Emerging economies, such as South Africa, have a desire to become relevant players in promising new areas of economic growth. Biotechnology is one of these areas. In order to become relevant, therefore, these countries need to allocate adequate resources to innovation, failing which they will always remain on the receiving end of products and services developed elsewhere. However, in contrast to the developed world, emerging countries don’t have the luxury of ‘unlimited trial-and-error’ when it comes to allocating resources to innovation efforts. Biotech, in particular, has turned out to be increasingly complex, long-winded, costly and fraught with problems (1,2). Therefore, alternative approaches to managing biotech innovation may be needed.

Of innovation and human activity systems

In his seminal book ‘Making work systems better’ (3) Belgian systems practitioner Luc Hoboeke condenses prior insights of influential systems thinkers such as Peter Checkland (4) and Stafford Beer (5) into an original approach for the effective organisation of human activity systems. I am using some of his insights in exploring how life science innovation could be organised in a much better way.

In his book, Luc Hoboeke suggests that human activity systems are organised along two primary dimensions, time and level of process. Process levels must not be confused with a hierarchical organisation of activities. Rather, higher-order process levels create conditions for lower-order processes, similar to a Russian Doll (Matroschka) where the outer shell creates the raison d’être for the inner one. Time is essentially reflecting the necessary gap between the perception of need, its conversion into innovative insight, and the reduction of the latter into tangible products or services.

Across time, processes levels are organised into three fundamental domains, namely (i) added-value, (ii) innovation and (iii) value systems. The first one is where tangible products or services are rendered, value of which is perceived according to the four essential criteria of volume, price, quality and time (turn-around). The second domain is where perceptions of change (internal/external) are assimilated into the creation of new products and services, through adequate allocation of resources. The third domain (value systems) is where engagement with the environment takes place in such a manner that foundations for the sustainable future existence of an organisation in its respective environment are being created.

The more efficient these domains and process levels integrate over time, the more effective any innovation effort will be. Hoboeke’s model touches on two fundamental principles underlying innovation: (1) All human activity systems are made of communication. (2) Without communication, no work system has purpose; no effort aimed at innovation has meaning.

Life science innovation doesn’t work without communication either

In the innovation systems domain, Luc Hoboeke suggests the following qualities for measuring the effectiveness of any innovation effort:

  1. Desirability (D) – an attribute of a relation between innovators and stakeholders. It can be measured by the degree of positive effort that both make in that relation.
  2. Feasibility (F) – an attribute of the relation between innovators and stakeholders. It can be measured by the degree of defensive effort that both invest in the relation.
  3. Transferability (T) – the degree to which an innovation can easily be spread in the added-value domain gives an indication of its transferability.
  4. Systemicity (S) – the degree in which an innovation has been conceived, taking into account the interfaces with other areas, is an indicator of its systemicity.

(D) and (F) speak to the importance of proper stakeholder engagement. Without having a sense of what stakeholders need (D) and to what extent they may be opposed towards change (F), any efforts into innovation will be fruitless. (T) refers to the ability to reduce ‘ideas’ into products and services in an efficient manner. This requires that we have the means to convert ideas into specifications, plans and outcomes. (S) refers to the degree to which any innovation is ‘in touch’ with – more or less – related areas. For example, if the goal of an innovation effort is the development of a diagnostic test, we’d have to ask to what extent it impacts on the quality of patients’ lives, what impact it has in economic terms, how it could improve drug treatment, or – more specifically – how seamless it could be implemented into existing health delivery systems.

So, how does all of this apply to life science innovation? If we assume that some kind of basic or applied research is a driving force of innovation, what Hoboeke’s model suggests is that for this research to yield innovation outcomes, the corresponding activities must interface with relevant stakeholders already at the conceptual level. Engagement with such stakeholders, such as government departments, Pharmaceutical companies, clinical trial organisations, pathology laboratories, funders or investors, will go a long way to surface needs (D) and/or objections (F) regarding efforts aimed at this particular innovation. In other words, effective communication with stakeholders will essentially add purpose to otherwise potentially misguided innovation efforts, including early research initiatives. The same process will ensure that innovation outcomes have systemicity, that is, that they have impact beyond their ‘domain of origin’. With respect to Genomics driven innovation, what comes to mind are novel diagnostic tests that could be applied in routine laboratory settings; improved policies for the provision of drugs; or data that can be used to enhance design of clinical trials.


Translated into a resource-constrained environment, innovation efforts could be rationalized as follows:

  1. Innovators should have a good understanding of ‘problem areas’, such as health, and how these interact with others in systemic and possibly innovation-enhancing way.
  2. Likewise, researchers should consider how ‘information-rich’ discovery fits into other areas, such as drug development, Diagnostics (Dx) or health delivery.
  3. By way of using or creating adequate communication platforms, innovators should engage with relevant stakeholders in order to prioritize efforts that are desirable and feasible.
  4. Innovators need to have the means necessary for translating ‘ideas’ into value-adding products or services.

In order for the process to be effective in a developing economy, more significant effort should be put into communication and coordination prior to the creation or allocation of resources. While the latter may create a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment, only the former will ensure that such resources are actually employed in an innovation-stimulating manner.