Silicon Valley has a problem according to Fiona Murray, associate dean of innovation at MIT Sloan School of Management. The world’s foremost centre of innovation suffers from a cultural problem that is feeding an ever-increasing wealth gap, leading to greater social friction.
Speaking at the inaugural EmTech Middle East and North Africa (Mena) conference in Dubai, Murray identified that innovation centres around the world have widened not only the wealth gap, but the gender gap too, both of which can lead to political instability.
“Wealth creation is highly uneven in these innovation ecosystems,” she said. “Although we might want the wealth creation to be evenly distributed, it’s not. So we have to work hard to make sure it’s more even in the ecosystem.”
One way to do this is to adopt a more “mission-led” approach according to Murray.
“How do you drive inclusive growth and not just growth for a small number of people?” she asked. “Mission-led means innovation with a mission well beyond profit, it is focused on significant social changes.”
Entrepreneurship “only has meaning when we create a community” according to Murray and innovations that emphasise big societal changes, that aim to improve standards of living while being able to turn a profit are ones that are likely to be more inclusive and the Middle East and North Africa region is one part of the world ripe for such innovation.
It is not just about encouraging social enterprises, it is a shift in the mindset of innovation and requires the efforts of all the key stakeholders in the ecosystem, from the entrepreneurs themselves, to governments, universities, investors and corporates.
In the GCC, several governments have taken the lead with their own accelerators, defining the framework for innovation whereas in the wider region, it’s a bottom-up approach where entrepreneurs are finding solutions for the problems they face, be it infrastructure or societal.
“Some of the work we’ve seen in the Middle East is very striking, there are some tremendous role models both male and female,” says Murray. ““Here, we see the government can play a very powerful role.”
The Dubai Future Foundation is one such example of a government-led approach. With its own accelerator, Dubai is attempting to drive innovation to solve wide societal issues using technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.
“Outside of the UAE, all the countries in the Middle East have significant social needs and it’s time for technology entrepreneurship to make a difference,” said Raed Hafez, managing partner at UAE-based Nuummite Consulting.
Startups like Egypt-based Tagaddod which converts used cooking oil into fuel or UAE-based Pure Harvest which addresses food security issues in the GCC through its hydroponic farm in Al Ain are examples of for-profit businesses that have an impact.
Opportunities lie in locally relevant solutions that are globally important according to Murray.
“There are lots of examples of businesses that are small but can be scaled globally,” she said. “In places where the market is small, you have to think global. In the Mena region, don’t underestimate how big the market can be.”
As governments across the region continue to encourage entrepreneurship as a method to boost the economy and drive down unemployment, the Middle East is uniquely positioned to undertake this mission-led approach and prevent the cultural problems now evident in Silicon Valley.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Fadi Bizri, partner at Lebanon-based B&Y Venture Partners. “We just need a bit of time or the visionaries who can bridge the two worlds together.”