by Joanne Carew

Top South African scientist: How to make an impact with innovation

Mar 03, 2021
InnovationIT LeadershipScience Industry

As CEO of the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR), a South African government-created entity, Dr. Thulani Dlamini is in the innovation business, with the goal of supporting industry and technology.

thulani dlamini
Credit: Thulani Dlamini

The Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR), South Africa’s central and premier scientific research and development organisation, was created by the government with a very clear mandate — to foster scientific and industrial progress via research, development and innovation. As CEO of the CSIR, Dr. Thulani Dlamini is at the helm of an organisation expected to perform directed research and technological innovation that creates a clear and tangible impact.

What is that impact?

We recently chatted to Dr Dlamini to find out. We also spoke to him about the CSIR’s innovation efforts — which include the development of a local ventilator to aid the South African government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and his views on the so-called fourth industrial revolution (4IR): the convergence of emerging technologies include machine learning and 5G.

Let’s talk about your current position as CEO of the CSIR, what does it take to lead SA’s premier scientific and research organisations? Any key challenges?

I really see myself as being very fortunate to lead an organisation of this stature, with the history it has and the impact it has made across South Africa. I’m very mindful that I need to protect the reputation of the CSIR and also that I need to grow and develop this institution into something better than what it was yesterday. As innovators, we can’t just keep doing what we did in the past, we always need to be evolving and responding to change. In fact, our new strategy aims to build from our previous successes. This means that we’re working to develop our science and engineering capabilities so that we can support and drive industrial development in the country. Unlike universities and other academic institutions that also do research and development, our work has to be directed and it needs to have a real, marked impact across society, industry and government. As such, anything we do is driven by a requirement that we make a clear mark on broader society and have an impact on industrial development.

 How does the CSIR’s work support the economy and business innovation more broadly?

The work that we’ve done recently to support the national response to the coronavirus pandemic comes to mind. At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis it become apparent that one of the critical medical devices for the treatment of severe cases, the ventilator, was in short supply globally. South Africa would have to import these devices from other parts of the world to meet our local demands. In response to the looming crises, the CSIR developed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) ventilator to assist the Department of Health’s response to the pandemic. Working with various partners, our localisation efforts have produced close to 20,000 ventilators that have been rolled out to various hospitals and clinics around the country. These ventilators have been successful in treating patients with COVID-19 and have also been used to successfully treat patients with other respiratory ailments as well. As a result, the Department of Health has already requested the ventilators be licensed for permanent use outside of the pandemic.

 What are SA’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of science and tech?

I think South Africa is often held back because we lack the critical mass to really pursue the innovation initiatives we want to drive. The level of investment in research, development and innovation — across government and business — is typically fairly low. We need to get to a point where we reduce our dependence on imports and stimulate local innovation and production in the process. It’s about backing South African ideas and innovations. This is what will drive sustainable economic growth.

What specific fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies do you think will have the biggest impact across South Africa and Africa more broadly?

We are already seeing the implementation of some 4IR technologies in South Africa and across other parts of the continent. These include smart factories, the Internet of Things, robotics, advanced materials, drones, big data analytics and many others. However we need to ensure that we have sufficient human capacity to sustain these efforts, reduce our technology balance of payments and create strategic independence. The application areas for South African industries are many and varied including manufacturing, mining, financial services, retail and others.

 How do you think we can improve diversity and inclusion across STEM fields?

At the CSIR, around 65% of our scientists, engineers and technologists are black and 35% are female. Over the years, we’ve made significant strides when it comes to transformation. But I must stress that it took very deliberate action and effort to achieve this level of diversity. At a macro level, it all starts with establishing grassroots projects that encourage people to pursue tech careers and then creating the necessary pipelines to move people into these industries.

Do you have any tips or advice for businesses leaders who want to innovate but don’t know where to start?

Firstly, innovation demands that you have a long-term view whereby you try to imagine a different future to the current reality. This requires visionary thinking and foresight. Innovation requires critical mass in terms of investment and intellectual capacity. In order to deliver this, IT leaders must identify the right strategic partners that have complementary capabilities to support their innovation agenda. Lastly, the leadership of the organisation needs to have a great deal of patience and they must understand that in innovation there will always be failures. But it is important to remember that these failures create opportunities to learn and improve.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

I think it’s critical to ensure that you have a very clear set of priorities that guide how you act, how you conduct yourself and how you make decisions. In the work that I do, every day I witness all of the possibilities that are out there. It is so important to grab every opportunity you get and use each one to grow and learn new things. Sometimes we just close our eyes to the opportunities in front of us because grabbing the opportunity is too scary. But what we need to do is keep our eyes open and not be afraid to tackle the challenges that life puts in front of us.