The bumpy road to innovation in the Arab world is paved with good inventions that never see the light of day.
Have you heard of the Egyptian electric pedal? No, it is not some new-age exercise bike that charges your aura, enhances your spiritual wellbeing, gives you access to the most exclusive esoteric knowledge and cures all known conditions.
It is, in fact, an innovation of powerful simplicity designed to deal with the forthcoming energy crunch and reduce urban pollution. The EEP, which is buried under busy roads, acts like a giant dynamo, turning roads into powerhouses. The technology utilises the normally wasted kinetic energy of cars and converts it into electricity.
The Think Tank Team (3T), the creators of the pedal, estimate that installing the technology on a busy 100 km stretch of road would generate enough energy to supply around 5,000 households and create 250 jobs.
If applied widely enough, this low-tech green solution has the potential to not only generate electricity that is up to 70% cheaper but also to slash energy consumption. The developers reckon that, if Egypt installed 30,000 such pedals, it could knock 20% off the country's oil consumption, saving hundreds of millions of dollars a year and creating up to half a million jobs. Even if the real potential of this inexpensive technology is less than the developers believe, it is still a very promising concept. So, what has been the fate of this bright idea?
Since 2004, the EEP has been powering the Cairo headquarters of Petrojet, an Egyptian oil company. Ministers expressed some initial enthusiasm when the concept was launched at the Arab Ideas Market. However, the government, from the Ministry of Electricity to the Social Fund for Development, has adopted a “wait and see” approach.
“Our major constraint was, and remains, the attitude of the community as a whole, and decision-makers in particular, towards the project,” complained 3T's director Ihab Abdel-Karim in an interview. “Nobody has been prepared to provide the least support to allow the initiative to see the light.”
Tired of waiting for the authorities and local market to take up their idea and run with it, 3T has decided, despite its expressed preference for keeping the “Egypt” in the EEP, to seek foreign partners.
The difficulty 3T has faced in peddling its pedal and the apparent dead end it has reached provides a telling analogy of the state of innovation in Egypt and the Arab world. There is no real shortage of bright minds and innovators, as my mother, who occasionally takes up the cause of one or the other in her idealistic attempts to improve the world, never tires of telling me. In fact, given the Arab world's shoddy R&D record, the science pages of newspapers and the shelves of university libraries are surprisingly full of clever innovations and ideas that rarely make it beyond the drawing board.
However, the dominant patronage culture in academia, the shortage of research funding, the almost complete absence of private research, the difficulty of registering and protecting intellectual property, as well as the rote-based education system, may explain why more research is carried out by Arabs outside the region than inside it.
The UN's shocking 2002 Arab Human Development Report stated that Arab countries only invested 0.4% of their collective GDP in R&D. That said, the Arab world is way ahead of China and India in its per-capita output of science papers.
Summing up the bleak picture, former Jordanian prime minister Adnan Badran told the World Science Forum in Budapest last November: “The combined sum of Arab expenditure on R&D, education and health is less than Arab military expenditure.”
Nevertheless, things are slowly improving. For instance, Egyptian expenditure on R&D increased from 0.3% of GDP in the 1990s to almost 1% in 2006/2007. This still falls far short of the regional knowledge powerhouse, Israel, which, according to UNESCO, sets aside nearly 5% of its national income to fund research – one of the highest figures in the world.
During a recent visit to Jordan, I saw some promising signs of hope. The Jordanian government has set up some half a dozen technology incubators, some in collaboration with the EU, in the past few years. Recognising that too much research winds up collecting dust in the Arab world, one successful approach has been to raid the archives for bright ideas that have promising application potential.
MonoJo is one company that was born out of this process. The firm has developed local varieties of monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies which can be used for clinical and research purposes to diagnose diseases.
I visited the oldest of these incubators, iPark, where young Jordanian innovators are given seed funding and a location to let their imagination loose. Companies incubated there include IT developers, chip designers and game makers.
Kindisoft has been one of the park's biggest successes. This start-up has developed an award-winning solution that protects the hard-earned intellectual property of Flash developers. “At first, Flash was not seen as a serious development platform,” explains Ammar Mardawi, the firm's founder. “Now that it is, we have a lot of business.”
In fact, Mardawi and co showed remarkable foresight, since millions of web users now have Flash media installed on their machines. This has made Flash an attractive platform for developers, which has, in turn, lured the “reverse engineers” who have, according to one estimate, stolen code from 2 million Flash applications since 1998.
Incubators like iPark suffer from their own peculiar financial challenges. “Most venture capitalists in the Middle East are not interested in the small amounts our start-ups need. It is relatively easy to get your hands on $10 million, but it can be hard to acquire a few thousand,” Omar Hamarneh, iPark's director, told me.
This also touches on another major challenge facing the Arab world. Countries that have the human resources lack the funds, and countries that have the finances tend to lack the people. In theory, this sounds like a match made in heaven, but a lot of political, cultural and bureaucratic barriers stand in the way of efficiently matching brains with money regionally.
There are a number of efforts in motion that seek to promote pan-regional, collaborative R&D, including the independent Arab Science and Technology Foundation, which seeks to create “simple solutions to common Arab problems”, including water desalination and solar power. To overcome fragmentation, it might not be a bad idea for Arab countries to take such small-scale models further, and coordinate their scientific efforts more closely.
The Arab world needs to shift away from being largely an importer of science and technology and create and apply knowledge that addresses the specific challenges facing the region. Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done to reform education systems, and create a culture and system that appreciates and rewards innovation.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 25 June 2008.