BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Getting the edge on innovation
AS THE CARIBBEAN’S pre-eminent economic historian, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) new vice chancellor, can spot the potholes that litter the Caribbean’s economic highways from miles away.
“I am an economic historian and I can see the roadblocks in our economic development,” was the way Sir Hilary, previously principal of the UWI’s Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, put it.
So, it didn’t come as a surprise when he immediately reflected on the state of economic play across the Caribbean beginning in the 1940s, a crucial benchmark.
“Fifty years, let’s say the 1940s through the 1980s, I thought we did well because we had a competitive advantage in the exportation of raw materials,” he said. “So, we exported sugar, oil, bauxite and bananas and we got some growth in Caribbean economies. There was some mobilisation of the economies. There was a comparative advantage and a competitive edge in the exportation of those raw materials. That gave our economies a boost.”
But the island-nations and coastal states didn’t come to a standstill, economically.
“We went into the second phase, tourism, finance, offshore. Effectively, the services economy,” he added. “You also had a competitive advantage in those areas, banking and finance. We had the skills and we had the environment. So, the Caribbean economies had another boost in the 1960s, ‘70s and in the last 30 years around the financial and commercial sectors. Barbados was modernised, Jamaica too and so on.”
That’s where the third phase comes in. The vice chancellor sees bumps in the economic roads as well.
“We can see all of the roadblocks in the third phase,” he asserted. And to remove them Sir Hilary listed several steps that should be taken.
“We need more innovation. The tourism plant is a bit tired. Innovation is not there,” he lamented. “The bauxite industry has come to a halt to some extent because it needs to be diversified. We must make things out of aluminum. As we can see in banking and finance we are getting a push-back and our governments are going to have to meet” them and come to grips with the push-back from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD countries, the rich nations club in Paris.”
That’s where the UWI comes in.
“All of these require innovation. They require more research and a more nimble entrepreneurship,” argued the scholar who has written on everything from slavery, colonialism, and independence to cricket and education. “This is the stage where the University can come in.
Sir Hilary, in New York for talks with administrators of the State University of New York (SUNY), the City University of New York, and private tertiary educational institutions, said that the UWI’s input was urgently needed now.
“We need an edge and that edge requires more research, more innovation, more diversification,” insisted Sir Hilary. “The time is right for the UWI to intervene to participate in industry around these issues. They are about knowledge and how you apply knowledge to innovation.”
What makes action so important is that the issues have surfaced at a time of economic decline, and the UWI stands ready.
“This is a moment that is cut out for us, especially now that there is a recession and industry is struggling and they need help,” he said. “This is a time when we at the University must say ‘try research here, try innovation here’. And that’s why the UWI-China institute comes in. It is a response to this moment. It’s where we can take science and technology and the research around technology and science to apply to industry,” he went on. “This is our time for the University to shine.”
Also timely and crucial is the UWI-State University of New York Institute that’s being created in the City at the behest of Carl McCall, chairman of SUNY’s board of trustees and Sir Hilary. It also explaines why the UWI’s global reach was so vital to the region’s economic expansion and its future.
“After a year we have finally signed the agreement to establish the first of these institutes. The UWI has partnered with the Global Institute for Software Technology in China and we have created a new university between the two of us which we would jointly own and it is called the UWI-China Institute for Software Technology and it was formally launched in Barbados and Jamaica,” he pointed out.
“We have taken the first cohort of students in September to do a range of bachelor programmes in Chinese software technologies, softward engineering and information technology management. It will create in the Caribbean an entirely new generation.”
The impact of the institute on the Caribbean can be greater than that in Intel, the United States electronic giant when it had a plant in Barbados decades ago. Located in the heart of Bridgetown in a property owned by Sagicor but leased to the UWI for several decades, the institute is well-placed to help transfer the technology footprint of not only Barbados but the rest of the Eastern Caribbean.