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The assertion by the United Nations (UN) that “creativity and innovation have become the true wealth of nations in the 21st century” carries greater, more salient import when cast in terms of economic, social and sustainable development. While they can indeed harness the economic potential of countries, the true value of creativity and innovation lies in how they can be engaged to find sustainable solutions to wicked problems.
Observed on 21 April, World Creativity and Innovation Day not only encourages us to embrace the value of innovation for economic growth, but also highlights the role that these twin concepts play in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and promoting the advancement of all people.
We are facing a crossroads in 2021, confronted with recurring issues such as the climate change crisis, the educational and economic gulf, global poverty and food insecurity, the biodiversity and environmental crisis, and all the areas addressed in the SDGs – COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated these crises. Yet, while the pandemic revealed the deep fault lines that run through society, it has also been a wake-up call for society to reroute its problem-solving strategies. In this regard the investment in research is now more critical than ever before.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented research worldwide and accelerated efforts towards developing effective vaccines. This has impacted on research in several ways and has stressed the importance, while simultaneously highlighting the challenges, of real-time pandemic research. All in all, the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the critical need for a skilled workforce. As we navigate through and beyond this pandemic – which will have a long-lasting impact on our world, including research and the higher education enterprise – it is important to recognise and address opportunities and strategies for, and strengthen the pipeline of, skilled researchers.
In many ways, the pandemic has galvanised the University of Pretoria (UP) to shift its attention even more strongly towards promoting Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)-focused academic programmes to produce students who can not only thrive, but also contribute to bettering the world by way of pioneering technology.
World Creativity and Innovation Day then acts as a reminder for society to continue reframing its approach to these recurring global problems. We need new, innovative ways of thinking and applying knowledge to tackle challenges and stresses that face Africa and the world, such as poverty, unemployment and inequality, and to achieve social justice. Tackling such challenges requires robust, efficient, high quality, impactful research. Through collaborations and partnership with other knowledge partners globally, the potential to attract investment, co-create impactful knowledge outputs and train the next generation of researchers becomes less daunting to achieve – as a collective, we can attain remarkable results that have socio-economic gains, not just for respective countries, but for the continent and beyond.
Universities need to be at the forefront of creating this new kind of knowledge to confront the multiple disruptions and crises that we are grappling with. As such, UP has embarked on a more holistic agenda that entails rethinking, reimagining and repositioning its role in society. By its very nature, the process of reimagining is creative and exciting as we re-envision our contribution to an equitable future. This needs to be done by leveraging technology in a way that hardwires transdisciplinarity and collaboration into our core functions of research, education and engagement.
The University has placed four vehicles at the centre of its reimagining agenda, each driven by transdisciplinary research. We believe that research expertise across and beyond disciplines is necessary to co-create new understandings and breakthroughs to transform society for the better.
Our Future Africa institute and campus, a transdisciplinary research hub, is a pan-African space where African scientists, scholars and key stakeholders work collaboratively to think, research and learn how to tackle the seemingly intractable, complex and intersectional continental problems that are largely represented by the SDGs. These challenges – such as loss of biodiversity; food security; migration; inequality; poverty and unemployment; and human, plant and animal health – often require new knowledge to be co-created by academics across multiple disciplines collaborating and working with civil society, governments and industry to address the wicked challenges that Africa and the world are facing. The facilities at Future Africa are positioned to achieve just that. The campus boasts a conference centre with breakaway rooms, research commons, a 300-bed facility and a dining room complex. The facilities are an example of sustainable architecture and construction. In this space, we collaborate with academics within the University, in South Africa, across Africa and globally to co-create impactful knowledge and train early-career academics. The research emanating from this institute is focused on ensuring sustainable futures for Africa in a world marked by rapid changes, such as the 4IR, which is transforming the way institutions, the economy, the world of work and society function.
UP’s Engineering 4.0 complex is a co-funded transdisciplinary facility focused on transport and mobility in all their forms, with particular emphasis on healthy transportation infrastructures. Engineering 4.0 is geared towards advancing modern competitive cities that drive economic innovation and collaborations with the private sector. This facility pushes for the development of scarce yet critical skills that are needed for the country, the continent and the world. It concentrates on the development of highly skilled graduates, researchers and leaders in the fields of civil engineering, and technology and data sciences. Research is conducted using intelligent systems that are at the centre of the 4IR to test and train everything that facilitates mobility in rapidly urbanising environments, from road surfaces and smart cars to smart public transport systems. Working with government agencies and private sector players, Engineering 4.0 leverages the opportunities that come with artificial intelligence, big data and data science, and cloud computing.
The Javett-UP Art Centre (Javett-UP) is a partnership between UP and the Javett Foundation. We both share a firm belief in the value of the arts for society in general and for education. It’s a project that is collegiate as it is philanthropic. With one foot firmly rooted in academia and the other imbedded in the public, Javett-UP aims to make the art of Africa accessible, relevant and engaging. Researching the art of Africa lies at the very heart of the work of Javett-UP. The centre aims to set new benchmarks in art curation, conservation and education. The fact that Javett-UP is part of UP’s research, teaching and learning resource means that this is a place not only for enjoying art, but for learning and researching about it, too. Javett-UP supports our academic programmes, and enables the development of creative, flexible, adaptable minds with the emotional and intellectual intelligence to thrive in a changing society.
Innovation Africa @ UP pursues collaborations and partnerships with local and global scholars, researchers and leaders in the broad fields of agriculture and food security, seeking partnerships with government agencies such as the Agricultural Research Council, the agricultural sector and related industries. The initiative co-creates knowledge and innovative technologies to develop systems of agricultural production that are resilient to climate change, are environmentally friendly, promote sustainable agriculture and are easy to implement.
Our approach at the University of Pretoria is based on the idea that all four innovations should be about transforming lives, communities, sectors, our country and continent, and making a contribution to the world. The main driver lies in high quality, relevant and impactful research that drives the creation of knowledge not only for economic advancement but equally, for social justice. In this regard, UP proactively pushes for the internationalisation of knowledge and global engagement – about 44% of the research we conduct is done with international collaborators. We place great value on the inclusion of international students, postgraduate students and post-doctoral fellows. They add to our institution’s diversity and social cohesion, and bring different views, experiences and ways of doing things that contribute to the creation of robust, efficient, and new and exciting knowledge in South Africa, Africa and the world, with particular emphasis on the global south.
This can only be achieved and led by a University community that is future-oriented and at the leading edge of research and innovation. In this regard, through its multi-campus presence, UP embraces the concept of being an anchor institution by partnering with key role players and stakeholders: from government, funding agencies and the private sector on the one hand to community leaders and the general public on the other, with the aim of fostering economic well-being and social cohesion. Such partnerships are anchored in fostering and sustaining a diverse, inclusive and equitable university community; achieving shared benefits; enhancing access and successful learning; developing skilled graduates to navigate the knowledge economy; strengthening social responsiveness and impact on society; and enhancing institutional sustainability.
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