The value of ideas

2019-01-23 06:00

WHAT is the value of an idea when that idea is for Coca-Cola, a ubiquitous, perennial and trusted brand for some 133 years?

Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Google all started out as ideas. New York University recently conducted a study to find out how new ideas and innovations, and rewarding people who initiate them, can create sustainable economic growth.

They challenged economists to look at creativity, curiosity and freedom of thought as platforms to jump-start economic development and job creation through innovation, technology and invention. There are countless ideas out there waiting to be discovered. These are drivers of job creation and long-term sustainable growth.

One person discovers an idea and myriad others use it, to live better, work better and relate to one another better, while giving due regard to the environment and all the while creating jobs, driving revenue generation and reducing inequality. Young, brilliant and vibrant minds have this opportunity to introduce groundbreaking ideas to grant safe passage for economies through the next 100 years and more.

Economics Professor Paul Romer headed the study at New York University. Job creation failure is a crisis in so many developing economies. He said: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Romer shared the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics for this groundbreaking work.

Google started as an idea and today employs over 80 000 people and continues to grow. Jack Ma’s Alibaba started as an idea and today employs over 70 000 people and still grows. Toyota started as an idea and today employs close to half a million employees. Mercedez Benz, which had humble beginnings, is now a powerful global brand, creating and sustaining millions of jobs. These success stories emanated from ideas, and continue to have a global footprint of job creation, brand development and revenue generation.

Ideas do not develop without a conducive environment. The South African landscape has been characterised for too long by corporates reaping astounding profits while leaving the scraps for the locals. The mindless accumulation of wealth at all cost continues while the communities at grass roots do not have a say in their development. In this, there are gaps, which are opportunities for brilliant, young minds to come up with ideas and innovations to drive their own job creation and development.

Parallel to this, they need to develop brands locally and consolidate these brands to develop a regional and global footprint. All global brands started in this manner. Young, brilliant and innovative minds cannot develop when in 2018 half of those who were unemployed had lower than a matric qualification. Tertiary education, and largely a technical tertiary education, is the key. We can only keep growing jobs if we produce local and buy local. Once we buy foreign goods, we export our jobs. Young and brilliant minds need to generate ideas in this regard and quickly.

The Mo Ibrahim Index of Governance recently warned that South Africa’s population will double by 2050 and 60% of this will be under 25. This is too high a growth rate by any comparison. It goes further to articulate that 27% of the countries in Africa have a declining level of education quality, intensity and viability, and South Africa is well into this bracket of despair. On any given working day, at least 15% of the workforce is absent, which equates to a 17% drop in revenue. This is a definite gap and opportunity for young and bright innovators to design ideas in terms of productivity, governance and management.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman said that greater profits emanate from providing a better product for consumers, which increases profit, which attracts better talent, which in turn creates even better products, which increases revenue and profits as well as creating more jobs. He said that the real enemy is not the exploitation of workers or consumers, but the short-term horizons of many corporates, ie. increasing profits to favour the executive and shareholders while consumers and workers languish. The best approach is to embrace a model where shareholders, executives, workers and consumers benefit. Young, bright minds must come up with management frameworks to maximise job creation and sustain businesses in the long term. What is the value of an idea?

• Rajen Singh is communications deputy director in the KZN provincial government but writes in his personal capacity.

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