Innovation will be at the heart of the UAE's next economic transition. Be it 'smart' cities or in the delivery of government services, digital and next-generation technology will power the shift. People at the GITEX Innovation week at Dubai World Trade Centre. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

February marks the UAE’s “Innovation Month”, a celebration of ingenuity launched in 2015 by the government to enhance the development of new ideas and capabilities and create a widespread culture of innovation.

The UAE has a clear vision for the economic development of the country, as defined in its Vision 2021: “Innovation, research, science and technology will form the pillars of a knowledge-based, highly productive and competitive economy, driven by entrepreneurs in a business-friendly environment where public and private sectors form effective partnerships.”

A widely accepted law of innovation states: “Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum”. What this means is that it almost never takes place in isolation.

Seeding ideas

Innovators create solutions to needs that they have identified in society, and they are inspired by a wide range of social input, from education to cultural environments and the advice and opinions of peers, family and friends. They are further supported by a knowledge economy and access to investment.

However, innovation can also be catalysed by initiatives designed to create an “innovation ecosystem” in which original ideas are encouraged and allowed to take root. A strong foundation for this was created by the launch of the National Innovation Strategy by the Prime Minister’s Office at the UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs in 2015.

So how do groups like Al Naboodah, as corporate citizens, take up the banner of innovation and make our own contributions to the UAE government’s efforts?

Firstly, businesses should foster their own innovation ecosystems with initiatives such as internal ideation programmes to harness the expertise and creativity of their own workforce, and establish business incubators to make their industry expertise, support and funding available to promising start-ups and young entrepreneurs.

Assigned sectors

In terms of investment, the UAE’s National Innovation Strategy has identified seven “priority sectors” to be targeted to drive innovation in the future: renewable and clean energy, transportation, technology, education, health, water, and space.

We have identified which of those priority sectors are within our capabilities to take up and develop, and targeted them for investment through our various business units. One example is the establishment of a Smart Cities and Renewables division.

Under the technology sector, the National Innovation Strategy aims to “promote innovation in technology through the development of smart cities, software and applications, as well as the enhancement of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry to improve the quality of services provided.”

Smart moves

The UAE has accordingly launched a range of initiatives, including The Smart Government and The Smart City initiatives, in a bold drive towards creating a truly smart and sustainable society. But what does this actually mean?

According to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, “A smart sustainable city uses information and communications technology and other means to improve the quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, whilst ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations.”

Smart cities initiatives could include technology such as driverless car sharing to reduce traffic congestion and emissions (especially since driverless cars will be almost entirely electric by the time their use is commonplace). Smart mobility will enable a smooth transition towards sustainable transport through a focus on electric vehicles and innovative technologies in the field of DC fast- and wireless-charging through partnerships with global leaders in EV technology.

Harnessing the sun

Smart buildings combine solar energy, building automation and energy storage/management systems to greatly reduce water and energy consumption, and will eventually enable net-zero energy buildings. Lights and air-conditioning can be switched off when rooms are empty, irrigation systems can be timed, monitored and checked for leaks, and whole buildings can be ‘put to sleep’ with an app on an everyday hand-held device.

Automation will be further driven by the proliferation of internet of Things, whereby everyday processes such as manufacturing, building management, and even domestic activities like shopping and gardening will increasingly be automated using smart sensors connected to wireless networks which monitor their environment and respond accordingly.

The smart cities market is expected to more than double over the next few years, from $308 billion in 2018 to over $700 billion by 2023. Any company that is not harnessing this new wave of digital transformation is destined to be left behind.

Clean resources

In the renewable and clean energy sector, private investment in solar technologies through DEWA’s Shams Dubai programme is enabling property owners to reduce their environmental impact and make savings by harnessing the sun. Not only can customers reduce their monthly energy bill, but any surplus electricity generated can be credited back by DEWA at standard retail rates, further reducing energy bills.

Laying the roadmap to 2021 and beyond... The UAE's innovation push will show up across industries and layers of society. Image Credit: WAM

These have helped developers, businesses and homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint, increase efficiencies, do more with available energy and make savings but, most importantly, they have changed the way we think about how a modern society and economy should operate.

There is no denying the changes that we are seeing in our environment today. The UAE and the wider world are increasingly facing challenges which threaten the stability of our global community. Climate change, water scarcity and ecological decline are all very real threats to our way of life, and the wise decisions and investments being made today will have a profound effect on future generations.

Next year, the UAE celebrates its Golden Jubilee, marking 50 years since the unification of the seven emirates. With scarce natural resources, the UAE has always had to rely on ingenuity, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit to improve the standard of living of its citizens, and it is through these qualities that we shall continue to do so for another 50 years and beyond.

— Swaidan Al Naboodah is Managing Director at Al Naboodah Group.