What we can learn from the innovation scene in Japan

Japan is a hub of innovation, and offers some lessons for the Middle East on what that requires.

In the year 1999, at the age of 14, I visited what I felt was the closest thing we have on earth to an alien culture: Japan. The trip was an eye-opener, and to witness a culture so different to the western culture I grew up in gave me a new dimension to my thinking.

The whole trip was spent trying to figure out how things work and getting wildly amused by genius and often bizarre inventions. From robot pets to high-speed bullet trains, it was clear that somehow this island chain in the Pacific Ocean has managed to foster a culture of innovation that was bursting with new inventions and spearheading its economy ahead of the rest of the world (for a while, at least).

So how are we positioned as an innovation hub in the Middle East? Well, innovation surely exists, but the dynamic is hugely different to my example of Japan in the ’90s. It could be argued that government innovation is close to the global forefront in some Arabian Gulf states, with Dubai adopting some of the most seemingly progressive technologies and concepts to further Government operations. The first real life Robocop will be patrolling the streets of Dubai from this month and drone taxis will be launched in the summer this year. These are technologies we may have dreamed of when we were younger but now seem to be coming to life. So is this a sign that the Middle East is an innovation hub?

If we turn to the private sector the number of Middle East-born innovators who have dominated the global market is seemingly scarce. If we take gauge of the technologies we consume on a daily basis from our phones, cars and electronics, none of them are home-grown innovations. What distinguishes this from my example of Japan was that almost all of the genius innovations coming from Japan emerged from the private sector.

So what is the government’s role in innovation? Is it to set the example and be the innovation leader in society? Or to foster an environment for the private sector to innovate? The idealistic answer to this is both, but it has been proven time and again that innovation is better executed by the private sector.

The dynamics that supported Japan’s business environment to become an innovation hub are multifaceted, yet some core components could be adapted to the Gulf market.

The first step for any innovation hub is a culture of critical thinking, questioning and rewarding creative reasoning. For this to be present in a business means it has to transcend in all aspects of our lives. Middle Eastern states have historically not been places that reward those that challenge the status quo and cultural sensitivities hinder this. It may take time before individual thinking becomes the norm.

One of the things that struck me about Japan was that almost anything could make it to the marketplace. In a shop I found a packet of chips that came with pincers to eat your chips without getting your hands dirty, an innovation that clearly didn’t take off. The marketplace is the ultimate decider of whether something has commercial value, so it’s imperative that there are low barriers to entry for products to face the ultimate test. The generally high license fees for a new business and the lack of support for local suppliers needs to be addressed more radically in the Middle East.

Tying into this concept is government involvement in supporting risk taking. Of course part of this is the cultural acceptance of risk, which governments have some, but limited ability to change quickly. However what can be addressed relatively quickly is lowering the stakes for entrepreneurs so that the penalties for failure are less. There needs to be a support system for those that try and fail, as at present it even costs you money to close a business, another penalty for failure. The treatment of debt defaults needs to also be revised so that the penalties are contained to allow people to still want to take risks.

The support for R&D projects and intellectual protection are also key factors to foster private sector innovation. Though I feel the most important impact the a government could have is the acknowledgement that it is an enabler of innovation rather than the innovator itself.

Paris Norriss is an entrepreneur and partner in Coba Education, which provides educators to schools and institutes


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Published: May 18, 2017 04:00 AM


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