Why the UAE is tailoring its tech strategy around the young

Introducing young people to the scientific method is one of the best investments a country can make

FILE - In this March 27, 2021 file photo a laboratory worker simulates the workflow in a cleanroom of the BioNTech Corona vaccine production in Marburg, Germany, during a media day. Germany's health minister Jens Spahn says today the country has now given a first coronavirus vaccine shot to more than half of its population. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, file)
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In 2019, at the age of 16, Greta Thunberg became the youngest person ever to be named TIME's "Person of the Year" for her role in challenging world leaders to take immediate action on climate change. In the hope of inspiring diversity and youth empowerment, last year's TIME has upped the game and announced its first "Kid of Year". The first recipient of this recognition was 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao. Although she is not old enough to drive a car, the teenager has already racked up several notable technological achievements. She has developed a tool for early diagnosis of opioid addiction, has invented a device that can measure the lead content in drinking water and has launched an app that uses artificial intelligence to detect cyberbullying.

The stories of both Greta and Gitanjali remind us something that we already knew – that young people wield tremendous influence in today’s society, and that they are not averse to using that influence to shape a world that matches their visions.

This got me thinking about future generations here in our region and the platforms on which they can rise and shine. While younger people in the Middle East may be more concerned about global issues such as the climate crisis, diseases or cyberbullying, they may not have the opportunity to effectively engage with these issues.

When we established the Advanced Technology Research Council in Abu Dhabi, we wanted to create a vibrant ecosystem that would shape research and development for transformative technology outcomes. A cornerstone of this effort is the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), where we welcome world-renowned scientists and researchers, as well as our nation’s youth to foster and advance their interest and passion in scientific research and innovation.

Technology can help our young people play a role in solving the most pressing problems of our age. What’s more, young people believe that the key to a better tomorrow actually lies within technology. According to recent research from Samsung, 90 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds believe that technology is key to achieving a more inclusive, fair and sustainable society. This could not be more accurate.

Technology has disrupted almost every sector responsible for economic development, and for the future-focused sectors that will drive the economy of tomorrow, we need the future-focused minds of the young. I believe strongly that it is our duty to help future generations grow and develop and, most importantly, pursue their passions. Therefore, we must ensure that we create a talent pool of fresh and creative minds to secure a prosperous future for our nation and the world at large. To achieve this priority, we have begun scouting for UAE national talent.

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Flying taxis and ferries could be the norm soon. AFP
Technology can help young people solve the most pressing problems of our age

Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Office, and Chairman of the Board of Advanced Technology Research Council, has said our progressive NexTech programme has three core initiatives. These are an outreach and engagement drive to inspire our youth, a rigorous talent scouting initiative in which exceptional UAE talent will be fast-tracked or supported into R&D careers, and an empowerment initiative, where selected Emirati talent will be directed to support TII’s proprietary or collaborative research projects.

And while the NexTech programme is endeavouring to incubate UAE national talent with creative and scientific interests, we already have some extraordinary young people from the UAE and beyond engaged in breakthrough research across TII’s seven initial dedicated research centres, which are quantum, autonomous robotics, cryptography, advanced materials, digital security, directed energy and secure systems. Spanning diverse backgrounds and nationalities, our labs are a melting pot of brilliant scientific and research talent, offering the perfect environment for young people to play an active role in innovations that seek to address global issues through R&D.

We are seeking to shape a research ecosystem in Abu Dhabi and the UAE that brings together public and private sector stakeholders. TII has partnered with the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence to establish a collaborative framework to enable joint fundamental and applied research in AI. TII has also signed a research partnership agreement with Virgin Hyperloop to advance the transport and logistics sector of the future. ASPIRE, the project management pillar of the Advanced Technology Research Council, has collaborated with the XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition to address the food security crisis by encouraging young innovators and scientists to work together. Schemes such as these bolster the local R&D ecosystem.

epa09284775 A Filipino informal settler living on a makeshift shelter is seen along the Manila Bay, Philippines, 11 June 2021 (issued 19 June 2021). According to a report published in the Science Advances journal, rivers in the Philippines contribute tons of plastic waste which are funneled through Manila Bay to the world's oceans annually.  EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG
Young people have been instrumental in raising awareness about climate change. EPA

More recently, as the entity responsible for defining Abu Dhabi’s research strategy across academia and industry, ATRC will support the UAE’s Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology’s “Operation 300bn”, which aims to boost the country’s industrial sector through projects like the Electromagnetic Compatibility Lab that TII recently unveiled to support our local manufacturing. In addition, the NexTech programme, in partnership with the UAE Ministry of Education, Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge and local universities, conducted an outreach and engagement drive targeting young scientific and advanced technology talent.

As a nation with a relatively young population, the UAE has always placed trust in Emirati youth and their creative ideas. Our Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, once said that “a country’s greatest investment lies in building generations of educated and knowledgeable youth”. Our young people are seen as the drivers of the future, catalysts of enterprise and innovation and the pioneers of tomorrow. Their role in the economic development of the country could not be more important.

We are extremely fortunate to live in a country like the UAE, which is so invested in promoting science and young scientists. Two inspiring examples come to mind. The first is Alia Al Mansoori, who, at the age of 16, was appointed a research fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi campus. The second is of young Emirati Adeeb Al Blooshi, who CNN listed as one of the world’s eight most impressive young medical pioneers. I know there are many more out there and this is my invitation to them to come forward and claim their chance to shape history. You might well have an innovative solution to some of our world’s age-old problems.

Faisal Al Bannai is secretary general of the Advanced Technology Research Council and chief executive of Edge