Islam Analysis: Overcoming barriers to innovation

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Islamic countries need to shake up their scientific establishments to commercialise technology and promote innovation, says Athar Osama.

Innovation — the process of putting scientific and technological ideas into commercial practice — is widely seen as an enabler for a new wave of economic growth in the current economic downturn.

There is a growing realisation that lack of innovation has long been a bottleneck for development. This has led to initiatives to create innovation 'ecosystems' that encourage scientific as well as social innovation.

In Africa, for instance, there is a concerted effort to bring innovation within the policy discourse through the work of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST), such as with the African Innovation Outlook and the Innovation Prize for Africa.

But despite progress by some member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Islamic world has lagged behind in finding a common voice on innovation.  

Institutional bottleneck

Making innovation work will not be easy, even though there is enthusiasm for its merits. The reason lies in the lack of institutional development that the Islamic world has suffered for several centuries.

Islamic countries have become users rather than producers of technology and knowledge — the legacy of a shared colonial experience, among other factors. Innovation is hampered by underdeveloped institutional infrastructure — such as scientific societies, intellectual property regimes and a venture capital industry.

Take Pakistan: the country is capable of producing sophisticated defence technologies such as a cruise missile, but not relatively simple civilian applications such as a car engine.

This will need to be addressed as countries in the Islamic world seek to overturn this decades-old legacy. It is a task that calls for dramatic change at multiple levels within society and its institutions.

A strategy for innovation

First, there needs to be resolve and commitment — both at the political level and within the scientific community — to develop science with a demonstrable impact on society, and to become producers rather than consumers of scientific knowledge and technology.

Second, science and technology institutions need to be adequately funded and exposed to international competition. Most science is carried out in public sector labs that are average, at best. They have long been shielded from market forces. These institutions must either compete internationally and demonstrate value, or be closed.

Third, putting in place the right incentive system for innovation is a critical step in creating an eco-system that delivers. Half measures and ill-conceived plans, such as making scientists responsible for commercialisation without proper incentives, simply do not work.

And last, the countries, individually and collectively, must address the obstacles posed by science funding systems: their lopsided emphasis on science with very little commercialisation, and a lack of private funding. Innovation is not even a funding category in much of the Islamic world; there is very little in competitive R&D funds available; and scientists often need to wait months for basic equipment needed for the day-to-day work.

Whatever the approach, Islamic countries need to create a virtuous cycle where investment in science and technology leads to tangible benefits and nurtures a society where innovation, rather than the status quo, is rewarded.

Challenging the establishment

The strategy above reflects a fundamental shift in the social contract of science in the Islamic world. It will not happen overnight, or come cheaply. And it will be resisted, tooth and nail, by the beneficiaries of the status quo.

Take public sector research organisations in the Islamic world. As the impetus to commercialise technologies has grown, the mandates of research organisations have expanded to include commercialisation. While most have resisted accountability in doing so, they are happy to accept the benefits — such as additional money for this remit. And giving them up would be difficult.  

'Thinking outside the box' is one way to push ahead with reforms in spite of opposition. Policymakers seeking to rewrite the DNA of their science and technology establishments by making them performance-driven, customer-focused, and more responsive to societal needs, may need to look elsewhere — often outside the established system — for partnerships, coalitions and action.

Eye on the prize

Policymakers must also look towards fertile sources of talent for new ideas and methods — most often young people, of whom many of the Islamic countries have ample supply — outside of the mainstream of science and technology establishments.

One way of doing this is through prizes and challenges, such as that offered by the X PRIZE Foundation, which about a decade ago launched a US$20 million prize to entice the private sector to venture into space travel, creating an innovation industry several times the size of its initial investment.

Another example is Microsoft's Imagine Cup, which engages university students in "writing code to solve the world's toughest problems". More than 350,000 registrants from 183 countries participated last year — with Pakistan fielding 11,000 student entries. Such massive 'brain power' has never been mobilised like this before.

Prizes are the best example of how, and when, bypassing traditional S&T bureaucracies can have a significant impact. But they are only part of the solution. Another, novel approach is building public sector coalitions to solve the problem of inertia within the sector. Public-private partnerships offer some promise too, but again can become handicapped if public sector S&T establishments are dysfunctional.

Creative mechanisms that can solve the challenges of commitment, institutions, incentives and funding may not only provide alternative platforms for innovation, but can also shake things up for those unwilling to change course.

Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy consultant. He is the founder and CEO of Technomics International Ltd, a UK-based international technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com.