At the first mention of innovation, most people’s minds drift to California, the home of Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Airbnb, along with countless other firms reshaping industries, commerce and social interactions.
As a result, we often overlook the role that innovation has played in our own social and economic history, and the huge untapped creative potential that remains right before our eyes.
Innovation in its purest form is defined as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods”. And while the word provokes images of mobile apps and devices, the true essence of innovation is not simply synonymous with technology – it signifies the wisdom and courage of creators to apply better solutions that meet new requirements.
By that definition, the UAE and its inhabitants have always been highly innovative. For centuries, the people of the Arabian Peninsula displayed ingenuity to survive – and in many cases thrive – in a relatively hostile climate. Many of our forefathers’ and foremothers’ inventions and techniques still influence our architecture and habits today.
Our systems of governance are also innovative. As the only federation in the Arab World, the UAE constitution combines elements of parliamentary, tribal and executive governance to create a system that has helped to deliver significant economic growth – from approximately US$1.8 billion in 1972 to more than $418bn last year – and dramatic increases in literacy – from about 35 per cent in 1972 to 94 per cent today – while life expectancy has risen from 63 years in 1972 to 77 years today – over the same time period.
Innovative Emirati businesses have transformed a number of global industries. In 1985, the fledgling Emirates airline launched its first flights out of Dubai with only two planes in its fleet. It now carries more than 40 million passengers a year to over 140 destinations. It is hard to imagine a world in which Dubai was not already synonymous with travel and tourism, but 30 years ago, the idea of creating a global aviation hub in the old port city was as innovative as it was ambitious.
When RAK Ceramics was created in 1989 out of Ras Al Khaimah with a single plant and a daily output of less than 5,000 square metres of ceramic tiles, who would have known that only 25 years later it would become the world’s largest ceramics manufacturer with a global annual production output of 360,000 square metres of ceramic tiles, and pioneering high-tech innovations that are considered breakthroughs in the industry?
In an effort to further stimulate the nation’s reserves of ingenuity today, the UAE Government declared 2015 to be the National Year Of Innovation. The year-long campaign culminates this week in the inaugural UAE Innovation Week n which more than 800 events are being held across the country.
The government has also introduced a National Innovation Strategy to become one of the world’s most innovative countries by 2021 through a focus on renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space. Importantly, the focus is not just on technology, with the first phase including initiatives focused on skill development, research partnerships and incentives for the public and private sectors to find new and improved ways of doing things.
It is fitting that the first UAE Innovation Week should fall just days before our 44th National Day. A momentous occasion on which we will pause to reflect on our country’s proud history, and this year in particular honour our brave martyrs that have made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of our nation and values.
Somewhere at the intersection of these two events – Innovation Week and National Day – is a big part of the essence of our national identity: a young and vibrant population dedicated to respecting and learning from the past, while confidently embracing the future.
Our founding father and first President of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed said: “Future generations will be living in a world that is very different from that to which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world.” At a time when criminal gangs would seek to drag parts of our region back to the Stone Age, desecrating our religion in the process, we must never forget how fortunate we are to belong to a nation that has always had such a bold, forward-looking and innovative agenda. And, in turn, accept our collective and individual responsibilities to espouse this spirit of innovation for the betterment of our societies.
Badr Jafar is the chief executive of Crescent Enterprises and the founder of the Pearl Initiative.
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