A radically different road

Beyond creating novel technologies, innovation has the potential to shape world economies. Which sector gaps are being filled? Are Silicon Valley-style hubs needed? Who are the faces of disruption? Afshin Molavi introduces our special feature on innovation

To understand the sheer power of innovation, consider the smartphone. In 2007, when Apple launched its iPhone, smartphones were hardly a global phenomenon. Today, some two billion people have the power of a supercomputer in their pockets, within just half a generation.

There is no precedent for such high-speed global penetration of a single product. Now, let’s reflect on where this smartphone was assembled, likely in China. In 1979, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began to step towards a market economy, what followed was a stampede of entrepreneurial energy high-growth, state-led development and an unleashing of Chinese economic activity that has lifted some 300 million people out of poverty.

The Chinese consumer is now the most important smartphone buyer in the world, topping 500 million, and the country’s middle-class consumer is one of the most important in the world for myriad industries. We are also on the cusp of a Chinese technology entrepren-eurial renaissance, led by companies such as Alibaba, smartphone maker Xiaomi and search engine Baidu, all in less than two generations.

Next, consider how that phone made its way to the shelves of the world’s stores – likely, from inside a ship container. The container may well be the most unglamorous and unheralded life-transforming innovation. Some US$4tn of world trade travels aboard containers headed to ports in more than 200 countries, providing lifesaving medical devices and the bric-a-brac of consumerist globalisation. The container was first conceived in 1956.

None of the above would have been possible without the vital trinity of innovators who dreamed, entrepren-eurs who executed (including the venture capitalists) and governments that enabled. This trifecta is generally present in nations, cities or even districts that understand that the secret of innovation is critical masses of talented people with access to risk capital and an enabling environment.
The success of Google is a good example of this trifecta.

When two graduate students at Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, conceived of the search engine in the 1990s, they stood on the shoulders of a US government that had invested hundreds of billions of dollars in development that essentially created the internet; the thousands of enthusiasts, businesses and innovators that embraced the web and populated it with content; the technology entrepreneurs and companies already changing the world, from Microsoft to Apple; and the investors willing to invest risk capital on two guys in a garage with a dream. Page and Brin swam in an ecosystem that nourished innovators.

Somewhere in Kenya, Karachi or Calcutta, Amman, Aswan or Abu Dhabi, is a dreamer who is also too busy building a dream to contemplate hypotheticals

But they were not mere academic dreamers. They were also business-savvy executors. In a wide-ranging discussion on innovation that I moderated earlier this year, in what has become an annual Dubai majlis that tackles a pressing global theme, international and regional panellists agreed that Dubai has always been a city of ‘PhDos’ – a city that dreamed big, and acted on those dreams, both in the public and private sectors. It is also emerging as a city of ‘PhDs’ – a knowledge hub that attracts some of the region’s – and the world’s – leading minds to innovate.

It was also noted that a country’s innovation capability is becoming a new measure of wealth, on a par with existing economic indicators such as GDP. The language may not yet be there to describe it, but it is surely a matter of time before a more formal value is attached to metrics such as talent, resource and opportunity.

It is apt, then, that the UAE has declared 2015 the Year of Innovation, and has backed the declaration with a series of programmes to bolster the innovation ecosystem. Last year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, announced a National Innovation Strategy to make the country one of the most innovative nations worldwide in seven years’ time, with a focus on renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space.

Additionally, the government has put its weight behind celebrating innovators and entrepreneurs – a key piece of the inspiration ecosystem. As entrepreneurship and start-up conferences proliferate and entrepreneurs become celebrities, the innovator has taken on a new glamour. But as one entrepreneur told Chris Schroeder, author of Startup Rising, an account of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, “we go from a sense of total euphoria to abject failure in the same day, every day”.

That is the ultimate lesson of entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s a long, hard, often lonely road, with extraordinary highs and lows. And yet more and more people are willing to brave the journey, increasingly from the so-called Global South, where the next transformation will come from the entrepreneurs who understand their local markets, backed by the power of supercomputers in their back pockets and other radical innovations.

So, could the next Steve Jobs come from the Arab world or Global South? Perhaps it’s the wrong question. Steve Jobs benefited from living in Silicon Valley, still the best place for a technology entrepreneur in the world.

But he would have had little time for such hypotheticals. He was too busy executing a dream. Somewhere in Kenya, Karachi or Calcutta, Amman, Aswan or Abu Dhabi, is a dreamer who is also too busy building a dream to contemplate hypotheticals.