Innovation and the Arab World


Ever wonder how the minds of disruptive innovators tick? How their companies work and how they not only breed disruptive ideas but also find ways to bring those disruptive innovations to life with products that change the world?

I have. I confess that I do sometimes with envy, but more often with a lot of reverence and admiration. Celebrating those ideas and successes hold incredible amounts of inspiration for me which help me to continue to look for keys to unlock more of my own innovations and through them also contribute to changing the world too.

But how different are those world-changers are from “normal” people?

According to “The Innovator’s DNA”, a book whose authors spent more than eight years conducting interviews with disruptive innovators and researching the companies they created, found that

“Five primary discovery skills—skills that compose what we call the innovator’s DNA—surfaced from our conversations. We found that innovators “Think Different,” to use a well-known Apple slogan. Their minds excel at linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas (we call this cognitive skill “associational thinking” or “associating”). But to think different, innovators had to “act different.” All were questioners, frequently asking questions that punctured the status quo. Some observed the world with intensity beyond the ordinary. Others networked with the most diverse people on the face of the earth. Still others placed experimentation at the center of their innovative activity.”

Excerpt From: Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen & Clayton M. Christensen. “The Innovator’s DNA.” iBooks.

Questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting are the important activities which trigger the necessary associative thinking to deliver that new product, business, service or process. Questioning, in particular, the authors observed, is a way of life for innovators and not just a trendy intellectual exercise. Further, innovative entrepreneurs dive deeper into the details to understand the “problem” more fully, and at the same time, they have the capacity to see how those details fit while flying high to look at the bigger picture. They have acute associative observational skills too. They see how others have approached problems and connect threads which are evidently unconnected. They create cross-discipline associations that help them resolve issues.

To be able to innovate, though, an environment conducive to innovation must be present whose chief facet are safe spaces allowing innovators to go against the status quo without fear, and one in which collaboration allows for everyone to thrive. The authors observed that some countries and cultures were more incubative to innovations than others. I found this discovery fascinating.

This is one reason that individuals who grow up in societies that promote community versus individualism and hierarchy over merit—such as Japan, China, Korea, and many Arab nations—are less likely to creatively challenge the status quo and turn out innovations (or win Nobel prizes). To be sure, many innovators in our study seemed genetically gifted. But more importantly, they often described how they acquired innovation skills from role models who made it “safe” as well as exciting to discover new ways of doing things.

From my own personal observations and experiences, I agree with their assessment. The environment in our countries simply does not provide the fertile grounds required for innovation, let alone one that would promote and engender disruptive innovation.

To survive – let alone thrive, the Middle East must inherently change its strategic objectives to allow innovation immediately. Urgently. Why the urgency? Well, without innovation there will be no industry, without industry there will be no economic growth, without economic growth there will be no jobs, without jobs there will be further political turmoil and chaos will rule the day. One that will make the mass migration the world is experiencing now minuscule in comparison.

Our economies are almost totally dependant on oil. There is no single Arab country that has a sufficiently diversified economy. Sure we have glitzy cities with tall buildings and shiny malls, but those are simple veneers to entrenched problems that will disintegrate when our main source of income is depleted. And that, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is not very long in coming:

There are an estimated 1.3 trillion barrels of proven oil reserve left in the world’s major fields, which at present rates of consumption will be sufficient to last 40 years.

By 2040, production levels may be down to 15 million barrels per day – around 20% of what we currently consume. It is likely by then that the world’s population will be twice as large, and more of it industrialised (and therefore oil dependent).

Forty years to the Arab Armageddon. Hardly sufficient for the required U-turn in our political, cultural and educational systems to save us from chaotic situations that will, in hindsight, make what the Arab world is experiencing now in wars and enforced migrations mere bad dreams. Without this much required intrinsic change in strategic direction to one that is truly inclusive, democratic and one that respects human rights above all other considerations, we are truly doomed.

What I find quite sad and symptomatic of our dire situation, is that culturally, we have elevated the denigration of innovations to an art form. We superficially find causes to complain about what we perceive as deficiencies in innovative products rather than rise to the challenge and take the first step in innovative thinking by at least appreciating innovations and celebrating in their success and use those emotions as inspirations to create our own, or at least emulate those products and services and attempt to improve them and customise them to our own needs. The relationship of innovation and the Arab world must be fixed.

However, with this antagonistic attitude to innovation, one which I fervently believe to have been inculcated through the trifecta of despicably inadequate education which is hostile to innovation, a culture that rewards mediocrity for excellence and repressive regimes more enamoured with personal and tribal short-term gain than ones that far-sightedly invest in their communities, societies and ultimately nations to thrive together and become effective in making a dent in the universe.