What is innovation? And what does it mean for Saudi Arabia?

I was reading over the news this week and came across an announcement by General Electric. The American engineering giant recently announced a one billion dollar investment in the Kingdom, including the establishment of an innovation center in Dhahran’s Techno-Valley in the country’s oil-producing Eastern Region (you can read about the announcement here).

The company showcased the facility last week to a select number of media, and gave a glimpse into how the center would be the focal point of the company’s engagement with local customers, Saudi-based researchers and universities and industry groups. More cryptic (to me) was the statement that the GE innovation center will act as a hub where “entrepreneurs and companies can incubate business ideas and pursue innovation in energy efficiency, aviation, healthcare, and elsewhere.”

I’m always thrilled to see investment into Saudi Arabia, particularly when it’s focused on knowledge transfer and supporting Saudi nationals in developing their skills and abilities. But one question has stuck in my head. What is innovation in this context? Will we see new technologies and products being developed by GE and its partners in Saudi? And why Saudi Arabia for an innovation center?

To be fair, the region is not known for developing world firsts, unlike the United States. In the 2011 there were two million patents filed worldwide. Of that number Saudi Arabia filed for 990. The Kingdom is primarily known for its consumption of goods rather than value creation through local entrepreneurship and knowledge creation.

Efforts have been made to introduce systems and concepts to foster more local innovation – the Kingdom’s Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority has set up various centers to support entrepreneurs establish new companies and increase the competitiveness of small to medium sized businesses. There are 120,000 plus Saudi nationals studying at universities abroad under the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, whose knowledge will also make a major impact on the nation’s economy.

There is one area where Saudi Arabia innovates and that is in the oil and gas sector. Situated in the Eastern Region, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) is renowned for its academic research into the oil and gas industry. KFUPM has successfully partnered with the private sector to further its academic research and find practical applications for its academic output.

My hope is that GE’s new innovation center, which is located alongside KFUPM, will build on the wealth of oil and gas/energy knowledge that has been created in the Kingdom’s Eastern Region to create new applications that we will see being put into use in other parts of the Middle East.

For me, innovation is taking that (in many cases) latent ability and talent and nurturing it through mentoring, support and guidance. If GE can pull this off, and gradually benefit the many industries that GE has a hand in on a local level I’ll be delighted as will many others who understand how much Saudi and its people are capable off. Let’s hope others follow in GE’s footsteps and consider their own innovation investments in the Kingdom.

GE has committed to support Saudi innovation alongside KFUPM. When will other multinational companies follow?

Seizing the moment – the GCC’s energy subsidies and communicating a solution

Is energy a problem for the Gulf? At first thought one wouldn’t think so. However, the Gulf region is facing a ticking bomb. To put it as simply as possible, the cost of producing electricity is becoming unsustainable. Demand for electricity has reached a point where countries are burning up to a fifth of their daily oil production. Unfortunately electricity prices have barely risen over the past couple of decades.

I didn’t realize the scale of the problem of electricity subsidies and the growing demand for electricity in the Gulf region until I worked in the energy sector. The issue is slowly gaining the attention that it deserves. One of the most impressive public sector leaders I know, Dr Saleh Al Awaji, has been constantly working to highlight ways to reduce energy consumption in Saudi Arabia. Only last week the BBC’s Middle East analyst Bill Law wrote a compelling article on the subject, which should be read by everyone who is concerned about energy consumption in the Gulf.

Bill Law's article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

Bill Law’s article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

And this brings me to my argument. In marketing and communications we all hope to plan and work to a long-term plan. For me, what distinguishes the good from the great are those professionals who know when and how to seize the moment, take the initiative and weave these waves of interest in related subjects into the communications plan.

So, what would make sense within the context of the above issue of energy subsidies? Possibly a company’s vision and thoughts on how its technology can reduce residential energy consumption, or improve the efficiency of electricity distribution, or ways in which alternative energy can complement traditional fossil fuel energy production.

The idea is simple. But it’s all about timing and approach in order to gain the maximum coverage for a company and its thought leadership. I’d love to see how energy leaders such as GE and Siemens are aiming to help the Gulf’s utilities and governments in averting the electricity subsidy cliff.

Of course there are times when it may appear in bad taste to seize the moment and partake in tactical, opportunistic communications activities. For example, promoting armored backpacks days after the devastating school shooting in Newtown.

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

Where’s the corporate response to #Sandy?

The response to tropical storm/hurricane Sandy online has been remarkable. There’s little anyone else is talking about, and even as far off as the Middle East people are sending their wishes to those caught in the storm’s path. To give you an idea about how Sandy has been trending on social media, have a look at the analytics graph from Hashtag.org for #sandy.

The graph, from hashtags.org, is from a one percent sample of Twitter traffic over the past 24 hours.

Everyone has been pitching in to provide help, support and comfort to those affected. According to thenextweb, Twitter has supported relief efforts by promoting the following twitter accounts @RedCross, @FEMA,@NYCMayorsOffice, and @MDMEMA. “Twitter is also listing government accounts and resources on its blog and giving #Sandy a custom page,” according to the piece by Harrison Weber on TNW.

Even celebrities have been taking to the social media space to talk about Sandy.

Aside from the danger to life posed by Sandy, the main talking points have been flooding and power outages. As a big fan of the likes of ABB (my former company) and GE, I was hoping that they and others would be talking about the disaster and lending a hand to get everything back on track. Estimations are that eight million people are without power right now in the Eastern seaboard of the US, and that utility company staffers are traveling from as far as California and Texas to help out in New York.

And what is on GE’s Facebook page?

This was GE’s latest post to their Facebook page, which is liked by over 900,000 people. There’s no mention of Sandy.

And ABB?

ABB’s latest Facebook post which was put up in the afternoon of October 30. Again, no mention of Sandy.

This isn’t exactly an empirical study, but it worries me that two of the world’s most respected electrical engineering companies are not lending their support or even making their support known by social media. While I understand that many corporates don’t want to be seen to be taking advantage of the situation, surely there’s a time and place for them to offer their support and advice publicly.

Not talking about what is affecting millions of people seems so out of place, especially when on social media and when the companies mentioned provide solutions that power our utilities.

After all, aren’t we supposed to be talking with each other via Facebook and Twitter. Or do we go on, ignoring global events? Hardly being socially responsibly on social media, is it?