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Why UAE is set to accelerate ICT-led innovation

Luc Serviant, VP of Orange Business Services and a member of the Accelerator Selection Committee of the new Dubai Smart City Accelerator programme, explains why ICT is core to driving innovation in the UAE.

Innovation – the process of developing new and better concepts, products, services or processes – is the lifeblood of companies and countries today including those in the GCC, with their shared visions of creating knowledge societies and attracting knowledge workers to develop innovative, diversified, sustainable and competitive economies.

The UAE has its own National Innovation Strategy with the aim of making the country one of the most innovative nations in the world focusing on stimulating innovation in key areas: renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space. The first phase of 30 national initiatives in three years include new legislation, innovation incubators, investment in specialised skills, private sector incentives, international research partnerships and an innovation drive within government.

It seems to be working – the UAE is ranked first regionally and 16th globally  according to the Global Competiveness Report 2016 released by the World Economic Forum.

Innovation is also the top priority for CEOs, according to the 2017 PwC 20th Annual Global CEO Survey. The survey ranks the top 5 priorities for CEOs as Innovation (23%), Human capital (15%), Digital and technology capabilities (15%), Competitive advantage (10%), Customer experience (10%). For these global enterprise CEOs, technology + talent = innovation.

Gartner’s recent global CEO survey supports this view of prioritising innovation through ICT or digital transformation with 47% of CEOs reporting being challenged by their boards to push for more digital business, while 56% reported that digital improvements had already delivered positive results.

For big enterprises, it’s essential to keep innovating, especially as newer, smaller competitors may move in, disrupt (innovate) businesses, markets and entire industries, and respond faster to customer needs and expectations – often driven/enabled by consumer-friendly technology.

A Microsoft/Harvard Business Review survey of 800 global companies revealed that almost 50% said that their traditional business model would be obsolete by 2020. So, innovation is at the heart of survival of many traditional companies.

Of course, no one has the monopoly on innovation. SMEs may not have the resources of the big multinationals, but they can arguably move faster to develop and scale a technology-led business, with relatively few people and capital assets. They just need the encouragement, incentive, environment and opportunity to help them realise – and monetise – their innovative business ideas.

This combination of strong local SMEs and a base of active entrepreneurs, with global enterprise from around the world, and a young and culturally- diverse workforce made up of talent from around the world, is a really unique feature of the UAE, and Dubai especially – the world’s emerging smartest city.

Couple this with the visionary leadership of the UAE and Dubai, and the active government support for innovation and for SMEs, and you have a powerful combination.

The UAE ranks very highly in several dimensions of the Global Competitive Report but one area where we can still improve is our ranking of 29th in the use of ICT – a key driver and enabler of innovation across many industries.

So, the question remains: what else can we do to stimulate innovation?

 Measuring innovation

Let’s start with how we measure innovation. One way is to look at the number of tangible innovations produced – for example, the number of patents filed every year, owned and held by a company. Orange holds around 8,500 patents – the result of the hard work of 3,800 researchers based in our laboratories around the world, including Egypt and Jordan. But not everyone can build this global infrastructure or has access to these resources for R&D and new product development.

Stimulating innovation – creating the right conditions

The Middle East is a fascinating and exciting example of a fast-moving region, quickly adopting and adapting technology to enable a really radical transformation of the economy. What took the old industrial countries of the West centuries to achieve, the younger countries of the region can achieve in just a few years – enabled by technology and driven by visionary leadership, without the weight of legacy systems to hold us back.

Clustering for creativity

There’s another really interesting phenomenon in the region. Many cities, countries and regions have forgotten the benefits of clustering industries – bringing together academic knowledge, research and development, industry skills, ICT and physical infrastructure, transport, capital, production capacity, support services – together to create synergies and produce innovation. It serves the very human need for and capacity to communicate, share ideas and collaborate – the creativity of a culture supported by an environment that leads to innovation. In Dubai and across the GCC, we see this in effect every day.

Government obviously plays a vital role in this process by building the infrastructure, creating the framework to attract talent, working with the private sector to develop collaborations and transfer knowledge and skills, and perhaps most importantly, by providing a clear vision and leadership.

It’s a formula that is already producing results.

Start me up

The digital business transformation we see all around us here in the UAE is partly the result of young companies and entrepreneurs harnessing technology and industry experience to disrupt or reinvent services, and create entirely new companies, products, services and industries. It’s the ‘anything is possible’ attitude to doing business in Dubai, UAE and the GCC.

A great regional example of this is the digitally born company, Careem – the ride hailing service that has quickly become the region’s second ‘unicorn’ (a start-up company valued at more than USD1 billion) and which is using ICT intelligently to scale up a local, regional and increasingly international business model.

Whilst talent is central to business success – and people must always be at the heart of all this activity – there is no doubt that ICT is playing a critical enabling role inside the organisation (whatever the type and scale of the operation), connecting partners for collaboration, and in delivering new customer experiences.

There is no doubt that all the ingredients are being put in place to accelerate innovation and to push the UAE up the global rankings, whilst making the country a happier place, of course.

We see this most recently with the new Dubai Smart City Accelerator program, just launched within the Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre (Dtec) and designed to accelerate 40 new ventures, and which Orange Business Services is supporting.

Talent plus technology (in the right environment and conditions) really does equal innovation for the UAE.

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