Abu Dhabi's social innovation underpins sustainable development

Innovative initiatives will be key to developing a more inclusive society

FG81FD View of new business district at Abu Dhabi Global Market square (ADGM) on Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates. Alamy
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In the midst of the phenomenal economic and industrial disruptions and development that the world has witnessed in recent years, more and more people have been reflecting on how we might translate the progress and prosperity we have achieved into greater human happiness.

Polymaths such as Aristotle pointed out millennia ago that to reap the full benefit of material gain, we should harness it to promote social justice, harmony and happiness.

This explains why the UAE has put the mental well-being of its peoples at the heart of its development strategy, having instituted a happiness index to measure individual satisfaction levels more accurately, and a National Programme for Happiness to promote the virtues of a positive lifestyle in the community.

To ensure that we continue to flourish as a nation, we will need to create a more inclusive society through innovative initiatives

The UAE’s performance in this respect has achieved a global profile through the World Happiness Report 2020, where the country maintained its lead in the Arab world for the sixth consecutive year, as well as an advanced position worldwide that surpassing many developed countries and economies.

To take other examples, the reason for Finland’s prosperity is similar to the UAE’s, as is evident from the report where it ranked first for the third consecutive year.

Likewise, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan lays a similar emphasis on the happiness quotient, promoting Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product and productivity. By adopting this philosophy, Bhutan has considerably improved its economic, environmental, social and governance rankings over the past four decades.

Bhutan - Tiger's Nest monastery  (Kipat Wilson for The National) Travel Story PHOTOS SUBMITTED ON SPECULATION

Nevertheless, it is an arduous task to translate the Aristotelian idea into reality, especially because of the increasingly complex nature of social challenges. These require out-of-the-box thinking and innovative solutions that can only be developed through engagement and collaborations among individuals, civil society and both private and public entities.

Luckily, we have all the resources we need to leverage partnership to ensure a dignified life for all. This aim requires a systematic and innovative approach in our effort, a realisation that led to the establishment of the Department of Community Development (DCD) in Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a dedicated Social Innovation Division.

That’s not all. In 2019, Ma’an was established with the aim of charting the future policies and principles of societal development at all levels through the amplification of the dialogue between the social innovation and sustainable development communities. By acting as a leader and nexus for public, private and "third" sector-level social enterprise, Ma’an is driving startups, social innovation hubs, accelerators, community organisations, and awareness campaigns to deliver solutions to pressing challenges through five interrelated pillars: the Ma’an Social Incubator (MSI), Social Contracting, Community Engagement, the Social Investment Fund and Outreach Management.

Women spend time by the Corniche, Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Ever since, the organisation has been working to develop various innovative tools to promote shared values, responsibility and commitment across all segments of society with the aim of creating collaborative communities. One of them is the Social Impact Bond (SIB), an innovative investment model that involves partnerships between the government, social service providers and social investors to close identified gaps in society.

This type of bond is relatively new for the Gulf region and was first introduced in Abu Dhabi in 2020 with the launch of "Atmah", a venture designed to provide education, vocational training and employment support to a cohort of students with cognitive impairments. Atmah was unique in the sense that it was the world’s first SIB to focus on helping people of determination to find employment. Based on proactive private and third sector approaches, this model not only reduced financial risk for the government, but it also enhanced the prospect of success for broader social programmes by virtue of it being a collaborative endeavour.

The success of Atmah underscored the enormous potential of social contracting that has turned Abu Dhabi into a testbed for other innovative and cooperative initiatives, such as the Maker Space and Action for Happiness. While the former is a collaborative initiative designed to bring together innovators, educators, youth, and the elderly in an effort to ensure all-round wellbeing of juveniles and senior citizens, the Maker Space and Action for Happiness is designed to promote an understanding of subjective wellbeing NGO.

In addition, Ma’an’s "Ghaya" financial literacy programme has enabled community members to benefit from a 12-week-long tailored programme that improves financial knowledge and management, explains investment options and decisions, and encourages financial independence and self-confidence. Drawing on financial collaboration with major financial entities such as the Abu Dhabi Global Market, the London Institute of Banking and Finance (LIBF), the Abu Dhabi Social Support Authority, and the UAE Banks Federation, Ghaya offers a personalised experience to meet the needs of Abu Dhabi residents.

The Social Incubator also demonstrates the positive social effects on creating a supportive, creative environment for local entrepreneurs to grow and sustain start-ups that reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities. The MSI's seventh cohort recently graduated having developed a range of innovative applications to address the theme of “Entrepreneurship for Social Good” – in particular, Green Cities and the Circular Economy & Sustainable Transport – with the help of stakeholders, industry leaders and investors

The reason for success of these wide-ranging and creative collaborations is largely due to their success in creating ways for investors to give back to the community and for companies to fulfil their social responsibilities.

To ensure that we continue to flourish as a nation, we will need to create a more inclusive society through innovative initiatives. The success of our endeavour so far gives us hope that we will be able to harness co-operation to establish a model state where the fruits of prosperity are shared equally by all. This is crucial, because the quest for sustainable development is intimately linked with the quest for happiness.

Published: August 23, 2022, 9:00 AM