The Business Year Interview with Secretary General of QRDI Council Omar Ali Al Ansari
COVID-19 has reaffirmed the importance of research and innovation to Qatar and reenergized the mission of the QRDI Council.
What were the main highlights for QRDI in 2020?
Between late 2019 and early 2020, we finalized the QRDI 2030 strategy, which came after a great deal of engagement with stakeholders, academia, industry leaders, and the government. This is a 10-year strategy in line with Qatar National Vision 2030, and we see it as a transformative agenda that will have a positive impact on Qatar's economy in Qatar and our ability to address national challenges over the next decade. During this period, the strategy was endorsed by the QRDI Council and reviewed by the highest levels of government. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to see first-hand how our lives and economy can be affected by unexpected challenges, and the critical role research and innovation has to play in both the response and recovery to such challenges. This has energized us even more, and reaffirmed the importance of this strategy to Qatar.
How does QRDI contribute to the fulfillment of Qatar National Vision 2030?
One of the important elements of Qatar National Vision 2030 is that it called for Qatar to progress toward building a sustainable, diversified, knowledge-based economy. It outlines how this goal can be achieved in several ways, including enabling and expanding the private sector and leveraging innovation, entrepreneurship, our educational infrastructure, talent, and our existing competitive advantages. Leveraging our competitive advantages is exactly what we need to focus on. When we study the journey of many other countries and advanced economies, those that were successful in building an innovation ecosystem did so because they leveraged their advantages. There are many examples of this globally, but Norway and Singapore especially come to mind. Norway's petroleum industry contributes significantly to the country's GDP, but it is strategically diversifying and using technology to build a bridge from oil and gas to other connected industries. The lesson is that innovation ecosystems are not built in a vacuum, but on a nation's strengths, and that technology allows the transition to other 'adjacent' industries. Qatar has many competitive advantages that can be leveraged for expansion into adjacent industries; the primary example is Qatar's investments to build one of the largest and most sophisticated integrated LNG supply chains in the world. Others include Qatar's investments in logistics and transport infrastructure through Qatar Airways, Qatar Rail, Milaha, Qatar Port, and Doha Port; in telecoms with Ooredoo and Vodafone; in media, such as with Al Jazeera and beIN Sports; as well as in its state-of-the-art free zones. All these investments now represent 'platforms' for new technologies to be tested and deployed, in a small geographical space that can open up huge opportunities for synergy. In this pathway, the entire nation essentially becomes a platform for new innovation-driven businesses to test new-to-market technologies and create new solutions. Qatar has everything it takes to build an innovation-based economy and fulfill its vision of building a knowledge-based economy in the next 10 years.
How can QRDI boost the industrialization of the country, which is one of the main targets of Qatar National Vision 2030, and help fill the gaps that are not covered by the oil and gas sector?
Rather than a gap, it is an opportunity. We have incredibly well-organized industrial space in Qatar, and this can be leveraged to allow all kinds of innovative businesses to test and pilot technologies. This is the opportunity at our disposal. We have built a core competence that we are now beginning to use to diversify into new innovative knowledge-based industries – and the most important ingredient in this is talent. By focusing on the opportunity for the country to be a platform to pilot technology, we can attract and develop a new breed of talent that has the capability to design and develop new products. Qatar has various strengths and capabilities in terms of research and the procurement of existing mature technologies, but it is now time for us to ramp up our efforts to strengthen our capability to design and develop innovative products that can compete in the local, regional, and global marketplace. This capability will come from talented individuals and teams within our local ecosystem, through our fantastic universities or those who are attracted to come to Qatar from abroad to conduct such activities. In the end, new industries will emerge based on new businesses that are themselves based on a new breed of talent, working on things we cannot even imagine. So talented people are the foundation; talented people are the key.
What is your partnership strategy, and how does QRDI articulate the ecosystem for innovation in the country?
We have many of the components of a vibrant innovation ecosystem in Qatar - large state enterprises, scientific research institutes, universities, SMEs, government agencies. However, to have a meaningful and truly national impact, these pieces have to come together in a new dynamic that is characterized by three elements. The first is government agencies and large state enterprises acting as innovation platforms and test beds for new technologies. These technologies are developed by the second element, which are innovation-driven businesses – SMEs, start-ups, or multinational companies. Finally, all of this is served and supported by the third element: talent, services, and infrastructure made available by excellence and relevance in our universities and research institutes. For this dynamic to occur, we have to build new capabilities, remove longstanding obstacles, and create new incentives for new collaborations between different entities. This is where the QRDI Council plays a critical role, enabling this process to happen by creating partnerships between different actors, and supporting the development of Qatar's national RDI ecosystem.
How does environmental friendliness and sustainability fit into this ecosystem?
Environmental sustainability is extremely high on Qatar's agenda, as it drives itself toward significantly improving its environmental performance across many industries and activities. In Qatar, many entities and all our industries are heavily focused on improving their environmental footprint. We can procure existing technology and solutions to improve this performance and environmental sustainability, but there is also a recognition that not all challenges that may be unique to Qatar can be addressed by off-the-shelf solutions. This is where innovation comes in. Our plan for sustainability is to work with government agencies and large state enterprises to develop in-house capabilities that enable them to identify and articulate environmental challenges that are sufficiently unique to represent an opportunity for innovation to solve. To support these entities in building their capabilities, we would have 'sandboxes' allowing R&D-based businesses to test their environmental solutions in the facilities of government agencies or large state enterprises. Our hope is that this will result in a wave of new sustainability-based businesses emerging from Qatar, capable of addressing local and global problems and exporting their solutions worldwide.