Co-authored with Zoe Palmer – Published in IFR Africa Futures


Having reached a tipping point of industrialization over the last two decades, the world’s leading economies have evolved into knowledge-based economies, shedding their reliance on traditional resources like labour and capital. In these economies, new knowledge, innovation and technological change have become the drivers of progress, growth and wealth (Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), 2019). We see opportunity to tackle the global problems around sustainable development in the 21st century which is becoming ever more urgent in light of the most recent studies on climate change (IPCC, 2018).

However, this global transition to a knowledge-based economy is not occurring evenly, and many developing countries are still trying to play catchup with the western world. In many cases, the state of development limits the potential for living a connected and accessible lifestyle. For example, in Africa, 28 of the continent’s 52 countries had electrification rates of less than 50% of the population in 2017, with only 9% of Burundi’s population having access to electricity (World Bank Group, 2019). Although development challenges like this present significant constraints in moving to a technological age, there is an opportunity to address these in a way that is better for the planet and people than how development has taken place before.

Lacking the legacies of antiquated technologies, previous developmental paradigms can be leapfrogged, and unprecedented development can be catalysed by new technologies. In his address at the BRICS summit on 26 July 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed to fellow world leaders on the potential perils and opportunities facing BRICS nations in the 4th industrial revolution. “This surge in innovation has the potential to dramatically improve productivity and to place entire countries on a new trajectory of prosperity,” said Ramaphosa.

“However, unless it is approached in a collaborative manner, underpinned by a developmental agenda, rapid technological change could merely serve to entrench existing disparities within and between countries. It could also create new fault lines in our societies.”  President Ramaphosa urged for a more collaborative approach that ensures Afrikans remain in the driver’s seat and steer solutions that custom fit the Afrikan context and reality.

But if we are going to succeed, our education, economy and social systems have to gear up for the change now. President Ramaphosa rightfully noted only a few emerging economies will possess these skills in sufficient numbers, while others will see their prospects stifled by automation. “There is a need to develop more agile and applied education models,” he urged.

However, for this to work at scale, it is critical that a supportive ecosystem exists that allows for the free flow of people, ideas and innovations (Dzisah and Etzkowits, 2008). The triple helix model could help provide us with a framework for this to happen in a very unique way.

Introducing the Triple Helix Model

The triple helix is a universal model of university-industry-government interactions for the development of knowledge-based societies, through innovation and entrepreneurship (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018). Although the relatively intuitive concept originated in New England in the 1920s, interest in the topic has gained traction since the 1990s as the impact of Silicon Valley extends globally. Etzkowitz and Zhou (2018) suggest that “the triple helix is the secret of Silicon Valley formation and development; it is a continually developing process; its consequence is a sustainable innovative ecosystem.”

What makes Silicon Valley work so well? In a knowledge-based society, some information will always be lacking. The flexibility presented in the triple helix model suggest that where one sphere is lacking, an actor can be substituted to fill the gap. In triple helix interactions, universities, businesses and governments “take the role of the other”, while maintaining their primary roles and distinct identities (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018). Silicon Valley was catalysed by Stanford University’s ‘porous boundaries’ and the encouragement of technology students to start their own businesses. By working closely with industry, the university was able to accelerate their technological research. The development of the triple helix arrived when large-scale government funding for academic research was secured after Hewlett Packard was founded from a Stanford research project (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018). What followed was the development over a few decades of relationships built over porous boundaries, and a substrate of civil society serving to transform knowledge into innovation (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018). In this example, Stanford acted beyond its traditional means, and acted as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurial universities play a key role in the triple helix and have a leading role to play in the sustainable development of the 21st century (Dzaisah and Etzkowitz, 2008). They do this by transferring technology, incubating new firms, and taking the lead in regional renewal efforts and development. Etzkowitz and Zhou (2018) go on to suggest that “due to its special abilities in integrating organisational teaching, group research and collective entrepreneurship, the university will be pre-eminent as the source for new science-based firms.” Universities also have a competitive advantage for creating new ideas. Each year, they admit and release hundreds and thousands of eager young creative minds, compared to the long term employee sitting in R&D at a firm or government laboratory.

Given that this model is argued to be universal, it is reasonable to question how one can use this model to form and develop other innovative regions which have self-renewal and sustainable innovative capacity (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018). This has been under much debate, largely in the western world (Brundin et al., 2008), since the triple helix movement was launched in Amsterdam in 1996 by Professor Henry Etzkowitz and Professor Loet Leydesdorff. Comprising a group of 90 researchers representing Latin America, Europe, North America, Australia and Asia, the first international conference on the Triple Helix was held. Following this, several events (occurring approximately bi-annually) have been hosted around the world: New York, USA (1998), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2000), Copenhagen, Denmark and Lund, Sweden (2002), Turin, Italy (2005), Singapore (2007) and Glasgow, UK (2009). After the Triple Helix Association was founded in 2009, conferences became annual events with Madrid, Spain (2010), Silicon Valley, California, USA (2011), Bandung, Indonesia (2012), and London, UK (2012) (Triple Helix Association, 2019).

