Thu | Mar 21, 2019

Radical education and industrial policies needed to drive innovation

Published:Monday | February 18, 2019 | 2:07 AM

A panel of professionals in business and finance, drawn from the private and public sectors, recently emphasised the need for radical shifts in education and industrial policies to achieve the kinds of innovation necessary for economic development.

The discussion took place during the UK in Jamaica Trade Fair, which was held recently at the British High Commission in New Kingston, with major support from The Jamaica National Group. Talks centred on the topic ‘Encouraging Growth and Better Business through Innovation: Lessons Learnt and the Way Forward.’

Although commending a recent announcement by the Government to look more keenly at research and development in economic growth, the panel largely agreed that Jamaica is struggling with its labour force, which, they say, is not sufficiently prepared to innovate.

The Jamaica National Group’s chief marketing and business development officer, Dr Dana Morris Dixon, posited that the education system needs strengthening so that it can provide workers who can bolster innovation. She stated that education in Jamaica remains too focused on regurgitation and not enough critical thinking, although acknowledging efforts being made by the State to change this systemic problem.

“We obviously aren’t going to get to where we want to be if our results in CSEC maths have 46.5 per cent of students passing. That is not the groundwork for an innovative economy to go forward,” she argued.

“We are ranking number 81 when you look at the Global Innovation Index. Therefore, I was ,encouraged yesterday when the minister of finance said that he was going to put more funds towards research and development, as developed countries do. And that’s the first good step; however, we really need to look dispassionately at our education system,” she maintained.

The economist indicated that many developments in organisations will be led by technology, yet many software developers are struggling.

Alwyn Clarke, financial controller and business development manager at Continental Baking Company Limited, which produces baking products under the National brand, pointed to similar challenges.

“Yes, there is technology, because we can adopt from overseas; but the challenge, as you gear the technology up … is getting skilled workers to use the technology,” he acknowledged.

“If we fix the education policy and if we fix the incentives, then what that will enable us to do is innovate more to drive the cost of production down so that we can feed more Jamaicans,” he said.

British High Commissioner to Jamaica Asif Ahmad also pointed to the importance of investment in education and said that Jamaica is at a point in its education where Britain was some 30 years ago.

CHANGE IS NECESSARY

Using the example of Singapore, he underscored that although the education system may have been good for industrialisation, it was not enough to survive in the current global paradigm and, therefore, Singapore had to change.

“They invested in education a lot through repetition and examinations, and the pressure on children to do well was huge,” he explained.

“What Singapore realised is that, about two years ago, the country actually had zero innovation and only replication. They would simply buy things from other countries and have them there. So the country would basically be forever importing ideas and businesses, and that would only be successful to a point. What they have now started to do is to change the curriculum in schools, where creativity and the arts, and behaviour that was regarded as unruly behaviour, was being harnessed in schools. Children could express their creativity and actually learn in a better environment,” he underlined.

However, beyond the education system, Dr Dixon says that Jamaica needs an industrial policy, which incentivises research and development.

“If we are going to develop on the scale that we want to, it’s not going to be incremental changes, it needs to be very radical changes. It’s an important conversation that we need to have,” she insisted, while welcoming Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke’s announcement that research and development would be included in annual gross domestic product assessments.

Dr Dixon was supported by Dr Eric Deans, chief executive officer of the Jamaica Economic Zones Authority, who concurred, but pointed out that the policy is essentially captured in the Logistics Initiative Master Plan that was completed in 2017.

“It outlines what can be considered the new industrial policy for Jamaica. It allows for interactions with vocational institutions and universities, to provide the skills and competencies necessary for the current economic and global conditions, and provides the basis where innovation can thrive,” he said, noting that the country needs to diversify its industrial base.

However, Dmitri Dawkins, entrepreneurship programme director, at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, and a technology professional, believes that current policies and initiatives do favour small businesses and innovation.

GOOD POLICIES

“I believe that the current policies in Jamaica are pretty good,” he said. “The first thing is that we have a simple taxation system, and a lot of policies and trade agreements which can help to export products and services,” he asserted.

Dawkins opined that major policy shifts have freed up capital to allow investors to back small, viable businesses and not only invest in government paper; but, allowing innovative businesses to receive funds through equity, debt and grant funding.

“The special economic zone is also another opportunity that people need to utilise. Manufacturing: you have great policies that allow you to import raw materials for products; export throughout CARICOM at a duty-free level; you have trade agreements with the UK; and you have trade agreements with the US and Canada as well,” he said.

“As a small, growing business, now is the time to take advantage of these opportunities,” Dawkins concluded.