Idea Factory: Ingredients That Give Birth to New Ideas and Let Them Flourish

Investing in education is vital, which the UAE recognises with its aim to get more young people into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects as part of its National Innovation Strategy.

In a cavernous hall in Dubai's World Trade Centre, Nasser AlKaabi clicks a button and a pair of mini curtains open and close. The 23-year-old student at Abu Dhabi's Higher Colleges of Technology's Al Ain Men's College is working on a mobile app smart home system to let homeowners control their devices remotely.

"It's all about saving energy and saving money," he says. AlKaabi and his teammates are just three of 550 young Emiratis at the annual Think Science fair, a national competition where UAE students showcase their engineering, energy or aviation inventions.

Governments and corporations are banking on inventions dreamed up by young people such as AlKaabi. But innovation involves more than just a bright idea. It needs education, government and business initiatives to lay the basis for talent, infrastructure and entrepreneurial appetite.

Investing in education is vital, which the UAE recognises with its aim to get more young people into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects as part of its National Innovation Strategy.

The plan aims to propel the country among the world's most innovative nations by 2021 by building a knowledge-based economy, with a focus on seven areas: renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space.

But academia must be knitted into the fabric of the economy, says John Kao, founder of EdgeMakers, which offers training for young innovators. "Innovation flourishes in the US because it is easy and acceptable for academics to have business involvements," he says.

In the UAE, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology's four research centres encourage private-sector partnerships. In China, the rural village of Zhongguancun, near the capital, Beijing, has been transformed into a tech hub by teaming business with academia. Close to Peking and Tsinghua universities, global technology companies' R&D centres can tap into a large talent pool.

Next, the public sector is key in investing in the infrastructure to support innovation. Here, the city is king, not least because two-thirds of the world's population will be urban dwellers by 2050, predicts the UN.

"Cities come with a range of problems, such as mass population, pollution and distribution issues," says Patrick Harris, futurist with global foresight programme Future Agenda. But cities are also "natural innovative hubs" that create solutions.

Infrastructure investment comes in two forms. First, the city must attract talent and human capital. Second, infrastructure can spur growth: US and European cities' investments in the 1970s are good examples, notes Bouvier. The installation of fibre-optic cables (thus the internet) gave birth to the digital city, which helped create new types of jobs and enterprise. India is following the same strategy: its Digital India plan aims to connect up 250,000 village blocks with broadband by 2017 and create some 100 smart cities eventually growing to 500.

Older cities, such as London and Chicago, have outdated infrastructure, which can slow innovation. This gives cities in emerging economies the edge because they typically start with bigger and newer spaces.

"Silicon Valley has been held up as a canonical example of how innovation should be done," says Kao. "Every country or city interested in innovation should read everyone else's book, but ultimately they have to write their own."

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