by Mishari Alnahedh

Downtown Kuwait City

Downtown Kuwait City. © Khaleel Haidar / Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/khaleelq8/)

Under the patronage of his highness the Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the government of Kuwait announced the launch of the Knowledge Economy Forum, to take place in February 2018, aiming to modernise governance based on what is known as a knowledge and innovation ecosystem. The escalating attention on developing an innovation ecosystem has been witnessed in Kuwait and across all the GCC countries. But what exactly is an innovation ecosystem? How can an emerging economy like Kuwait develop a national innovation ecosystem?

The development of such an ecosystem has been shown to be of particular importance for knowledge-based economic development and central to innovation-based growth. As defined by David Mowery, a national innovation ecosystem is the collection of public and private institutions and organisations in an economy that fund and perform research and development, commercialise the products of such research, and facilitate the diffusion of new technologies in the market. So an effective innovation system should simultaneously facilitate both processes of knowledge creation (inventions) and knowledge diffusion and commercialisation (innovation).

Innovation is a chain of processes that starts with knowledge creation and ends with the market commercialisation of inventions and the adoption of new technologies. In order to develop an effective innovation ecosystem, it is critical to understand that innovation is mainly carried out by private firms, and that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the key drivers of innovative activities.

A national innovation ecosystem not only complements but is also embedded within the national entrepreneurial ecosystem. Whereas the innovation ecosystem facilitates knowledge creation, transfer, and combination, it overlaps with entrepreneurial ecosystems in facilitating the commercialisation of inventions, discovered technologies, and new business models. Thus, a strong and coherent national innovation ecosystem supports new venture creation and the development of a knowledge economy.

A closer look at patenting activity in Kuwait can shed light on the current state of innovation in the country. Patent protection in Kuwait works exclusively via the GCC Patent Office. On April 2016, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Commerce and Industry started regulating patent protection in Kuwait via Law no. 115/2016, implementing the previously issued patent law (No. 71/2013) to approve and implement the regional GCC Patent Law declared in 1999. Accordingly, inventors in Kuwait who seek patent protection have to apply through the GCC regional patent office. The GCC Patent Office has processed over 22,000 patent applications since it began operation in 1998, the vast majority (93%) of which were filed by applicants from foreign countries. According to statistics from the GCC patent office, only eighty patents were issued by applicants from Kuwait. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) keeps a database on intellectual property rights statistics. According to the WIPO statistics database, the majority of patent applications are filed by Kuwait’s residents at a foreign office and the number of patent applications has been increasing for the last fifteen years.

Source: WIPO statistics database; last updated 5/2017

To accelerate the development of a robust and effective national innovation ecosystem, three broad concerns should be addressed by policymakers in Kuwait. First, the national innovation system in Kuwait is weak and fragmented. For instance, there is a weak link between public and private research and educational institutions on one hand, and commercial and industrial firms in Kuwait on the other. Efforts are needed to improve the coordination between researchers at educational and research institutions and the private sector. Such coordination should direct efforts to train students and researchers at universities, or target research funding policies, to match market demand and the commercialisation strategy adopted by private firms.

As a case in point, public universities such as Kuwait University and the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training should work closely with both large and small private companies to collaborate on research and development (R&D) activities, while strengthening mutual efforts to match the market’s technical demands by training researchers and placing graduating students within the industry. An excellent example of the collaboration between private and public institutions is the partnership between KFAS (Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science) and the EQUATE Petrochemical Company to support EQUATE’s Innovation Centre, which facilitates the patenting of ideas with international patenting offices and the promotion of a creativity-based culture in society.

Second, as things stand, Kuwait lacks an explicit and coherent national innovation policy. In addressing this, policymakers should connect the development of the Kuwaiti national innovation system with economic, structural and intuitional development in Kuwait. More importantly, the government should plan and implement policies to address the weakness and fragmentation of the Kuwaiti national innovation ecosystem, creating explicit innovation policy programs supported by macroeconomic policies. Political pressure, corruption, bureaucracy, and misuse of incentives must be controlled and prevented from damaging efforts to develop and execute a strong national innovation ecosystem.

Third, Kuwait needs to build a local culture of experimentation, invention, and knowledge creation, particularly in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Steps toward achieving this goal would begin with initiatives and changes to national education policy. While sporadic efforts exist, such as the Kuwait Science Club, the depth and breadth of change and impact should be more comprehensive, covering formal public and private K-12 education in addition to a variety of informal programs. Such programs can be either initiated by public institutions or in collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors.

A recent positive initiative in Kuwait warrants mentioning here. In 2010, KFAS established the Sabah Al Ahmad Centre for Giftedness and Creativity (SACGC), with a mandate to incubate gifted citizens and support their inventive endeavours in the fields of science and technology. One project of SACGC is an innovation governance program in Kuwait, mainly through coordination between different public and private institutions. While the program demonstrates promising objectives, it suffers two shortcomings. First, the specifics of how such an ambitious goal will be achieved are unclear; second, little impact has been observed and so far the results of the program are hardly noticeable. Yet, the program does provide evidence of a sincere belief in, and support of (by KFAS and SACGC) a national innovation ecosystem.


Mishari Alnahedh is Visiting Fellow at the LSE Kuwait Programme, Middle East Centre. He is also Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Kuwait University. His research areas include entrepreneurship, innovation, corporate strategy, venture capital, and complexity science. He tweets at @malnahedh

 

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