How the Middle East Can Reclaim its Creative Work Culture

by Oubai Elkerdi, January 30, 2013

“8-5 shifts”, “lunch breaks”, “weekends”, and “vacations” are part of the not-so-wonderful jargon we have inherited from the Industrial Revolution (to which we also owe our public education systems and the environmental crisis we are facing).

Smart companies have replaced this mechanical worldview with a more high-minded and organic culture of work. We know, for example, that companies like Ferrari, Pixar, and IDEO do not like to think of themselves as workplaces only.

The success of these companies is, in fact, largely due to their investment in their employees – who are offered superb opportunities for skill development and intellectual growth through in-house classes and workshops, educational sessions, and informal “jamming” sessions (think of Google’s 20-percent Innovation Time Off).

Speaking of Google, if you’ve ever visited any of their offices then you’ve probably noticed the scattered Star Wars action figures, pop culture-inspired wallpapers, a foosball table, an Xbox, colorful furniture, massage chairs and the tech-urban office style. An almost similar portrait can be drawn of the atelier environment at the “antidisciplinary” MIT Media Lab. But why aren’t more workplaces like this?

A long time ago in the Middle East, work was organic and, well, Pixaresque. “[I]n the traditional Islamic pattern of life, work is never separated from leisure, which is also integrated with worship or study,” says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of Islam in the Modern World. Craftsmen and shopkeepers spent twelve to fourteen hours a day at their place of work, located not far away from home.

“But in that place of work during those long hours, they spend a good deal of time praying, eating, resting, talking to friends, or even going to a nearby mosque or traditional school (madrasah) for an hour or two of worship or study,” Nasr adds.

As a result of this integrated lifestyle, “[people] come home in the evening… much less tired than workers who have spent eight hours in an office or a factory and who must seek leisure, rest, and culture as well as educational and religious activities elsewhere” – which then become manufactured “needs” as opposed to natural aspects of human life.

I can’t help but draw a connection between this traditional spirit of unity (tawheed) and integration of life, and the Media Lab’s antidisciplinary approach which blurs boundaries between seemingly unrelated areas of knowledge. Such lifestyles can– and must– be revived.

The role of education

In a Financial Times post titled ‘Asia must free itself from western chains, Chandran Nair laments over regional policy makers’ continued obsession with western ideas – “those very things that got the world into its current predicament”. He says Asia must imagine a future that is independent of western thinking, and that we must “look beyond the economic ideologies that enriched one part of the world at the expense of the rest”.

For generations, farmers in Egypt had structured irrigation channels that conducted the Nile River’s fertile waters into their fields. “The Egyptians maximized these nutrient flows for centuries without overtaxing them,” say William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle. Once British and French engineers entered the country and shifted the agricultural system to Western methods, the silt that enriched the land for centuries now accumulates behind concrete. Egypt today “produces less than 50 percent of its own food and depends on imports from Europe and the United States.”

This is why we need free-thinkers who can elaborate on creative solutions that are relevant to local circumstances. This idea is all good, but where do we start?

Nair makes an interesting proposal: “Universities and schools should educate students in ways that equip them to contribute ideas relevant to the country in which they live, rather than promoting unattainable western lifestyles. Much of this work will be in economics and public policy. But new ideas must also be sought across every major discipline– in the sciences and the social sciences, of course, but also in the humanities, in studies of values, of history and of culture” (emphases are mine).

While business leaders and entrepreneurs play an important role in transforming the industrial age model of work, they cannot do it alone. Universities must encourage professors to focus on real local problems and create spaces where students can gather, sketch out thoughts and experiment. Think-tanks should sprout in every city and village and people should be empowered to build their own solutions to their problems using local resources. We cannot continue to replicate a model that neglects our values, history and culture.

Let’s redefine work entirely.

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Oubai is a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University. He is interested in crowd-driven innovation and multidisciplinary collaborations. His main passion is human-design interaction and the role design plays in shaping society and culture. Oubai is also the cofounder of the Arab Development Initiative. You can reach him on his blog or on Twitter at @obeikurdy.

 
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