Emerging technologies for technological and economic catch-up: the case of nanotechnology in South Africa

Simate, Geoffrey Simate
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In a speech “There is plenty of room at the bottom” by Feynman (1959) the concept of nanotechnology was born, though the term itself was coined by Taniguchi (1974) later. Today, the world is witnessing unpreceded technological changes via nanotechnology which have affected every industry. Nanotechnology-based technologies have primarily continued to create a multitude of new processes and products that have substantially advanced the quality of life globally. In terms of objectives, firstly, this study sought to establish if South Africa is creating technological and economic capabilities for catch-up, in general, and in nanotechnology, in particular. Secondly, the study looked at whether nanotechnologybased technologies (i.e., water treatment and medical applications) have facilitated technological catch-up, and subsequently, economic catch-up in South Africa. Nanotechnology being an emerging technology is considered by many scholars that it can offer windows of opportunity which are able to allow latecomer nations to catchup with the technologically and economically advanced states. The objectives of the study were investigated through quantitative methods, and the study used secondary data from government and institutional policy documents to assess technological and economic capability creation in both general terms and in nanotechnology. The evidence from a critical analysis of the policy documents shows that South Africa has invested heavily in capability building institutions such as the national innovation system (NIS) so as to boost its technological and economic development. The NIS is a key concept which represents a country’s collective efforts towards advancing innovation (Manzini, 2012). It is ideally the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies (Freeman, 1989). The six functions of the NIS and the four mechanisms for knowledge flow were considered as the capability building blocks for innovation in South Africa and thus were used to operationalise the NIS. The six functions of the NIS according to the OECD (1999) include (1) technology and innovation policy formulation (2) financing R&D (3) performing R&D (4) promotion of human resource development (5) technology diffusion; and (6) promotion of technological entrepreneurship. The four mechanisms for knowledge flow include (1) joint industry activities, (2) public/private interactions, (3) technology diffusion, and (4) personnel mobility (OECD, 1997). The study also used bibliometric information of scientific publications and patents as measures and/or indicators for knowledge generation and invention, and subsequently, technological catch-up. Ideally, scientific publications and patents provide information pertaining to the trajectory of the technology and the key areas of innovation that may be necessary for economic growth and economic development. Two nanotechnology-enabled fields, water treatment and medicine, were specifically studied. The two fields are believed to be enablers of the UN millennium development goals for developing nations. The BRICS countries together with the USA were analysed in the study. The USA was found to be way ahead of the other nations in the two fields in scientific publications, citations of the scientific articles and patents filed through WIPO during the 9 year period from 2010-2018. However, China surpassed the USA on a year-by-year basis in nanotechnology enabled water treatment processes and/or products after 2016. The rest of the BRICS nations were found to be far below the performance of the USA in the two fields in both a 9-year period and on a year-by-year basis. An interesting observation of the study is that there were more patents in medical fields than in water treatment. This trend is attributed by some scholars to intensive R&D in pharmaceutical industries than in any other industry. It was also observed that firms and/or universities were significant patent applicants in both fields whilst there were fewer individual applicants particularly in medicine. One significant capability building strategy that was accessed in the study is collaborations amongst the studied nations. There are many benefits of collaborative working relationships including enhancing the quality of work undertaken and many more other advantages. Both nano-based water treatment and nanomedicine results had strong evidence that showed that collaborations maximized scientific research publications. Surprisingly, the collaborative results in scientific publications for South Africa with other BRICS nations was very low despite having a number of MoUs that encouraged R&D collaborative programmes amongst themselves. It was expected from the study to find that nanotechnology cuts across the boundaries of various traditional fields of study within water treatment and the medical field. This is a clear evidence that nanotechnology has an inherent capability to unlock new and diverse opportunities in various fields. Sales and /or market data was used to represent the economic impact of nanotechnology related products and/or processes. Unfortunately, data on assessment of economic impact of nanotechnology enabled materials in water treatment and medicine is not easily available due to numerous obstacles including elements such as regulations, standards, health & safety issues and public perception. Therefore, this study only provided results of sales and/or market data for nanotechnology-enabled products and/or processes in general, and not necessarily water treatment and medical related nanotechnology-based products and/or processes. Compared to other BRICS nations such as Russia, India and China, the results showed that South Africa does not seem to use nanotechnology as a “window of opportunity” for catching-up economically despite significant investment in the field by the government. The USA is currently leading in the generation of revenue from nano-enabled materials (see Table 4.21).
A research report submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Management in the field of Innovation Studies to the Wits Business School in the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2020