation out of its citizenry?

Taking this analysis to the corporate level, the link is also clear: companies are made up of people and if people fear chastisement and punishment for taking “innovative” risks, why would they do so?

The sting of being labeled a failure curtails initiative and far outweighs any potential rewards from success in our country.

That said, companies that support attempts at innovation, and empower their employees to take calculated risks-even if they fail in the end-are far more likely to succeed, even if accidentally, than those that sit idly by and do nothing.

History is replete with organisations that have stumbled into success.

Also, it’s important to recognise that the role of successive administrations post-independence has driven an innovative culture down, and driven one of entitlement up. The State has, in some respect, been counterproductive to innovation.

If necessity is the “mother of invention” (substitute innovation), then entitlement is its grim reaper. While their overtures at innovation have become more pronounced recently, time will tell if such efforts will be successful.

Innovation, however, should really be the domain of the private sector with government supporting the appropriate conditions.

There’s also no way to divorce innovation from spending on research and development.

In fact, in industry and technology sectors, R&D is perhaps the most critical component of innovation and a factor in developing competitive advantages. The logic behind this connection revolves, quite simply, around one factor: data.

Data drives innovation because of the feedback mechanism it creates. More information feeds more innovation which, in turn, feeds more data. It goes without saying, therefore, that until T&T (and its enterprises) becomes more proficient about both gathering and analysing data, any major effort at innovation will be stymied.

Far more time is spent-both at the State and private sector level-making decisions based on guesswork, than on rigorous data analysis. Crime, transportation, healthcare, waste management, even agriculture are industries rich with data to be mined and innovative solutions proffered. As stated earlier, this stuff is really hard (and not cheap).

Further, it would be anyone’s guess what percentage of our national GDP is spent on R&D-a metric used as a guide to how innovative a society is. Perhaps it has been so easy for businesses to be successful in T&T without much concern for data analysis that it has always been an after-thought. That said, local businesses will fight an uphill battle to be globally competitive in this new era if they don’t embrace R&D as a necessary expense.

T&T is filled with bright people who need only the right environment and right support to let innovation rip.

Top 5 countries with highest R&D expenditure as % of GDP

South Korea 4.23 % Japan 3.29 % Germany 2.93 % United States 2.79 % France 2.22 %

T&T ranks 91 out of 127 countries according to the Global Innovation Index 2017 Crime, transportation, healthcare, waste management, even agriculture are industries rich with data to be mined and innovative solutions proffered.

Andre Worrell

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