Necessity is the mother of invention. This saying, often attributed to Plato, is finding a home in Abu Dhabi. The need to prepare for a post-oil future by diversifying the economy is giving way to an emerging class of thinkers and doers in the emirate. Entrepreneurs, doctoral candidates, engineers, investors and many others are reinventing Abu Dhabi's future, bringing to bear the capital’s economic transformation – and they got a major boost this week.
Abu Dhabi announced on Tuesday the launch of a groundbreaking new branch of government focused on research and development as well as a homegrown artificial intelligence joint venture with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).
The newly formed Abu Dhabi Research and Development Authority is tasked with spurring inventions that will tackle Earth's most pressing challenges. Under the emirate's Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), five virtual research institutes will focus on biotechnology, food security, sustainability, artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, and advanced materials.
The centres will bring together industries, universities and research institutes on projects that will shape the future of the country. The new authority will distribute academic funds to incentivise participation and is underpinned by Ghadan 21, a Dh50 billion stimulus package.
As Sara Musallam, the chairwoman of Adek, said: "We need to be inventors and not just consumers.”
Her department is now in pursuit of those inventors – an exciting step change for a department once focused singularly on education.
Meanwhile at Adipec, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas conferences held annually in Abu Dhabi, Adnoc signed an agreement with UAE-based AI company, Group 42, to form a joint venture to develop artificially intelligent products for the energy sector.
Through the new company, Adnoc will leverage G42's processing power to turn "petabytes of archival data" into new systems that will help Adnoc work more efficiently. This is a “proactive approach”, according to Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Adnoc Group chief executive and UAE Minister of State – and it is very proactive indeed.
As the company confronts the opportunities and challenges the digital age has brought, it is wise to partner with a homegrown venture to pursue an AI strategy. Sales from AI and cloud computing drove growth for big tech this year, from Amazon to Microsoft. By partnering with an AI business, Adnoc will not be beholden to other companies to store, analyse or develop applications for its huge trove of data. Adnoc can also build products that are marketable to other energy companies. By keeping its tech in-house, the energy firm is positioning itself well to compete in an age where data will eventually be a more valuable commodity.
The joint venture also builds on digital transformation work undertaken in 2017, when Adnoc opened two innovation centres, Thamama and Panorama, at its Abu Dhabi headquarters. The two facilities exploit data to drive down costs, with the former generating efficiency savings of up to Dh3.67 billion from 2017 levels and helping to reduce drilling time by 30 per cent. The new AI venture is likely to have a multiplier effect on these outcomes.
Oil remains the lifeblood of the emirate. Adipec is a reminder each year that the UAE is still very much an oil-producing country. But by insisting on innovation at home, Abu Dhabi is ensuring its diversification strategy lifts up everyone – and we are all getting smarter in the process.