Who can prepare Saudi Arabia for the future?

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Sofana Dahlan is one of the first ten female lawyers authorised to practice law in Saudi Arabia. She is also the president and founder of Tasheel, a Saudi-based social enterprise that embraces, accelerates and encourages creative entrepreneurs

Leaders around the world are increasingly concerned with one word: change. Change is happening at higher speeds, in more areas of life and with more unknown consequences than anyone can remember. And it is not going to slow down. Experts speak of us being on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. They mean that analogous to how past Industrial Revolutions of Steam, Electricity and Computers changed the way societies worked, the compounding breakthroughs in various technologies, communications, nano- biology, artificial intelligence, energy, robotics and big data in the coming decades will create fundamental shifts in how societies work.

Exciting? For some maybe, but a threat to many others. Therefore, leaders are giving serious thought on how to prepare a society to survive or even benefit from change. There are very few leaders who can bet on just one industrial base to see a society through the next four decades. So, the big question today is, how do you futureproof a society? Or who can prepare Saudi for the future?

During previous industrial revolutions, it often took decades to build the training systems and labor market institutions needed to develop major new skill sets on a large scale. Given the upcoming pace and scale of disruption brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, this will simply not be an option1. Without targeted action, today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with futureproof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base2.

It is easy to say we need targeted action today, but it is quite a different thing to design effective policies to prepare people at scale for such an unknowable thing as the fast changing future. Saudi Arabia has formulated a positive and concrete vision for 2030 that targets transitioning to a knowledge economy.

Some commitments made in that vision are:

  • “To increase the private sector’s contribution from 40% to 65% of GDP with a bigger role for small and medium-sized enterprises.”

  • “To lower the rate of unemployment from 11.6% to 7%.”

  • “We will continue investing in education and training so that our young men and women are equipped for the jobs of the future.”

But what skills will be needed in this new economy is not an easy question. That things are changing is certain, the direction much less so. What skills then, will help people not only survive unknown change but also benefit from it? What are the skills of the future?

UNESCO writes: The demands of the modern workplace change rapidly and employers now need employees who combine numeracy and literacy with an aptitude for learning, a flexibility of mind, an ability to handle change and a developed inquisitiveness, more than they need employees who have mastered the knowledge required to pass exams in traditional academic subjects3.

Therefore, just investing in the ‘right industry’ will not be enough. The real challenge is creating the ability to handle and even initiate change in tomorrow’s workers. And this leads us to look at one part of the economy where change has always played an important role: The Creative Industries.

The Creative Industries refers to all professions where people are pursuing solutions through looking for new forms. Three areas are distinguished: the cultural, the economic and the societal professions. Thus, fashion designers, architects, entertainment and media professionals along with theatre-makers, writers, artists, and also social entrepreneurs are part of the creative industries. Together they form a small sector in the economy where people are used to change. Even more than that, they pursue and leverage change in their work. They have skills and mindsets that allow people to be pro-active and positive in the face of change.

Around the world governments are deciding to actively stimulate their Creative Industries for a variety of reasons, three of which are directly aimed to helping people be more futureproof. These are related to skills/mindsets, job-creation and identity.

However, nurturing and stimulating the growth of the creative sector is by no means a one-off simple policy decision and depends a lot on specific circumstances in a society. So how can the cultural industries in Saudi Arabia be stimulated in order to help the Saudi society transfer to a more diversified and more knowledge-based economy and with that be more ready for the future?

This has become the mission of Tashkeil, a social enterprise that I founded in 2011 to help talented creative entrepreneurs who lacked knowledge of strategic, operational and legal matters. It met with an increasing demand and quickly grew into a nation-wide platform for the further development of the creative industries and does so in five main ways:

1. Capacity building within the creative industries, through workshops, consulting and coaching

2.Community building through an online central hub, conferences and social media

3.Report writing - Researching and mapping out the creative industries to gain first data

4.Partnerships with universities and businesses

5.Social Engagements- Initiating projects with a social purpose.

In a sense, the creative industries themselves can be a bridge for the rest of the economy and society to handle the bigger changes of the next decades. Through sharing the skills and mindsets, creating the new jobs of the future and preserving our identity we as a whole can bridge the gap with the future. And Tashkeil as an organization together with its mega project SNCI, the Saudi National Creative Initiative, are functioning as a bridge to the creative sector for government, universities, businesses and individuals. And as bridge to future growth for the Saudi youth and talent, through capacity building and international exposure.

SNCI, has since become an internationally connected platform partnering with educational institutes around the world with a long list of projects and events in Saudi that are creating the network, the data and the innovative ecosystem.

Tashkeil strength has proven to be that it knows how to create a structure for the creative industry that works. Now through the experience of how to engage the creative community it can leave a structure for local and national governments. Tashkeil’s can do this because it knows the creative community well, what it is exactly that they need and Tashkeil now has the expertise to develop a mechanism that will transform the creative industry through engagement of the community.

The goal is for the creative industry to help Saudi have the skills, jobs and strong identity to prosper also in the next fifty years. At stake is the success of our beloved nation and the urgency is that we need to start building the structures, people and knowledge now to be ready for the tomorrows that come. The creative sector has a key role to play. Let’s enable them to do that.

As the Vision 2030 states:

“Today, as we face fresh challenges, new roles and responsibilities are required. We should feel great confidence in our capabilities, in our understanding of our obligations and in our ability to achieve excellence for our nation, our society, our families and ourselves.”

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