“Technovate” in Qatar

Last week, I went to an event at QSTP, the Qatar Science and Technology Park. QSTP was created by Qatar Foundation, the same organization that created Education City, and is situated close to those campuses. The Qatar Foundation seems to be everywhere in modern Doha, backing every large-scale endeavor to advance Qatar in the fields of education, technology, innovation, science, health, and medicine. The Qatar Foundation has access to such huge sums of money because it was created by the former ruler Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and his second wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (http://www.qf.org.qa/about/about).

Part of the goal of this rapid expansion, in addition to making Qatar “the best” (at everything, I presume), is to become less dependent on oil. The country is aware that the oil reserves that created its booming wealth might not always be there. In preparation, the Qatar Foundation is smartly using the country’s current wealth to invest in Qatar becoming a knowledge economy, as I referenced in my last post. Someone here told me that oil, and its associated wealth, “is all that stops Qatar from being a third-world country,” so I think the heavy investment is due to an awareness and fear of that fact.

QSTP is a home for technology companies, with an incubator and an accelerator, but it doesn’t seem to have seeded many Qatari start-ups. It seems like QSTP is still learning how to foster innovation. It has partnered with well-established foreign companies like Cisco and Microsoft and has been inviting prominent speakers for various tech talks. I went to the first-ever event for the new QSTP Technovate series, a lineup of “fireside chats” about various topics. The topic for the chat I attended was the role of the MENA region, Middle East and North Africa, in global innovation. It had nothing to do with health or medicine, but I was eager to get a sense of Qatar’s approach towards new technologies. How lucky that this event happened while I’m here!

The managing director of QSTP was the moderator with two guests, the founding director of UC-Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology and the CEO/co-founder of the venture capital accelerator 500 Startups. Over the course of an hour, the two guests answered various questions about their work and how to bring innovation to the Middle East.

The man from UC-B stressed that Berkeley’s program teaches people how to innovate by building the right mindset rather than by giving them a business plan. He said that “engineering has to be more than solving problems,” which I thought was interesting because my definition of engineering is solving problems. I think he meant that engineering should also attempt to prevent problems by building an integrated, working society.

As the conversation continued, Silicon Valley came up as a main focus. The topic of “How can the MENA region play a role in global innovation?” became “How can we replicate the Silicon Valley effect here?” I find it interesting, though not surprising, that Silicon Valley is still considered the unique heart of innovation and the inspiration for developers all over the world. Why does Silicon Valley, U.S.A, have to be the sole model for innovation?

The guests discussed at length why Silicon Valley and the U.S. have monopolized innovation; what factors led to innovation in that area; and how Silicon Valley is not the only place where innovation can occur, though it is still the dream land of start-ups for so many people. They said that Silicon Valley has 30,000 start-ups, a growth fostered by venture capital and the right government policies (I couldn’t find an exact number). However, they both said that culture was the most important factor for encouraging innovation, government policy and venture capital investment being runner-ups. There has to be a culture of inventing and risk-taking and being okay with failure for a place like Silicon Valley to succeed. Then you need investors to fund such wild and risky ideas.

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In the discussion of how Silicon Valley came to be, the following exchange occurred (paraphrased from memory):

Guest 1: Silicon Valley has two rules. 1) Don’t waste time, and 2) Can you do it? It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can (quickly) achieve the task at hand.

Guest 2: Well, you’ve just described a perfect meritocracy, and while we all want that, it isn’t completely true of Silicon Valley. Those rules apply among white guys for sure. But it’s still not a totally even playing field for women or people of color. It’s a society that ignores certain groups.

I appreciated that, and I think it was necessary in a conversation about bringing U.S. ideals to the MENA region.

Both guests agreed that Silicon Valley no longer has to be the sole example of innovation. One said that it’s easier for innovation to be global now because there has been a dissemination of information (more people are online and the world is smaller), and because the cost of software-based innovation has dropped for everyone in the past 5-10 years. There are now other areas emerging as tech cities, such as Boston and Beijing. This is also because Silicon Valley has become far too crowded and competitive for new start-ups.

Thus it is important for the MENA region to have its own Silicon-Valley-esque ground-up innovation. Simply importing English-language tech solutions (technology transfer, or “tech dumping”) won’t work. Such solutions will be designed for the wrong set of problems, and they won’t help the MENA region become self-sustainable. So how can the MENA region learn from Silicon Valley? It needs the same factors that the guests identified as reasons for Silicon Valley’s success: a culture of innovation and lots of investment.

I was happy with the way one of the speakers (Guest #2 from above) ended the discussion on Silicon Valley. He said that one of the reasons the right culture is missing here is because people lack confidence. Silicon Valley has been around for decades now and has become an intimidating group of the world’s most forward-thinking companies. People around the world get discouraged because they think they can never become like Silicon Valley and replicate its effect. “But that’s not true!,” he said, addressing the whole room. Smart people are all over the world, not just clustered in California. With time, a positive approach, and the heavy involvement of investors, people can create innovative areas anywhere.

While this hour-long chat was interesting, I was more intrigued by its attendees. This was a chat about the role of the Middle East in innovation, but the conversation was about Silicon Valley; the guests and the moderator have all spent lots of time in the U.S.; and the people listening to the talk were mostly non-Qataris. Granted, local Qataris make up about 10% of the population (the rest are temporary foreign workers and expats), but I still felt as though this event, made by Qataris, was targeted towards them. It was all about localizing foreign ideas about innovation, and yet I saw mostly foreigners there – expats planning to work in the country just for a few years.

Also, despite the casual nature of the “fireside chat,” the event had a lot more going on than I expected. There was more of a focus on networking than I expected, with free mingling time before and after the talk. For the half hour leading up to the talk, there was juice and water everywhere, as well as servers working made-to-order coffee machines. Attendees were sipping coffee and chatting over small, circular standing tables. It was like I had signed up for a fancy conference, even though I had filled out the simple (and free) online registration one day prior!

As the talk started, people moved away from the common area towards set up seats across the (very large) room. Then, after the event, we all returned to the common area to find that the servers had set up a full buffet dinner, with hot and cold dishes, and even a dessert table. I hadn’t been expecting any food, let alone a full catered dinner, at a free evening event. It really gave me a sense of the wealth of the Qatar Foundation if it can just throw that much money at such a small event.

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Leaving the fancy QSTP building via the parking lot.

Anyway, the dinner was actually really nice because it gave people a reason to stay and mingle. There were only so many tables, requiring strangers to join each other for the meal. I joined a table with two young men, Tunisians who were born in Qatar and are studying here for the year but plan to return to Tunisia. They amazed me, as they each speak 5 languages fluently: English, Arabic, French, Spanish, and Tunisian, a dialect of Arabic specific to their country that incorporates most of the above languages.

So, I stayed an hour longer than I planned, as our table was joined by a professor from Nova Scotia (working at a campus here); a woman from Poland working here; and finally a woman from Algeria, also working here in another field. While eating our mixed plates, we reflected on the event and why we had all decided to attend. We were all so similar, despite our different backgrounds – we’re all foreigners eager to understand the way this country is pushing itself forward.