In conversation with Dr Thulani Dlamini: Putting the “i” in “CSIR”

October 31st, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

Earlier this year, the CSIR announced a programme to put a greater focus on industry and industrial development. For my last “In conversation with” that I am authoring as features editor, I decided to meet with the CEO of the CSIR, Dr Thulani Dlamini and have a conversation about bolding the I in CSIR.

Dr Thulani Dlamini, CEO, CSIR.

“While we are doing ground-breaking scientific research, we perhaps have not invested enough in industrial research or have been doing research that does not directly translate to industrial development. Interrogating our mandate, we saw this as a shortcoming and that transforming our organisation in terms of our focus on industrial development is an important priority.”

Dr Dlamini was adamant that this stronger focus on industrial development will not diminish the scientific research. “Scientific research will always remain an important focus but with more emphasis on research that will lead to industrial development. We do not undertake scientific research for the sake of science, but to use our scientific endeavour to create a capable state, to contribute to societal development and drive industrial development in South Africa. We have embarked earlier this year on a major transformation and a cultural change in terms of who we are, and how we engage with partners in the enterprise sector.”

“In this transformation, we have placed strong focus on business development and commercialisation. We have created dedicated capacity in the CSIR to drive this. Business development ensures that there is alignment in what we do and what our stakeholders in business and government require. Commercialisation is about how we monetise the intellectual property that we have developed. We are now positioning ourselves to take commercialisation all the way to a point where research is translated into a products or services that are ready to go into market, working with our partners. We did not do this in the past and tended to stop at an early stage of technology development. A good example of why it is necessary to go right up to the level of commercialisation was the development of Lithium Metal Oxide which created a whole new line of battery development. Had we taken it to full commercialisation stage, it would have earned a lot of revenue for South Africa, clearly a missed opportunity.”

“For us to make the most impact we are focussing on: next generation health, chemicals, advanced agriculture and food, manufacturing, mining, defence and security, smart mobility, smart places and next generation institutions and enterprises. The way we have structured these focus areas speak very clearly to industry and government. One of the comments we have received from industry stakeholders is that they are saying to us ‘we don’t understand you’; ‘we don’t understand who you are’; ‘we don’t see ourselves in who you are’; ‘you are too academic for us’. We are trying to bring ourselves closer to industry but also keeping our strong research focus.”

It is so often said that one of the main stumbling blocks for economic development in South Africa is restrictive legislation, regulations that are unfriendly and hamper rather than promote business development. Dr Dlamini agrees that this is a major stumbling block. He said that even as a state institution, the CSIR experiences this. “One of the problems is related to national treasury regulations that make it difficult for the CSIR to do work with other government departments. We have projects worth R700-million, which we cannot execute because they have to go through on open tender. This is not always practical in government to government projects such as work we did with the Department of Home Affairs in the development of the specification for the South African Smart ID card. Working with the department, CSIR researchers developed the new ID card including the seven security features. The production of the card was then placed on open tender.”

It was inevitable that our conversation drifted to the new buzz word “4IR”, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “the remedy for all South Africa’s economic problems!” Given our massive unemployment how can we bring the two together? Dr Dlamini said we should be careful not to see 4IR as the panacea. “We are a developing country with an economy that is still very labour intensive; we must make the transition in a responsible way. Joblessness is a real issue that demands our focus. Our approach to 4IR is that it must be approached with sensitivity but having said that, we cannot be left behind. South Africa’s transition into the digital and automation age must be selective, for example government services can be digitised and applications done electronically but at the same time people in the back office need to be reskilled and trained to meet the new requirements. This whole process can lead to the creation of more new job opportunities and freeing people from spending time in long ques to get services and employing their time more productively.”

In the 4IR discussion one cannot ignore education. The CSIR has introduced a graduate in training programme to bridge the gap between tertiary education training and the place of work. Industry needs to follow this initiative and step up their intern training programme. Dr Dlamini said, “we can assist industry in bridging this gap; we have the platform.”

What has the CSIR achieved in the past nine months of its transformation? “We are making very good progress in the implementation of the new strategy. However we are also mindful of the fact that this is a journey. One of the important aspects of transformation and perhaps also the most difficult one is culture change. Culture is derived from our values and behaviour. Our values are ‘excellence, celebrate people, personify integrity, and foster collaboration‘. It is foremost in our minds. Given the size of our staff, we employ 2300 persons of which 1600 are scientist, I believe we are well on track. In addition, we have created an industry advisory panel to bring us closer to industry.”

Having been voted the best employer in South Africa says much about their transformation success! Dr Dlamini and his CSIR team have a tough, but also exciting time ahead. With a sizable IP in hand and the focs on industry and commercialisation, they are an organisation to watch.

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