by Joanne Carew

5 tips on tech and business innovation from a top South African physicist

Jun 20, 2021
InnovationIT Strategy

Adriana Marais, former head of innovation at SAP Africa and a current director of the Foundation for Space Development Africa, says tech and business innovation demands that you promote curiosity, embrace new perspectives, learn and come up with creative ways to solve real world problems.

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Credit: Getty Images

Business and technology innovation happens when an organisation introduces new processes or offers new services and products to affect positive change. This can mean improving existing methods and practices or starting afresh and creating something from the ground up.

That’s the word from Dr. Adriana Marais, a South African theoretical physicist, technologist and aspiring extraterrestrial. A former head of innovation at SAP Africa, Marais is also a director of the Foundation for Space Development Africa, an organisation aiming to lead Africa’s first mission to the Moon, the Africa2Moon Project. She believes that innovation is a natural product of the human mind, a result of curiosity-driven exploration, observation and reasoning. 

adriana marais Kat Grudko

Dr. Adriana Marais is a director for the Foundation for Space Development Africa and a former head of innovation for SAP Africa.

For example, says Dr. Marais, we stare up at the night sky and wonder what it would be like to travel beyond Earth. In this case, innovation comes in the form of building rocket ships that can transport people into space and creating a space station where these people can live. But the innovation doesn’t stop there. Our initial curiosity-driven endeavour drives other innovations like the development of LED lights so that we can grow food anywhere and the creation of advanced water filtration membranes, which make it possible for people to survive in resource-constrained environments, like space.

The value of thinking differently is especially important today as modern businesses and IT leaders seek new ways to attract customers, boost efficiency, outdo their competitors and, ultimately, boost their bottom line.

Here are Dr. Marais’ five top tips to help IT leaders embrace innovation in their businesses, today.

Embrace curiosity and unfamiliar environments

 Curiosity-driven exploration fuels innovation, says Dr. Marais. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the planet, but it does involve getting out of your comfort zone and being exposed to new things. Engaging in unfamiliar environments induces learning, which can spark new ideas.

 “Enrolling in an online course on a topic you may find daunting, setting up discussions with non-traditional groupings of experts or visiting new places to understand how things are done differently there,” says Dr. Marais. “These are all natural ways in which we can explore.”

A central characteristic of being human is our ability to imagine a world beyond the reality we are currently experiencing, she continues. Never before have ideas had the power to come to fruition with such a pace or scale. Data and connectivity enable this.

Technology is a tool that requires education

“While technologies are tools that can improve people’s standards of living and transform societies for the better, in order for us to benefit from new capabilities, new skill sets and ways of thinking are required. Education must be at the heart of how we engage with the fourth industrial revolution (4IR),” stresses Dr. Marais.

The concept of 4IR embraces the idea that, as technologists explore the possibilities of the explosion of data flowing between the digital and physical world, new technological capabilities at the intersection of previously distinct fields of knowledge emerge. 4IR represents the convergence of these emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, big data, analytics, augmented reality, and robotics, as well as nanotechnology, biotechnology and genome editing.

From the first controlled use of fire around one million years ago by our ancestors here in South Africa to the cyber-physical systems emerging today, our use of tools has traditionally defined us, Dr. Marais notes. “And if technology is the tool, then data is the fuel.”

If we want to equip people to participate meaningfully in this data-driven world we must provide them with access to education and training to navigate this surge of information. “While technology has the potential to improve living standards, the impact is often unequally distributed,” explains Dr. Marais. Unfortunately, when our society evolves, it is often the already highly skilled who have access to the retraining and upskilling required to keep up. Inequality is at the heart of the challenges we face in South Africa and the continent at large is inequality in access to and outcomes of education; the rapid change of 4IR combined with a lagging education system can perpetuate and increase this inequality.

Emphasize skills beyond pure technical acumen

A trend in the series of industrial revolutions that have occurred up to now — the first being steam-power, the second electricity, the third computing and the fourth connectivity — is people being freed from tasks strictly related to their survival. With each revolution, our activities are based more around what separates us from machines: our curiosity, imagination, empathy and passion, Dr. Marais notes. While emerging technologies will require more technical training, soft skills are also essential to IT success and must be prioritized for IT professionals.  These include creativity, cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence.  

Consider real-world challenges to trigger innovation

There are so many opportunities to use emerging technologies to solve challenges with unprecedented efficiency and scale if we are creative in our thinking and consider society’s biggest, fundamental problems, adds Dr. Marais. The potential for this is particularly important in South Africa and across Africa. Think smart grids and solar energy for robust power provision; 3D printing to mediate the housing crisis; new membrane filtration technology and connected devices for water management; smart farming for urban food; as well as big data and drones for remote healthcare.

Separate innovation and commercialisation

According to Dr. Marais, the processes of innovation and commercialisation should not be conflated. When we are too focused on how much profit will result from your new ideas, this limits our innovation mindset. Hiring or engaging in workshopping with specialists from outside of business is one way to stimulate fresh perspectives. One viable approach is to set money aside that can support several non-viable developments until you come up with the winning idea that brings in revenue.