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Interview: Taking innovation to the next level

Interview: Taking innovation to the next level

Her Excellency Huda Al Hashimi discusses how the UAE’s Innovation Week will evolve into Innovation Month this year, and what it means for the future of innovation across the country

More than three years ago, when the President of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced that 2015 had been designated as the ‘Year of Innovation’, he set the country on an accelerated path to becoming a global leader in innovation.

Since then, innovation has been plugged all the more firmly into the DNA of the UAE’s public and private sectors, building on the country’s proactive and aspirational nature to emerge as one of the few hubs around the world that is setting the agenda for the future.

Speaking at the launch of the Year of Innovation in November 2014, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said: “We want our public and private sectors to explore new horizons to develop our economy. Innovation is our only way to build a great history of the UAE.

“The future will be for those who adopt innovation.”

Since then, innovation across the UAE has taken on a life of its own.

Not only have existing innovative organisations enhanced their reputation year after year with globally-acclaimed initiatives – Masdar City, Dubai’s RTA, and the DIFC among them – but new projects have sprung up throughout the emirates at an impressive rate.

These include Area 2071 – a global model launched by the UAE to help turn innovative ideas into reality; the Youth xHub – a platform for young Emiratis to design solutions to today’s greatest challenges; and the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation – an initiative to stimulate and enrich the culture of innovation within the government sector.

A small selection they may be, but they speak volumes about the importance of innovation to the UAE – something that is also reflected in the country’s Global Innovation Index ranking.

The 2017 edition of the annual index saw the UAE improve its standing, being placed in 35th position – up six places from 2016’s position of 41 – and cementing its status as the highest ranking Arab country.

National Innovation Strategy

A driving force behind these positive moves has been the National Innovation Strategy, launched in October 2014 with the aim of making the UAE one of the most innovative nations in the world within seven years.

The strategy is designed to stimulate innovation in seven sectors: renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water, and space, and includes a series of initiatives, new legislation, incubators, investment, partnerships and more.

One of the most visible initiatives to emerge from the strategy was Innovation Week, which was inaugurated in 2015 and gave public and private sector entities the platform to showcase and celebrate their innovations, and innovation in general.

And now, just as innovation across the UAE is growing, Innovation Week is set for some big changes.

“It all started in the year 2015 – the year that the President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced the Year of Innovation,” says Her Excellency Huda Al Hashimi, assistant director general for strategy and innovation at the Prime Minister’s Office – Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and The Future.

“Because it was the year of innovation, a lot of key projects came about, such as the Innovation Strategy and core innovations for the private and public sector. One of the most iconic things that happened during that year was the launch of the Innovation Week – as a concept to begin with.

“As a country and a nation we’re used to having shopping festivals, and festivals that are more related to retail and tourism – this was the first time that we did a full-on national celebration of innovation.”

Driven by the public sector, including the government and related entities, the success of the debut Innovation Week in 2015 led to a repeat of the event the following year, with numerous initiatives launching as a result.

“It turned out to be enormously successful,” says HE Al Hashimi.

“We didn’t expect the numbers we got – it was announced in August and the week was in November, so it was a very short period of time for people to mobilise. Yet they did.

“We started with the target of having 100 activities take place across the UAE. What we ended up with in the first year was 1,000 events. This was everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah to Dubai. They all participated in this. We had executive councils from every emirate leading the efforts – it was very much an open-source, countrywide effort, celebrating one goal, which is innovation.

“In 2016 we did a similar thing, and this time 1,200 partners participated. During these weeks key initiatives were launched, including policy for science, technology and innovation, big awards, the Solar Park, the Mohammed bin Rashid Innovation Fund, and more. It was a placeholder for big announcements as well as activities.”

By the end of the second year, the interest had become so great that the decision was taken to grow the event.

HE Al Hashimi explains: “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum realised there is a huge demand for activities and entities who want to take part in this. And we also realised there are not enough hours in the day to visit them all during one week.