At each of the conferences hosted before 2009, scientific research was explored in the fields of: the relationship of science, industry and government and their role in creating the conditions for future innovation; the importance of location; the capitalization of knowledge; cognitive, economic, social and cultural aspects of innovation; emerging models for the entrepreneurial university; regional diversities and global convergence; boundary spanning interactions, linking the different national cultures and innovation systems; job creation and social wealth. The conferences hosted after the association was formed deepened the dialogue to speak further of issues like cities of knowledge and the expanding knowledge and connecting regions; global aspects of the model; the role of the model in developing countries; and an invitation to challenge the triple helix model (Triple Helix Association, 2019).

Bringing the triple helix to Afrika

In support of the idea to make the model universal, the first Triple Helix conference will be held on Afrikan soil in 2019.  The SA Innovation Summit will be hosting the XVII Triple Helix Conference in Cape Town South Africa from the 9th – 11th  September 2019, as part of its mandate to stimulate the multi-helix conversation. The SA Innovation Summit functions as an accelerator for the South African and African economies and does this by bringing all stakeholders together in the entrepreneurial and innovation space.  (for more information, visit: We believe this event will be an important one on the innovation landscape, as despite a number of South African research papers being published (Brudin et al., 2008), an ‘espoused rhetoric’ about triple helix still does not exist in South Africa.

What does this mean for Afrika? We believe we need to use this opportunity to engage in the conversation and define a sustainable triple helix model for our continent.  Can universities in Afrika take the global lead in building knowledge-based societies? Are we ready to move the dial from industrial societies to knowledge-based societies? What opportunities and challenges are we faced with?

Dzisah and Etzkowitz (2008) introduce the debate of whether the triple helix model plays a different role in developed and developing country contexts. In most developing countries, universities have largely focused on teaching, as a result of their role in colonial or neo-colonial technology transfer regimes, where attention was directed at importing technology rather than encouraging endogenous innovation even when research capacities were developed. The form and content of education and curricula most often mirror the prevailing concept of development underwritten mostly by donor agencies. In Afrika, majority of the countries inherited a colonial educational system that was oriented to the developmental needs at the time. The goal of the educational system was to turn out clerks to monitor and record in basic accounting terms the purchase of traditional agricultural export commodities, missionaries to engage in proselytizing activities, and officers for the colonial civil service (Dzisah, 2006).

Dzisah and Etzkowitz (2008) argue that the key to development is circulation within the triple helix among university-industry-government. By designing interventions that promote the blood flow of ideas, people and innovations, the social ‘hardening of the arteries’ and the failure of civil society to emerge can be prevented. The implementation of these circulatory interventions can be significantly harder to do in practice, especially if the institutions are not set up for it in the first place. Research in UWC and Nigeria both show examples of lacking institutioners. Institutional barriers need to be addressed. This will require a process of change, and learning new skills.

Embracing new skills to drive a different outcome

According to the World Economic Forum (2017), the three most important skills for an employee by 2020 will be complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Being able to approach issues with fresh eyes and agile analytical skills is critical to the digital world we navigate today. Technical acumen alone will not unlock innovation – it needs to fuse with creativity in order to formulate meaningful and long-lasting change. Viewing creativity through an Afrikan lens creates a unique opportunity to unlock innovation on the continent that is relevant and appropriate. There is a huge opportunity for Afrikan Universities alongside Afrikan entrepreneurs and agile corporates to be at the forefront of driving innovation on our continent.

The Afrikan landscape is wonderfully rich and dynamic, a complex and colourful mesh of diverse humanity, where history and modernity in all its brokenness and brilliance, collide. Its people, resources and realities are highly unique, and require an authentic language and lens through which to co-craft its solutions.

With quantum leaps in technology catapulting global markets into uncharted waters, Afrika stands to flourish from this surge in innovation and economic development. But the road to achieving this prosperity is critical. Unlike former linear, analytical approaches to problem solving, more and more people are becoming convinced that this road going forward must be paved by human centred design.

Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach which pulls from past experience and ‘outside in’ perspectives, design thinking goes deep to the source of the problem and invites multiple stakeholders to co-design solutions from an ‘inside out’ approach. Together with community members and people from private, public and academic sectors, systems thinking and design thinking allows us to ask more systemic questions and find more authentic, robust solutions that work for that particular time and place.

This process of design thinking, that we call Afrikan Design Innovation, ADI, lays down the platform for the storyteller and the politician, the chief and the professor, the architect and the elder, to have equal input into the design process. History, culture and context all weave into the design process, intersecting and shaping its contours. Afrika (a term adopted from the field of Afrikology, which honours the unanimous use of ‘k’ throughout the continent) has its own requirements and rhythms. Our commitment through ADI is to pioneer a new approach that picks up the Afrikan heartbeat, so that our solutions offer sustainable responses to the continent’s unique challenges and aspirations.


“The Ivory Tower has not fallen; rather, it has been complemented and enhanced by being inserted into an innovation dynamic that increases its societal significance” (Etzkowitz and Zhou, 2018).

The challenge for us as Afrikans is to believe that we can take the lead in defining and growing a successful model for what a knowledge-based society can look like in our lifetime.  In order to do this, we need to become comfortable with the unknown, we need to be comfortable with disruption.  We need to start conceptualising and implementing new models of collaboration across academia, government and industry.  We need to start developing new knowledge in the fields of complexity, futures and design.  We need to embed these skills across all areas of academia and industry.

Maybe, just maybe, Afrikan Design Innovation is the key to unleashing the creative and innovative resources of the Afrikan continent. It begins with us writing our own stories – a bold new Afrikan story that reflects the growing self-confidence of a prosperous, creative and inclusive future…

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