South African society is beset by many problems. Some of these problems are so complex, entangled and large in scope that we cannot even begin to explain them to ourselves, much less imagine what a solution might look like.
According to Graham Smale, Director for Market Development and Innovation at the JSE, there is a name for such problems: "wicked problems".
Smale was speaking at a business debate organized by the Techno Park Business Forum, in collaboration with the Stellenbosch Sakekamer, on the evening of 20 April. The event, which was hosted in style by the Stellenbosch Academy for Design & Photography in Techno Park, focused on the topic of "Innovation & Business Leadership in the Age of Uncertainty". In addition to Smale, another guest speaker was Niclas Kjellström-Matseke, a sought-after Swedish business leader and former CEO of the multi-billion rand Novamedia Swedish Postcode Lottery. Kjellström-Matseke, who has strong ties with South Africa (his father left the country shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960) is a pioneer of the concept of market-driven charity: under his leadership Novamedia Swedish Postcode Lottery donated more than R3 billion to charity.
Smale opened the debate by describing the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing South Africa today – "wicked problems" like poverty, inequality, crime, lack of education, ineffectual governance, and the like – and prompting questions about how business leadership and innovation could help to solve them. Kjellström-Matseke picked up on these thoughts, drawing on his own life experiences to describe the benefits of diversity for creating businesses that are able to adapt and thrive amid the many challenges confronting the modern world. Central to Smale's and Kjellström-Matseke's thoughts was the idea that corporate culture needs to re-invent itself as a more dynamic, socially engaged environment: an environment that is able to come up with novel, system-based responses to the increasingly complex problems afflicting society.
The speakers clearly struck a chord with the large audience of Techno Park business practitioners and community representatives in attendance. As soon as the floor was opened for debate, a number of questions were raised about practical issues surrounding the implementation of innovative business ideas in the midst of our struggling socio-economic climate. Participants from within and without the Techno Park community were keen to share their thoughts on how to engage local communities more closely in their business practices. While it is evident that many in our communities grapple daily with the severity of the "wicked problems" Smale had identified earlier in the evening, it was encouraging to hear so many people enthusiastically discussing ways in which the business community could improve its approach to the numerous challenges facing South Africa.
Towards the end of the evening, someone spoke about the immense benefits of technology innovation for improving the dire state of education in South Africa, and about the need for more people in the business community to support technology initiatives in education. At this point that the thought struck me that what we were doing was precisely the kind of network-based approach to business innovation that Smale and Kjellström-Matseke had been advocating earlier: a diverse group of people, drawn from various business communities in and around Stellenbosch, were exchanging ideas in order to come up with novel solutions to the complex, "wicked" problems afflicting their environments. By creating the space for debate, the Techno Park Business Forum and Stellenbosch Sakekamer were encouraging the kinds of processes that will ensure Techno Park's prosperity as a centre for innovation and sustainable business practice in years to come.