The ‘wicked’ challenges facing Mena innovation

Despite enormous progress, the Mena region faces challenges related to political instability in some areas, regulatory hurdles, and the need for more robust intellectual property protection

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Sun 24 Dec 2023, 9:59 PM

“The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has the potential to become a new cradle of global innovation.” The remark, introducing a World Government Summit (WGS) report earlier this year, points toward a scenario worth imagining and indeed aspiring. It stresses that the region can pioneer actions of global significance, including “transforming energy into food” and leading “a new era of space and ocean exploration.”

According to the report, the region has “the aspiration, the potential, and the need” to tackle massive global and regional challenges. It has abundant talent and resources to scale up its inventiveness. Governments are stepping into action, and impressive research, development, and innovation agendas are at work. Entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers have access to growing R&D resources, and the World Bank data says patent application numbers from the Mena region have risen six-fold in two decades.

The region has made significant investments in medical research, telemedicine, and health tech startups. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic showcased the region’s capability in rapid healthcare innovation and deployment. Integrating digital tools in education and adopting e-learning platforms have been accelerated. Educational reforms are underway to better align with global trends and the needs of a modern economy.

So far, so good. However, the same WSG report also enumerates some “wicked” systemic, highly complex, and interlinked problems posing obstacles to the “moonshot innovation,” a term coined for “off-the-charts thinking and doing” associated with the region. So, what has the region achieved, and what should it strive for? There is no doubt about the strides the region has made in critical innovation areas such as space, agriculture, digital transformation, healthcare, renewable energy, transportation, and mobility. Yet, they have not been collective enough to make a mass-scale impact on the populace.

Some factors frequently impede the pace of innovation. Despite enormous progress, the Mena region faces challenges related to political instability in some areas, regulatory hurdles, and the need for more robust intellectual property protection. While instability can deter investment, disrupt business operations (IP), and hinder the development of a stable ecosystem for innovation, IP weakness can discourage innovation, as there is less incentive to develop new ideas if they are not adequately protected.

While there have been reforms, the education systems in many Mena countries still need to align more closely with the needs of a modern, innovative economy. There’s a particular need for more emphasis on critical thinking, creativity, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. It is trying to enhance regional collaboration and integration – crucial for sharing knowledge and resources and fostering a culture of innovation – albeit with limited success.

Often, a gap exists between academic research and its practical application in industry. Strengthening the collaboration between universities and the business sector is crucial for driving innovation. The region needs to increase investment in R&D and foster collaborations between universities, research institutions, and industries. It is developing a more robust research culture, particularly in fundamental sciences and engineering. What is also needed is to shed the attitudes in some parts of the MENA region that can be risk-averse, which is often due to a stigma attached to failure. This mindset can inhibit entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to innovate.

The Mena region has made significant strides in various fields of innovation, reflecting its growing role in the global innovation landscape. It has witnessed a rapid digital transformation, with a surge in tech startups, particularly in fintech, e-commerce, and digital services. By building on its achievements and addressing the areas for growth, the region can further establish itself as a hub of innovation and play a significant role in the global innovation landscape.

Innovation in the region should also go side-by-side, reducing reliance on oil and gas by diversifying into knowledge-based and technology-driven industries, encouraging entrepreneurship, and supporting SMEs across various sectors. Equally important are addressing challenges such as water scarcity and environmental challenges through innovative solutions and promoting sustainable practices in industries and urban development. For all this to fructify simultaneously, the region must enhance cooperation in science, technology, and innovation and build regional networks for knowledge sharing and innovation.

While policy planning and execution have their learning curves, it starts with reimagining what is possible. The secret lies in shifting from incremental to exponential improvements. In today’s day and age, such a shift in approach is often the difference between fact and fiction. Imagining a leap of 10X instead of 10 per cent makes the status quo unrecognisable. It is only pertinent to borrow the closing argument from the report it started. “Turning such visions into reality is a high-stakes undertaking that calls for a paradigm shift in the way the Mena region approaches innovation,” says the WGS report.

Ehtesham Shahid is an Indian editor and researcher based in the UAE. X: @e2sham.

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