The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in Johannesburg, South Africa, last night, 17 April 2023, officially launched the new Wits Innovation Centre (WIC) – a dynamic multidisciplinary hub that enables a space to create, collaborate, and engage in impactful innovation, across disciplines and sectoral boundaries.
The WIC is poised to make significant impact by harnessing the creativity and ingenuity of the University’s rich, diverse community of researchers, academics and students, to solve complex, real-world problems confronting humanity and our planet, such as climate change, global health threats, poverty, and inequality, and developing ethical and sustainable technologies, among others.
The WIC is also building off of a rich historical base of Wits researchers being pioneers in various fields, including the development of radar, the first university in the country to own a mainframe computer, to access a quantum computer, to develop a digital innovation precinct, to discover and describe early pre-human fossils, to host a 5G lab, and to effectively transmit data through light.
Welcome to WITS Innovation Centre
The WIC will play a crucial role in fostering an innovation mindset and culture at Wits to assist and help turn new ideas, innovation and methods arising from research-led, researcher-led and student-led innovation into products, processes and services.
As a starting point, thanks to a generous donation from Wits alumnus and innovator, Dr David Fine, the new Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation has also been established. (Yesterday Dr Fine imparted his wisdom from a lifetime of innovation onto the class of 2022 graduands in the Wits Great Hall, and shared these four lessons.)
The Chair in Innovation is being held by Dr Adam Pantanowitz, iconic biomedical and electrical engineer at Wits. He is also the first Director of the WIC.
An artificial intelligence expert, technologist, and entrepreneur, Pantanowitz is well-known for initiating and leading the first group in the world to connect a human brain live and mobile to the internet in a project called the Brainternet – a term he coined.
“When we look around, we might see our world filled with challenges. We have, however, all of the tools available to us to find solutions. The WIC’s arrival ushers in a new impetus to do so, leveraging the great assets, minds, and tools at our University.
“Wits has always played a leading role in South African society, and can now take a leading role in innovating for societal good. The WIC is a model for how Universities can adapt and change in a fast-changing world to leverage internal assets, partnerships, and most importantly, knowledge creation to help the broader community and impact the world.
The Chair in Innovation brings forth the opportunity to engage in a creative approach to the academic environment, assembling new structures, processes, and ideas to foster the path to getting our innovations out the door,” says Pantanowitz.
Furthermore, the appointment of Letlotlo Phohole, a seasoned technology and innovation management professional, as Senior Programme Manager, will also help establish the WIC as a leading interface to foster collaboration between Wits and industry. Recently the WIC announced the first such collaboration with the establishment of the new Telkom Industry Solutions Lab, a commercial research and development (R&D) facility where multidisciplinary teams from Wits and Telkom will collaborate to research and develop ideas and opportunities that adds value to the business and the broader telecommunications industry.
“Through our Solutions Labs, the Wits Innovation Centre will provide a powerful platform to address industry, community, and societal problems with an entrepreneurial mindset. By involving multiple faculties, disciplines, entrepreneurs, students, and industry partners, we will foster a collaborative environment that promotes cross-pollination of ideas and a diversity of perspectives. This will not only enhance the quality and breadth of innovations but also create a community that encourages experimentation and risk-taking, and instills an entrepreneurial mindset that values agility, resilience, and adaptability,” says Phohole.
According to him, the Solutions Labs may draw inspiration from a variety of design processes and concepts, including systems thinking, IDEO, biomimicry, double diamond, TRIZ, and more.
“This will allow us to explore multiple avenues of problem-solving and leverage the strengths of each approach to create innovative solutions with real-world impact. Through an entrepreneurial mindset and collaboration with researchers, entrepreneurs, SMMEs, and industry partners, we will work towards solving industry, community, and societal problems and creating a better future for all. This multidisciplinary approach will enable us to tackle complex challenges and create solutions that challenge the status quo, disrupt industries, and make a positive impact on society, with a focus on commercialization opportunities for SMEs and industry partners,” says Phohole.
Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy-Vice Chancellor: Research and Innovation, who was recently appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation that advice the government on how to harness and grow innovation, says it is crucial for universities to meet society’s needs by turning knowledge into impactful solutions.
“We must use our knowledge for the advancement of our community, city, country, continent, and the globe to produce both tangible and intangible outputs for the benefit of society, for good.
“It is therefore important that we create an environment that is conducive for innovation to take place and there is a strong correlation between innovation and a willingness to take risks. For universities to develop and grow an innovative mindset, it is essential that risk-taking is supported and encouraged,” says Morris.
Wits University has made a formidable impact on society over the past 100 years and is set to continue advancing society for good through the Wits Strategic Plan on Innovation (2022 – 2026). The University remains a beacon of hope for South Africa, and is well-poised to serve as a catalyst for change in the decades to come.