“Hence the decision came out that for the next round it would be a month. And so we are here, planning to launch Innovation Month in February.”

Across the emirates

Innovation Month will take place throughout the entire month, with the events rotating around the emirates.

Starting in Abu Dhabi from February 1-7, it will then move to Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah between February 8-14, followed by Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain from February 15-21, and culminating in Dubai from February 22-28.

The theme of the month will be revealed closer to its launch, with the big feature events announced in January as anticipation to the celebration builds.

“It was targeted for February for many reasons,” says HE Al Hashimi.

“It’s a good time of year weather-wise, so people can actually do many of their activations outdoors. It’s also a time when lots of events are taking place that are also linked to innovation, such as the World Government Summit.

“It will move to every emirate to give a sort of zoomed-in highlight on each emirate’s focus on innovation.”

Her excellency also emphasises that – contrary to some people’s ideas – innovation is open to everybody; not just businesses or organisations.

“Innovation is actually an everyday practice,” she says.

“It’s not limited to the few, it’s not an invention, it’s not for scientists only – it’s for the everyday mum or child who is trying to think differently or be more create.

“We want the whole nation to embrace it, because the strategy is very holistic – it’s not narrowed to a specific focus area.

“The main thing is that we want people to feel it – to enjoy it. Even if they have created something at home that they feel is innovative, to actually showcase it – show it to the world. And there will be many different platforms to be able to do that.”

That being said, companies will undoubtedly play a leading role during the month, with more than 1,000 activities already lined up, and plenty of time for people or organisations to register theirs at the Innovation Month portal, uaeinnovates.ae.

And while many initiatives will be internally focused to a business’s employees, or to their direct customers, HE Al Hashimi says there will be a big push to promote those that are geared towards the public.

“This year, what we want to do is elevate the initiatives that are open to the public, which will be more weekend-centric,” she explains.

“Where people can actually interact more in an entertainment way, interacting more visibly with innovation. For example, there’s going to be a big effort by the Ministry of Education to involve all the students in the nation in a big exhibition fair for innovation. And each emirate in their week will be focusing on featured activities. They will be the magnets for the public to go to.”

Previous iterations of Innovation Week have seen public events such as an initiative to educate the public about the mission to Mars in Dubai, and an event in Sharjah to educate people about innovations in culture and the arts.

And the UAE’s recent experience in mass public events should be encouraging to organisers, with the huge popularity of the Dubai Fitness Challenge still fresh in the mind.

Residents in the emirate were encouraged to undertake 30 minutes of exercise per day for 30 consecutive days between October and November last year, with a series of high-profile public events drawing thousands of participants each time.

But as HE Al Hashimi explains, the aims of Innovation Month have a slightly different tint to those of the fitness challenge.

“The fitness challenge was a great initiative that touched everybody’s lives because it was something very personal, and something that I think everybody can relate to,” she says.

“The key thing that we want to marry with innovation is that it’s not just a matter of public engagement – it’s a matter of content that people will take out from it, and how they will be touched by their experience. It has to be real, as well.

“True, we will have the festival experience, the public spaces, and so on, but the content has to be something that will truly inspire and showcase the country as what it wants to be – one of the most innovative in the world. The content will drive a lot of the effort.”

Role of the private sector

Private sector companies have been invited to host various types of events – internal and external – to showcase their particular innovations or innovation ambitions. They are also invited to partner with the innovation drive in other ways, such as donating prizes or venue space, or by co-working with other organisations such as Humanitarian City, as happened in 2016.

And according to HE Al Hashimi, she would like to see a rise in the number of those taking up the opportunity.

“Can I say that we are happy with the number of people participating? I would say that I think there is definitely room for much more,” she says.

“We would like to see even stronger participation from the private sector leading big initiatives, big announcements and leading public engagement events.”

Another aspect of Innovation Month that participants can look forward to is its tie-in with the ‘Year of Zayed’.

