It has been two decades since the White Paper on Science and Technology (1996) first introduced the concept of the ‘National System of Innovation’ (NSI) into the country’s public policy discourse. This was meant to be an organising framework to understand the institutional linkages across all sectors. The idea is to maximise technological performance, and ultimately respond to challenges such as poverty, inequality and unemployment. The concept is defined as follows: “Such a system, in its broadest conception, is the means through which a country seeks to create, acquire, diffuse and put into practice new knowledge that will help that country and its people achieve their individual and collective goals.”

The commemoration of this landmark comes at a particularly interesting time in the country, when there are numerous calls for the government, business, institutions of higher learning and even citizens themselves to reflect on the current state of affairs and re-imagine the future and what it will take to realise the vision. It is imperative that the NSI is placed under the microscope especially because from a public policy perspective, it carries with it the hopes of the society.

In Sibusiso Manzini’s ontological approach of the NSI, he rightly asserts that it has been successful to a degree – at least in four ways: i) it has illustrated the linkages between science and economic activity, ii) innovation has been placed at the centre of scientific endeavours, iii) it has ensured that agenda setting within the macroeconomics public policy sphere prioritises science and technology and, iv) placed emphasis on the importance of synergy within the network of institutions in the NSI.

Beyond, the gaps identified in Ministerial Review (2012), Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection report entitled: The Emergence of Systems of Innovation in South (ern) Africa: Long Histories and Contemporary Debates (2016), underscores the importance of understanding the NSI in an evolutionary sense. The study investigates innovations systems of pre-colonial societies such as the Mapungubwe civilisation artefacts and innovation, until the post- apartheid era. It does soby analysing the historical trends and the implications it has on the current structure of the NSI today. This approach reinforces Scerri’s argument that South Africa’s NSI rests mainly on technology innovations which provides a deficient analytical framework to understand economic change. Consequently, the approach has to be extended to integrate the value of non-technological innovations. These variants of innovation are improperly seen as binary when in fact, together they may provide impetus for technological breakthroughs. There is increasing literature that supports the narrative that the production of knowledge is a social activity and has become increasingly reflexive.

Furthermore, whilst the importance of traditional knowledge systems has been acknowledged, their contribution to the evolution of NSI has not been fully explored. Consequently, the differences between the innovative technologies created then and now have implications for the current and future competitiveness of the country.

Lastly, the failure to integrate informal institutions in our understanding of innovation system greatly diminishes the particularity of the NSI. This results in exclusion of a vast amount of innovative activities from the analysis of systems of innovation. It therefore imperative that it is understood at a systemic level once this is understood as encapsulated by Scerri in his assertion that “…the role of planning in this case is not much the creation of a system of innovation but rather the shaping of its evolutionary path in a way that improves general welfare, however that may be construed.”

Overall, amongst other things the report poses a thought provoking conundrum about epistemology and the sciences. Marie-Joëlle Browaeys once said that there can be no scientific reflection in the absence of an epistemology. Aligned to Morin’s view on complexity thinking one can go further by saying that scientific reflection is impossible if prevailing epistemologies of the sciences based on the disjunction principle  excludes people from their own knowledge. It then becomes critical to investigate the history of innovations systems to cast some light on the way forward in the next twenty years and beyond in order to meet expectations.  ​