Palestinian-American entrepreneur Kamal Hassan believes solving creative problems through “open network innovation” can provide the creative spark to the Middle East’s drive for economic diversification
This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Explorer, Aramex's thought-leadership magazine that investigates issues critical to businesses, communities and the planet.
By Eddie Taylor
Kamal Hassan was a successful entrepreneur in perhaps the most successful entrepreneurial environment of the last 50 years – the technological advances blossoming throughout Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. After two and a half decades devising, supporting, encouraging and occasionally financing SMEs in the epicentre of new ideas, Hassan is now bringing his knowledge – and the combined knowledge of his industry – to the Middle East. Although born and raised in Gaza before his education took him to the US, where he has since remained, Hassan didn’t seek to employ his business acumen in the Arab World until late 2007, when he launched his innovation and entrepreneurship think-tank, the Innovation 360 Institute.
The institute was created to specifically service the growing need for creative, entrepreneurial solutions as the region seeks to diversify its economy. In particular, the governments of the Gulf have long understood the challenges of sustaining and expanding their economy without the safety net of oil and natural gas. They also appreciate their SME base isn’t yet capable of driving the economy into these new directions – yet they also want Emiratis to be a part of a new era of fuel-free innovation.
“Several of the Gulf countries have set a goal of creating 1,000 new SMEs per year for the next five years,” says Hassan. “We are helping to bridge the knowledge gap as there isn’t necessarily the technological, scientific or creative know-how to innovate new ideas or businesses. One of main ways we do this is by using Open Innovation Networks, a means of engaging with entrepreneurs and inventors around the world to solve a particular problem.”
Hassan’s Innovation 360 Institute recently entered into a strategic partnership with the NineSigma network – originally developed by Proctor and Gamble as a means of extending their R&D capacity without exploding staffing costs – to introduce an international community of 1.5 million inventors, designers and innovators to the Middle East. As a result, any company or institution seeking a solution to a technical issue now has access to some of the most creative minds on the planet. “We try to identify pre-patents,” says Hassan, “with which the project owner can work out a deal to buy the solution or even help create a new SME to deliver it.”
With private businesses, the process is relatively straightforward. A problem is presented to Hassan, who then posts it on the network site, complete with desired delivery date. Those who believe they can deliver the solution start working and, when a suggested approach is forming, the clients are brought into the mix. “One example,” says Hassan, “is a large real estate project that is seeking to dramatically reduce water loss in the pipe network – which typically runs at 35 per cent. The best solutions have only ever improved this to 20 per cent.
“After we posted the challenge to the network, the conversation began in which we identified the main areas of loss. Technical solutions were then suggested and ultimately new components of a pipe system are now being proposed that, if tested successfully, will result in less than 1 per cent water loss. That will be an incredible achievement – worldwide!”
Such problem-specific cases usually seek to find a technical or engineering solution. When working with governments, though, Hassan takes this process one step back by actually brainstorming the kind of products and services the government considers a priority, engaging in idea creation sessions with as many as 1,200 people from business, academia and relevant ministries. The resulting ideas are then submitted to NineSigma, with SME creation the ultimate goal. “One project involves finding a new model for garbage collection that would turn profit. We are developing a solution that improves efficiency and generates electricity from the collected material,” says Hassan.
A third service that Hassan offers doesn’t involve the network at all, but provides training sessions to enable people to think creatively on their own. “I happen to think that brainstorming is horribly overrated, in that the person with the loudest voice tends to dominate as opposed to the person with the best idea,” says Hassan. “So we conduct training on how to actually devise good ideas and identify where they come from. This includes response stimulus and the like. It has produced great results, not just in idea creation but in changing mental processes.”
Kamal hopes to expand the institute’s work across the region and is also looking to start a business incubator in Lebanon, Egypt or Jordan. The key to development is, he insists, innovation not imitation. “It is important for the Middle East not to simply mimic the success of others,” he concludes. “The best ideas come when looking for local solutions to local needs.”