The South African biorefinery innovation system: Role of leverage professionals as catalysts for change

The purpose of this working paper is to advance the understanding and role of leverage professionals as change agents in the uptake of biorefinery technologies and products in South Africa’s broader pulp and paper sector. The focus of most research on systems of innovation, whether national, regional, sectoral or technical is at the contextual (macro) and actor (meso) levels, with little reference to the individuals and their roles as catalysts for change within the innovation system. This paper demonstrates the need to consider in more detail the role of individuals (micro-level) within [technological] innovation system (TIS) theory and policy, and reiterates the importance of social capital to enable sustainable transformations
The paper is informed by in-depth interviews undertaken with over 40 individuals (leverage professionals) who currently operate within the broader pulp and paper (including alien vegetation) sector. As no one framework of analysis or methodology was compatible with the in-depth analysis required, a hybrid approach was adopted by integrating organisational management analysis of team roles (Belbin’s team role classification) and various other human resource workplace types deemed applicable for assessing the role of change agents within an innovation network.

Findings indicate the average age of leverage professionals within the broader South African pulp and paper biorefinery innovation system at 46 years. Most hold co-ordination and management positions within government, industry, academia and civil society organisations. Nearly all have a high-level of education and are predominantly involved in research and development (R&D) and entrepreneurial activities. The predominant roles played by the leverage professionals are co-ordination, resource-investigators (networkers) and specialists, with shapers (challengers) more likely to be situated within civil society organisations. There is a good diversity of strengths across the system, however their activities tend to be disconnected. As such, there are siloed networks of activities within a broader sphere of the biorefinery innovation system.
A detailed classification of individuals operating within the innovation system was developed, drawing on a broad review of research in operations and business management, and to a lesser extent innovation systems theory. Classifications of the individuals interviewed were however, the author’s subjective view, and are therefore indicative of leverage professional team behavioural preferences.

The findings provide the foundations for a better understanding of the current roles individuals are playing in the South African broader pulp and paper biorefinery system, and the challenges they face in trying to elicit change. It also highlights gaps for future improvement of the system, from a social capital perspective, and provides insights for strengthening the effectiveness of a collaborative innovation system in order to increase the uptake of biorefinery technologies and products in the country.

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