UCT law academics lead a new global innovation research project

03 July 2023 | Story Supplied. Photo iStock. Read time 4 min.
SDG 3 is the focus of a newly funded project, Open AIR, led by researchers from UCT’s Faculty of Law.
SDG 3 is the focus of a newly funded project, Open AIR, led by researchers from UCT’s Faculty of Law.

“Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being at all ages is essential to sustainable development” – this is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3. This goal, along with other SDGs, is the focus of a newly funded collaborative Open AIR research project which has just been awarded significant support by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of US$2 million to investigate the regulatory environments for innovation in healthcare, data governance, food security, and green technologies.

Titled “Regulation for Innovation: Inclusive and Sustainable Knowledge Governance in Lower-income Countries”, the project runs for three years from March 2023 to June 2026. Open AIR’s research has already confirmed that current regulatory systems – including intellectual property (IP) laws – often inhibit innovation and create and sustain severe access inequalities, eg, with regards to life-saving drugs and vaccines. This new research project seeks to improve regulatory systems across Africa and provide solutions to achieving several SDGs, such as better access to vaccines and essential medicines; the development and deployment of clean technologies for environmental sustainability; digital and data-driven agriculture for food security; and equitable access to research materials for quality education.

Development of new knowledge

Operating out of six research hubs across the continent and in Canada, Open AIR includes the IP Unit and the SARChI Chair of Intellectual Property, Innovation and Development at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Law. Professor Caroline Ncube, holder of this SARChI Chair, and Associate Professor Tobias Schonwetter, the director of the faculty’s IP Unit and iNtaka Centre for Law & Technology, were both thrilled at the news of the grant.

“This grant will contribute significantly to the development of new knowledge, derived from research into practice in Africa. With the African Continental Free Trade Area including 55 countries, with a combined gross domestic product of US$3.4 trillion, it is critical that we develop and champion policy options and directions that support rather than stifle innovation, and that encourage sharing of and access to this innovation,” said Professor Ncube.


“The grant is substantial and will ensure that we are able to work in truly collaborative ways.”

Open AIR is a unique network of researchers spread primarily across 22 African countries and Canada. The way Open AIR’s work is structured gives rise to a “network of networks” that can carry on and further develop the vision of creating a world where the benefits of knowledge and innovation are distributed equitably and inclusively. With extensive expertise across a range of inter-related research fields, the Open AIR network’s primary goal is to develop new insights into the core problem at the heart of IP and innovation policy development – that is the balance between control over and access to knowledge; how to reconcile tensions between appropriation and access, excluding and sharing; and competing and collaborating. Its Africa-centred research draws attention to the importance and sensitivity of context in the making of IP and knowledge governance policy in this field. It is Open AIR’s foundational principle that improved IP policies and practices can lead to greater innovation for the benefit of growing numbers of people in both developing and developed countries.

Associate Professor Schonwetter said: “The grant is substantial and will ensure that we are able to work in truly collaborative ways, pulling in knowledge about thinking and practice from across the continent, and engaging our partners in developing comparative frameworks for how innovation is regulated and encouraged in developing and developed economies.”

Schonwetter and Professor Jeremy de Beer (University of Ottawa) serve as co-leads on this new grant. Open AIR’s new project will investigate the regulation of innovation, on the basis that improved regulatory systems will remove barriers that inhibit innovation in lower-income countries, and that this will ultimately inform the generation of viable solutions to a wide range of innovation, development, and economic challenges.

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