Students of history will be familiar with the term “superpower”, countries that wield global influence by means of economic, military, technological or cultural strength. As superpowers shifted from empires to nation states, it was countries like the US and China that dominated the trajectory of global development.
But the coronavirus has not only demonstrated the vulnerability of the world’s most influential states, it has decimated the notions of grandeur that once surrounded them. It is no longer the size of the defence budget or nuclear capabilities that matter, but the systems and the technologies that one has in place to deal with such a pandemic.
Thanks to the early lockdown in our part of the world and the large youth population, we in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) seem to be faring better than others where the death rate is concerned. But if there is one lesson to be learned from this nightmare, it is the need to invest locally and invest heavily in research and development (R&D).
Because ultimately, the only way to defeat this virus and cope with the devastation it has caused is through innovation. Currently, governments across Mena invest about 1 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in R&D, a pitiful sum that has led us to become consumers of technology rather than pioneers of its development. According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, just 10 countries account for 80 per cent of global R&D spend – these include South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Finland and Denmark as well as the US. Israel, with more than 8000 researchers per million inhabitants, tops the ranking in R&D spending as percentage of GDP at 4.2 per cent.
This lack of funding in R&D has resulted in a lack of commercialisation of research, it has contributed to the brain drain, where some of the region’s most accomplished scientists go abroad to further their research or work. This has a direct impact on the ability to innovate, a target for governments across Mena.
That is not to say that we are a region without the capability to innovate. Startups that pioneered online and digital services have helped us maintain access to daily essentials like groceries, allowing life to continue in lockdown. Local manufacturers like 3D printing companies shifted their efforts to help support frontline workers around the world. Yes, we have managed to adapt to the new normal better than most, but we are still waiting for the global community to provide us with the critical medical equipment, and a vaccine.
The pandemic has highlighted the precarious nature of the global supply chain and shifted procurement to the local, resulting in new opportunities for local manufacturers but a shortage and a void where local suppliers do not exist. Continuing to rely on the global community, particularly for scientific knowledge and advancement will become a disadvantage.
To truly move towards a knowledge-based economy where innovation can thrive, it requires vast amounts of investment into the people working on innovation – this means the education system, the research centres in universities, it is the startups that are working on and developing new technologies. These are now the areas where governments and investors ought to focus their efforts and channel their dollars.
The hackathons that have taken place around the world and highlighted solutions put forward by innovators from the Middle East demonstrate the availability of the skills and talent here. We have already seen the first steps, Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre is working on developing a treatment for Covid-19 using stem cell therapy, meanwhile Citizen Science, a collective of 20 UAE scientists, researchers and engineers have come together to develop solutions to ease medical pressures on the healthcare system and successfully assembled its first ventilator prototype.
Engineers at the Technology Innovation Institute (TII) in Abu Dhabi are exploring new ways to sterilise equipment and to maximise the use of ventilators to treat more than just one patient.
A team of researchers and students at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in Al Ain have developed a solution that converts existing touchpoints into touchless ones to prevent the spread of the virus. The startup, called Meta Touch, has seen its technology, which converts elevator buttons into a touchless pad with users simply hovering their finger over the button, installed at Abu Dhabi Airport.
“We live in a digital era and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. Youth have a curious mind and curiosity is the engine of innovation. The ultimate reward is when you see pioneering technology such as touchless elevator buttons being implemented and positively contributing to the fight against Covid-19,” says Professor Nihel Chabrak, CEO at the UAEU’s Science and Innovation Park.
The coronavirus is reconfiguring global status and rankings and the fight against it has led advanced economies looking to smaller nations for solutions and examples. A small country like Estonia has become a benchmark for countries like the UK and France to learn lessons in effective e-government.
With greater investment, an environment with regulations friendly to startup development and innovation, easier and more accessible means to patent and commercialise research, we too have the capability to offer the rest of the world solutions and technologies to help fight this pandemic, but it can only start with more R&D.