If there is anything that can even remotely attempt at redeeming ourselves from the vicious, repetitive drudgery called life, it’s certainly innovation. It may not be so much of an exaggeration to conclude that innovation is the raison d’être of human existence — not just philosophically, but economically as well. For, business has only two functions: marketing and innovation, to quote Milan Kundera. Beyond the spell of the word, however, innovation is essentially a tryst with uncertainty, meant only for the bold and the visionary, who dare disrupt the comfort zones of status quo.
By being party, knowingly or not, to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that is under way, we have already accorded innovation its due. Characterised by the so-called convergence of diverse technologies across artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, biotechnology, robotics and what not, 4IR is projecting a tantalising world of unprecedented avenues for progress and development.
As Klaus Schwab has noted, we are at the beginning of a global transformation that is changing our very idea of what it means to be human. And the key point here is nothing but innovation, as this transformation propelled by 4IR owes its relevance to a transition to new systems that build on existing digital technologies.
At the heart of innovation lies the knack of valiantly exploring and adapting to the techno-matrix and realities of the times, driven, not always, by a quest for enhanced bottom line.
In this context, it’s interesting to look at the Sultanate’s efforts at positioning itself as an innovation hub in the Middle East.
We can afford a proper perspective by recalling that Oman has been ranked the 7th most competitive economy in the Arab world, and 66th most competitive nation in the world (out of 138 countries) in the 2016-17 edition of the Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum. Oman’s Competitiveness Rank averaged 42.6 during 2008-2017, reaching an all time high of 66.00 in 2017.
At the same time, we can’t ignore that UAE ranked 16 in the report.
Innovation is a major indicator of economic competitiveness, along with institutions, infrastructure, education, market efficiency, technological readiness, business sophistication and more.
The WEF report looks at the abrupt economic slowdown in emerging markets that has exposed the lack of competitiveness-enhancing reforms, which can even threaten social cohesion.
Clearly, incentivising innovation is crucial to locate new growth engines.
Quite significantly, the WEF report shows that building an enabling environment for innovation continues to be the prerogative of only a few economies. And it’s a matter of pride that Oman counts among that rarefied group.
Yes, innovation is in the air, here. For instance, looking at tourism, one of the Sultanate’s most promising drivers of economy, we see 360-degree strategies to innovate the industry with sustained focus on concepts such as experiential tourism, heritage tourism, and integrated tourism complexes. With the government looking to boost the tourism sector’s contribution to the Sultanate’s economy beyond 5 per cent by 2020, and to reach a magical 10 per cent (6-10 per cent to be realistic) by 2040, the need for innovation in the sector can’t be overemphasised.
Innovation is redefining other economic sectors as well.
The Research Council (TRC), Oman’s premier body tasked with creating an innovation ecology that is in tandem with local needs and global trends, has been doing a pretty job. Its Academic Innovation Assistance Program (AIAP) — launched as a pilot project at the Sultan Qaboos University as an elective study programme — introduces learners to the fundamentals of innovation and entrepreneurship.
A subsidiary of TRC’s Innovation Hub Project, it aims to drive innovation across academic institutes in Oman, and offers funding for innovative proposals, to conduct research, purchase equipment and develop prototypes. It also provides guidance on drafting business plans and connects innovators to major funding agencies.
TRC also has an Industrial Innovation Assistance Programme (IIAP) aimed at helping Omani SMEs better their efficiency and sustainability, resolve industrial issues, create a collaborative environment and address IPR challenges. IIAP, in collaboration with PEIE, was instrumental in establishing the Industrial Innovation Centre (IIC) in Rusayl, which works to coordinate various innovation programmes to achieve synergy.
Meanwhile, the council’s Community Innovation Assistance Program recognises the role of community and cultural organisations in establishing a culture of innovation, and offers an enabling environment for community members to showcase inventions, and establish the right industry links to transform ideas into commercially viable products and services. Innovation Park Muscat is another major initiative by TRC to encourage research, and innovation.
Yet another project is the Innovation Factory Centre at KOM, a collaborative effort between ITA and young innovators, allowing the public to use state-of-the-art machines and light industrial equipment towards exploring national digital fabrication technologies.
With so much happening, what is sure to emerge in Oman is a deep-rooted culture of innovation. And everyone is going to be a stakeholder.
T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR