Although most Caribbean nations rank highly in UN Development performance indicators, the incidence of persistent poverty, high levels of indebtedness, sluggish growth and high trade deficits is pervasive across the majority of the countries in the region. In Barbados, the last decade saw little to no growth, dangerously low levels of foreign exchange reserves, poor trade performance and contraction in most productive sectors, as well as repeated downgrades of sovereign debt ranking.
Policy space for Government as an enabler to private sector development has been limited and in a severely contracted economy, private sector performance, heavily dependent on the domestic market has been less then optimal.
There is no question that we are in a difficult moment. But that is not the full story. It is also a moment that gives us the opportunity to correct systemic issues and invest in transformation. That is true for our entire region. Out of the ashes of our economic failures of the last decade, new life can be breathed into our local and regional economy through a contemporary holistic visioning of development policy making, rationalization of the impetus required for a modern private sector, and the aggregation into a coherent far-reaching policy apparatus that creates a thriving symbiotic ecosystem. Innovation and entrepreneurship must be central to that policy apparatus which enables private sector led growth and the resultant triumphant re-emergence of the successful Caribbean nation state.
But, globally, private sector led growth requires multiple inputs which are glaringly still challenging our nations: extensive investment in research and development, a resulting culture of innovation and the rapid emergence of entrepreneurial activities that are innovation and technology driven in economies enabled by strong supporting Government policy. Most reports, including those from the IDB and the Global Innovation Rankings, as well as reports on trade performance by entities including the World Trade Organization, cite challenges in the Caribbean in these areas. Our investment in R&D is among the lowest in the world and our innovation levels according to the Global Innovation Index, is significantly below other regions. In terms of innovative entrepreneurship, we are more likely to take existing technology and innovations and adapt them for local use than we are to create new products, services or processes.
Barbados and the Caribbean need to create strong innovation ecosystems that will in the first instance enable transformation of existing firms and, secondly, birth a new class of innovation driven, technology enabled, high-end entrepreneurship that creates new highly competitive outward oriented firms. Strong domestic firm level performance must translate into strong export performance and local and regional firms must reach and sustain competitiveness through constant innovation and transformation as a result of research and development. The University of the West Indies (UWI) is the most obvious conduit through which these objectives can be realized.
We must have a complete ecosystem that is mainstreamed from a transformed education system, all the way through to the domestic and export market buttressed by enabling Government policy. This is that moment.
In developed nations, particularly those which rank highly in both innovation and entrepreneurship, but in particular innovation driven entrepreneurship, universities, technical institutes, research institutes and polytechnics are central to the ecosystem. Research, extensive relationships with industry, investment in partnerships and supporting intellectual property policies which enable and not stifle commercialization are critical to the eco-system. These are the economies that achieve the goal of private sector led economic growth and trade surpluses and not deficits. These economies also find the ideal balance between creative funding mechanisms for innovation and commercialization of ideas and inward attraction of foreign investment.
The University of the West Indies, in recognition of the important role it must play, is aggressively transitioning to an entrepreneurial university driven by innovation. The UWI, across its campuses, possesses a cadre of highly-skilled lecturers and researchers who deliver high-quality programmes and conduct advanced research and innovation. UWI is being positioned to take that further. In 2018, the UWI twinned its leadership of research and graduate studies with innovation and entrepreneurship to ensure that the Institution takes firm leadership of the academic driver fuelling regional private sector led growth. The UWI is developing and delivering courses on entrepreneurship and working closely with industry to develop and commercialize new products and services, generating transformational processes through the production of entrepreneurial and innovative graduates and positioning itself to be the catalyst for the region’s entry into global innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The UWI, the regional research and teaching mecca, must be at the centre not of driving just entrepreneurship but also creating research driven innovation which births innovation driven entrepreneurship which brings new products to market, revolutionizes old products and processes, creates disruption internal to industry and creates direct linkages between industry, academia and the Government to develop a clear corridor that places regional business on the global stage.
The University of the West Indies is ready to take the lead.