To mark 100 years since the birth of the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 2018 has been designated the Year of Zayed. President Sheikh Khalifa called on the nation to celebrate Sheikh Zayed’s legacy by not only upholding the values of the Founding Father, but holding events, initiatives and programmes that reflect the personality of the country’s former leader.

In keeping with this theme, Al Hashimi explains that Innovation Month will certainly have the memory of Sheikh Zayed running through its agenda.

“We are already looking at many different ways that we can do that,” she says.

“One of our iconic events that we would like to do is going to be linked to that, because to be honest we are inspired by our Founding Father Sheikh Zayed. He was truly one of the most innovative leaders of his time and beyond his time. So we learn from him even today; in the way he thought differently with the challenges that he had at his time.

“Innovation is not a new concept or a new behaviour for our country. The fact that we reached where we are today in such a short period of time meant that we had to be innovative in the way we do business, the way we accelerate our processes, the way government is functioning. And I think all of that is largely down to our Founding Father’s vision. So definitely we will be celebrating him in Innovation Month.”

With the legacy of Sheikh Zayed firmly in mind for 2018, there are also high hopes for the legacy of Innovation Month among different sectors of society.

HE Al Hashimi identifies some key takeaways that she hopes different groups with carry forward with them.

“For the schoolchildren, we would like their big takeaway to be inspired by learning from others, but visiting others’ innovations; to be inspired to say ‘we want to be part of this journey in the future – we would like to be the creators of innovations, the inventors of key things. So the main thing at that level is to inspire them to go towards the science, technology and innovation paths.

“In terms of the private sector, we would like them to see that they are part of our story to the world that the UAE is an innovative country. They have a key role in positioning the country to be one of the most innovative, and whatever they do here we don’t want them to see the country as just a sales hub, but a place where they can test their innovation; a space where they can do applied research.

“For government it’s to say that they play a big part in the success of the country. If they don’t innovate then the engine will not move. It’s for public sector employees to show the world what they are doing in terms of innovation – the successes.”

And if the 2015 and 2016 Innovation Weeks are anything to go by, lasting change is all but certain.

After the first Innovation Week, further education institutions in the UAE were motivated to be proactive about their role, leading to every university in the country teaching entrepreneurship 101 as part of its curriculum – a move that has been funded by the government.

Another initiative announced at Innovation Week was the VC law – a legal structure designed to enhance the UAE’s innovation culture and attract more venture capital funds into the country.

And according to HE Al Hashimi, regulatory improvements in particular will have an impact of the future of innovation in the UAE.

“For sure there is a lot that can still be done, and a lot is being developed as we speak,” she says.

“An example for start-ups are the patent laws. It used to be very expensive to register patents here and a very lengthy process. So in the second Innovation Week we announced the Centre for Patents, and then we accelerated the process, which is now fully funded by the government, supported legally, and helping a lot with the start-ups that want to move to the next level.

“There are many other laws that we are working towards, and there’s a council that is developing all these things to help make this a more friendly environment for innovators. This is very important.”

Equally important is the UAE’s position within the global innovation scene. Not only with its ranking in the Global Innovation Index, but establishing something that is a central component to the UAE’s inner workings: uniqueness.

And despite learning from innovation centres around the world, HE Al Hashimi explains that there will never be a temptation to replicate them.

“For sure we are not in the business of copying any specific hub,” she says.

“We learnt a long time ago that we are truly unique – in where we are as a country, our geographic location, our mix of population, our different minds – I think we have a very strong advantage with that.

“To go and look at different countries and say we want X as a specific example is the wrong approach. What we do very well is we learn from these different experiences. We learn from the Silicon Valley experience, from Japan and South Korea, from the Scandinavians, from the Latin Americans. Everybody has a strong story to tell.

“When we do that, we bring all these experiences together and look at what works for us.

“We’re hungry to learn, but we’re also hungry to be unique.”

No doubt initiatives such as February’s Innovation Month will help the emirates develop and evolve this uniqueness in such a way that other countries around the world will soon be looking to the UAE to find out where innovation is heading in the future.

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