For this region to prosper it must embrace change

Aramex’s Fadi Ghandour has transformed logistics and transportation and now champions tech-drive entrepreneurs. Photo: Ramin Talaie / Bloomberg
Aramex’s Fadi Ghandour has transformed logistics and transportation and now champions tech-drive entrepreneurs. Photo: Ramin Talaie / Bloomberg

“Success is never accidental,” Twitter’s Jack Dorsey tweeted last year. Pushing this a notch further in his new book, Zero to One, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel titles a chapter “You are Not a Lottery Ticket”.

Thiel’s book and Dorsey’s assertion counter a line of bravado from the likes of Warren Buffett who has said that he is a “member of the lucky sperm club”. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says that he “was lucky to be born with certain skills”.

Luck versus effort is a vital debate – not only for individuals but also for cities, nations and regions. If merit doesn’t matter, why put forward any effort?

Some countries have abundant commodities and others do not. Geographic distance from rivals, staggering natural resources and vast areas of lightly populated territory were no doubt valuable assets for the US in its early days – but it was Alexander Hamilton’s leadership in creating the conditions for robust manufacturing that moved the young nation away from the vicissitudes of luck and towards a country that made its own future.

Is Silicon Valley just a lucky place where John Steinbeck’s literature, big doses of sun and dollars mixed together miraculously and forever changed mankind? Or more realistically, did a combination of Stanford University-trained engineers and professors make a conscious decision to raise money, invest and create businesses like Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and Intel to provide consumers with new ways to live their lives?

The distinction is important. Luck may be involved but can’t be mimicked. Luck is fickle, a lightning strike, irrelevant to those people, cities and nations who seek to improve their lot and organise their resources in a way that produces world-changing innovations and wealth.

Designing and constructing a Boeing Dreamliner in a rainy city on America’s north-west Pacific coast with components, materials and software drawn from all over the world is not a matter of luck, but rather a triumph of investment, design and systems integration. Creating a future of driverless cars, of health sensors in our clothes and homes, of genetically-designed immunotherapies that may conquer maladies like cancer, HIV and Ebola – none of these will happen by chance.

Such innovations require curiosity and effort, the concentration of human and financial capital, an appetite for risk and respect for failure. An innovative population is supported by every corner of a city or region. And this is all very tough to do.

Today in the Middle East and North Africa a struggle is underway between those who reject modernity and those who would make tomorrow’s world better by educating children, exposing them to progressive ideas and inculcating their societies with a vision of what is possible and embedding in them the skills to build incredible futures.

Silicon Valley is a truly historic marker in human achievement, but it doesn’t own a monopoly on innovation. There is today in the US an effort called “Rise of the Rest” led by venture capitalist Steve Case to support the development of talent, innovation and new businesses in other cities all around the US.

Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, Tunis, Amman, Beirut and more cities around the region could also be part of a global “rise of the rest” effort where merit matters more than inherited status, where intellectual achievement, flashes of insight and invention push through anachronistic ways of living and thinking.

Morocco is home to one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world. And that is where the famed global traveller Ibn Battuta initiated his global journeys in the early 14th century. The golden age of Arabic science brought many great inventions and today, sparks of engineering, industrial, software and other business innovation are clearly evident in the region – even as it struggles with throwback impulses, institutionalised ignorance and violence from ISIL and other terrorist groups.

On November 5 in Abu Dhabi, The Atlantic – an American opinion and culture magazine founded by progressives in 1857 – with support from The Boeing Company and in part featuring Boeing CEO James McNerney will convene innovators from all over the world with emphasis on the leading lights of this region.

Aramex’s Fadi Ghandour has transformed logistics and transportation and now champions tech-drive entrepreneurs. Noura Al Kaabi is creating an ecosystem supporting aspirations of new media innovators in gaming, filmmaking and journalism. Azza Abouzied is one of the co-founders of Hadapt, a big data analytics platform and co-directs NYU Abu Dhabi’s Design Lab. Ahmed Elmagarmid directs Qatar’s Computing Research Institute. These are but a few of the talented minds, engineers, designers, and wizards of change who will discuss how to further support innovation and the growth of new businesses in the Arab world.

On his “Rise of the Rest” tour – complete with a big blue bus, business pitch competitions and high energy music that travelled in the US this summer – Steve Case often referenced an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

One way for this region to up its game as a great ecosystem for entrepreneurship is to expand incubators, establish mentors for new firms, connect innovators to each other to share ideas, find connections to the region’s great universities and to establish business, tax and regulatory codes that give new ideas a chance.

The future should be a product of vision, investment and effort – not just the result of uncontrollable forces. That is what is at stake in the Middle East today and what will pulse through conversations in Abu Dhabi this week.

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large of The Atlantic. On November 5 at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Viceroy Hotel, The Atlantic will host What’s Next? Navigating Global Challenges with the Innovation Generation supported by The Boeing Company

Published: November 3, 2014 04:00 AM


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