Mary King

About a decade ago, the Ministry of Planning in the People’s Partnership (PP) government presented to an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) representative its plans to diversify the Trinidad and Tobago economy via a national innovation system.

This was done on the completion of the legitimation exercise, ie, a series of public panchayats throughout T&T. The project (aborted since then) received buy-in from the public, but raised the concerned comment from the IDB, whether we thought that we could accomplish such a project.

However, the IDB has just announced for the region a Pivot project which includes a competition from which it hopes to elicit ideas from the public, with prizes of US$5,000 for the winning ideas. In this IDB venture, its “moonshot programme”, our ideas should aim for the Moon (figuratively) since in our diversification we have to compete with the world in the global marketplace.

The serendipitous approach of appealing to the general public is reminiscent of the “i2i” project, a similar competition also held by the PP government, in which many prizes were handed out for ideas that were thought could spawn export companies.

Emanating from this project was little, if anything, that grew into a significant and competitive export company. Hence, it is important to examine the proposed IDB project in a bit more depth to see what are the vehicles that could catapult these ideas, etc, into economic game-changers—which we need, given the crisis that is facing our energy sector and the threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet’s environment.

Contestants are being asked to submit their ideas in the areas of electro-mobility, digital transformation and re-imaging tourism. Three ideas will be selected for the prizes, which will also secure a place in the Pivot event, which is a virtual conference between October 15 and 30, 2020. In this conference, pioneering minds will discuss “moonshot” ideas to drive a more resilient and secure future for Caribbean people.

During the conference, thought leaders will be invited to plan a vision for the region for the next decade. Nine ideas (three from the competition), three in each of the identified areas, will be discussed at the conference.

The development of, say, economic resilience of T&T, its diversification, depends on building globally competitive export companies, and such competitiveness will be derived from knowledge and innovation, the result of R&D. This was the creative stage of the innovation system of the Planning Ministry of the PP government.

What is still to be discussed by the IDB is what/how will the other stages emerge; finances/investment, market development/global connections and marketing, even the creation of the companies. Also, like the triple helix, who will be the long-term partners in this innovation process?

At best the IDB Pivot project seems to be the three best ideas of the public and six others in the already chosen three areas in lieu of a fore-sighting exercise, even though the structure of an innovation system is yet to be defined. A further concern is that the general areas are already chosen, which implies that the IDB thinks the ideas recommended can result in globally competitive export companies.

If this is indeed the case, then the ideas will be specific opportunities—products and services—in the chosen areas. Hence, there is an immediate concern as to the protection of the intellectual property of the ideas, which could eventually define the competitive advantage of the hoped-for export companies.

There are certain obvious systems which the region, T&T, has to improve upon, or put in place; the ease of doing business, the poor productivity of the public service, and digital transformation of Government services.

Also, with climate change and the eventual discard of fossil fuels (though T&T is clinging desperately to its deposit of hydrocarbons), the region has to address the use of renewables and hence the various means of transport as it moves away from petroleum-­powered engines. But these are ­processes that are engaging the attention of the world and solutions will abound.

However, as small open economies that depend for our very existence on imports, we have to develop new export and competitive companies. These will, if we are serious, result from the creation of a formal innovation system, not singularly from serendipity, the “ah ha” moments of the general population or even the Pivot project of the IDB.

Our governments, the universities and other R&D institutions and a new private sector have to be integrated into an economic transformation vector like what we have seen in Singapore, in Taiwan and, to a certain extent, in Ireland, with the required human and material resources, if this reconstruction is to succeed.

The role of the IDB is not that of selecting ideas that can transform the region, but in helping governments to build such innovation systems, particularly in their initial funding, given the financial uncertainties that face the region during and post-Covid-19.

—Author Mary King is an economist.

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