Interview: Anis Sahbani

Why is innovation important to economic growth?

ANIS SAHBANI: Innovation can take the shape of new or significantly improved products and technologies, new production processes, new ways of delivering goods and services to the market, or novel organisational methods that improve business practices and a firm’s relationship to its environment. In a nutshell, innovation results in higher productivity, job creation and can help raise citizens’ quality of life.

Additionally, the capacity and ability to create economic value has implications at the macroeconomic and microeconomic levels. Specifically, innovation is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage and achieving growth. Resource allocation models that create, diffuse and sustain innovation are paramount to reaping the economic, social and financial benefits of investment in science and technology.

What is the role of the government in fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem?

SAHBANI: In several countries, governments have hoped to replicate the success of Silicon Valley and the growth of what is commonly referred to as entrepreneurial ecosystems. Despite governments making significant investments in such initiatives, the overall success rate in achieving their goals is debatable. Nonetheless, I would still argue that governments have a role of utmost importance in fostering enterprise and innovation. Their responsibility is to manage departments and agencies focused on addressing the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and young enterprises. The administration must have enough legroom to swiftly draw up and implement effective policies. The Start-up Act aims to generate more effective outcomes from the efforts undertaken by the government. The main difference between the Start-up Act in Tunisia and what could exist in other countries comes from the fact that it was written in collaboration with members of civil society to solve concrete problems. Significantly, the Start-up Act allows start-ups to enjoy the same rights as those in developed countries. Indeed, incomes earned in currency can be spent without government authorisation. It is one of the most advanced pieces of legislation in the region and represents a major step forward for Tunisia. The country has clearly demonstrated its ambitions to become a centre for the region in a variety of sectors; however, in order to be a true focal point of innovation, various aspects – including hosting, acceleration, financing legislation and the local market – must first be developed.

How is cooperation between research centres and the private sector evolving to support innovation?

SAHBANI: First, the private sector is most in need of innovation, and is therefore ready to finance it. Second, universities have an intrinsic capability to offer knowledge and resources on innovation with an excellent return on investment for the private sector. In light of this, technology transfers between universities and the private sector are theoretically the best way to link supply and demand for innovation.

In recent years Tunisia has given greater importance to basic research rather than to applied research. Therefore, actual progress in solving practical problems or developing technologies has been limited. More recently, it has come to the attention of the business community and public institutions that more should be done to bolster applied research. As a result, collaboration between the private sector and universities has picked up again. Practical training and internships have been included in syllabuses to improve the innovative capability and productivity of Tunisian graduates as soon as they enter the professional world. Given the temporality of governmental action, in contrast to the speed of action required by innovation, the government should never seek to be an intermediary. Rather, it should confine its role to regulating private investment in university research.