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Sun 20 Nov 2016 04:35 PM

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Powering growth: UAE needs to look beyond the traditional avenues for innovation

Abdulla Kalban, managing director and CEO, Emirates Global Aluminium, on how innovation can make our lives easier

Powering growth: UAE needs to look beyond the traditional avenues for innovation
Abdulla Kalban, managing director and CEO, Emirates Global Aluminium

Everywhere you look these days, it seems someone is talking about innovation. Whether at work or at home, when travelling, shopping or ordering a taxi, innovation is making our lives easier, reducing our impact on the environment and saving us money.

As a result, it has become a career buzzword and young people across the region increasingly want to get involved and make an impact on their community. Opportunities to do this can be found beyond the traditional avenues.

Most of us understand innovation as the process of improving established systems by applying new discoveries or techniques. Another way of looking at innovation is the process of creating commercial success out of knowledge, similar to research and development.

By either definition, the UAE has been a leader in innovation from its foundation. Well before the word became a catch phrase across the world, the UAE was investing in innovative ideas, methods, concepts, products and people across its economy. Since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, businesses have developed here. Nascent industries have blossomed, creating new industries that have fuelled the growth of the nation and its economy.

The visionary development of Jebel Ali Port and Khalifa Port, the commercialisation of the Dubai Creek and the establishment of free zones turned the UAE into a business hub. The development of iconic buildings like the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa and the growth of mega-malls, entertainment destinations and luxury hotels put Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the map. ADNOC made the UAE a market leader in the upstream, midstream and downstream sectors of the petroleum industry.

These visionary ideas were the products of the search for solutions to market needs, often well before those needs were clear and apparent. The UAE’s spectacular rise is a prime example of innovation. And its investment into supportive infrastructure demonstrates its support for the concept going forwards.

This can be seen through programmes like Takamul, which offers inventors across the UAE advisory and financial support for international patent application processes, to protect locally created intellectual property. Meanwhile, local chapters of international incubators such as Endeavor are creating support systems for UAE entrepreneurs, while Dubai SME 100 is helping to groom SMEs into bigger and more sustainable enterprises.

Ask young entrepreneurs in the Middle East where the best place to grow a business is, and they will very likely point you towards the UAE. They will think of the UAE’s growing fintech market, and the regional growth of popular and innovative digital platforms such as Careem and Fetchr.

Whether it is the supportive regulation or simply the image that the UAE has built, the nation is attracting those who want to innovate. But it is important not to overlook the innovation taking place in more traditional industries.

Sectors such as aluminium  have grown from nothing to global players in the UAE’s relatively short history. The aluminium sector now employs almost 30,000 people in the UAE. Today, EGA contributes about 1.2 percent of total GDP and the UAE is the fourth largest aluminium-producing country in the world.

The growth of our company has depended on technology and we have developed it ourselves for decades. This has created opportunities for Emiratis to innovate and give back to the world in ways that previous generations may never have thought possible.

While we bought in the core technology we used to develop our initial smelter in the 1970s, we have used home-grown technology for every expansion since then. Our innovations have enabled EGA to continually improve our performance in cost, efficiency and environmental responsibility to be globally competitive.

We recently licensed our UAE technology internationally for the first time, to Alba in Bahrain. Other industries are contributing to the UAE in a similar way, with the renewables, aerospace, information and communications technology and semiconductors sectors following suit. One example is given by Mubadala’s support for the nation’s involvement in cutting-edge industries through companies such as Masdar, GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Strata.

Innovation has played a vital role in diversifying the economy away from oil, providing countless new careers for a rapidly growing population and attracting a skilled workforce from across the region.

It has become integral to the government’s objectives and long-term plans such as Dubai Plan 2021 and Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, with AED2bn recently announced for the establishment of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund. This demonstrates the level of commitment our leadership and our people have to becoming a knowledge-based economy.

We can all be proud of such progress and look forward to ever more significant innovations. For young people looking to lead and make an impact in this way, there are countless opportunities to do so here in the UAE.

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