Diversity, gender inclusion can be drivers for innovation in Arab world

“We believe that, applied well, technology has the potential to improve the lives of people everywhere.” - Managing Director of Solve Hala Hanna.

Sunday 17/02/2019
A future in code. Managing Director of Solve Hala Hanna.       (Courtesy of Hala Hanna)
A future in code. Managing Director of Solve Hala Hanna. (Courtesy of Hala Hanna)

Hala Hanna has gone from Beirut to Boston and she’s hoping to make the return journey in spirit by helping her home region scale up the social effects of technology.

Hanna is managing director of Solve, a business incubator and idea marketplace at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She helps tech entrepreneurs from around the world.

She has worked on impact strategy at the World Economic Forum and advised governments on public sector reform and donor engagement at the World Bank and the United Nations. She has also advised non-profits on strategy.

She spoke to The Arab Weekly via Skype, discussing issues including how countries in the Middle East are at different stages of Abraham Maslow’s five-tier hierarchy of human needs.

This means that a country must first address its people’s basic requirements, such as the need for food, water and security before it can move up the tier to the highest aspiration — achieving full potential.

Technology can help the Middle East, Hanna said, but change must happen at its own pace.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): Technology is bringing about social change, isn’t it? Is that good?

Hala Hanna (HH): “At Solve, we tend to be techno-optimists. We believe that, applied well, technology has the potential to improve the lives of people everywhere. This comes with the enormous responsibility to ensure that tech is designed for the end users’ benefit and with them.

“Today, there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding the impact of technology on our lives. First, there’s the question of how many jobs will disappear and how we will continue to adapt to the dramatically changing nature of work.

“Second, there’s the way tech impacts our well-being, the way we connect with each other and as a society. Does tech bring us closer together or make us further entrenched in our views?

“And third, there’s the question of privacy and of the trade-offs we make daily, giving away our data in exchange for free services.”

TAW: What needs to happen for the Arab world to undergo a digital transformation?

HH: “It’s hard to talk about the Arab world as a monolith. The disparities within the region are so wide and various countries are working through various levels of the Maslow pyramid of needs for their populations.

“Without the most basic peace and reconstruction — especially for Yemen and Syria — real transformation will be hard to come by.

“Without education that prepares youth for the skills of the future, upcoming generations’ contribution to their nation’s transformation will be stunted.

“And without the values of diversity and inclusion, it will be impossible to be globally competitive. If we can’t make revolutions work, then there’s nothing wrong with incremental change. It’s stagnation that is depressing.”

TAW: How does innovation in the Arab world compare with that in other developing regions?

HH: “At MIT Solve, we believe ingenuity and creativity exist everywhere. We see innovators and entrepreneurs globally using technology to solve challenges for their local communities in clever and unprecedented ways. Our mission is to support that. That’s why we’ve built an open innovation platform where anyone anywhere can take part in the process.

“As for the Arab world, if necessity is the mother of invention, we have infinite drivers to be innovative! We see it at Solve through the applications we receive from the region, particularly those tackling refugee issues, education outcomes and health problems. For example, the London-based start-up Century Tech helps educators adapt their teaching styles to their students’ learning needs through an interactive platform across Lebanon and the UAE.

“Tomo, a mobile application from Saudi Arabia, addresses mental health head on, providing a support platform for those suffering from depression and attacking the stigma that still surrounds this topic in our region.

“In the education field, we have Kiron, a start-up making it easier for refugee youth to integrate back into formal university education in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. We’d love to get more innovators from and working in the region.”

TAW: Are there any particular lessons to be learned in terms of shaping regional innovation?

HH: “We function like a marketplace for social impact innovation, selecting innovators on the one hand and brokering partnerships between them and our member organisations on the other hand. Our current members include multiple regional organisations, including the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development.

“Our members are indeed committed to our mission to solve the world’s most pressing problems through partnership and open innovation and they do so by supporting directly the entrepreneurs through mentorship, donations and in-kind support.

“There certainly has been knowledge transfer between foundations and local start-ups. Solve members from the Arab region have shown a strong interest in engaging and supporting early stage innovation, particularly in the education sector.

“The Queen Rania Foundation, for example, has worked with our Refugee Education and Youth, Skills and the Workforce of the Future Solve teams to not only help pilot their edtech solutions in Jordan but also provide strategic advice and mentorship. This philanthropic partner-to-social entrepreneur knowledge transfer equips the Solve teams with unparalleled opportunities for growth and greater impact on the ground, while providing the foundation with first access to talent with innovative solutions to fit the local context.”

TAW: What would be the one miracle needed for the Arab world to have a glittering future?

HH: “More diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to gender inclusion. Technology and entrepreneurship are two fields that tend to be male-dominated and yet at Solve, through a highly selective and meritocratic process, 52% of the teams we support are women-led. I believe women will propel the region forward.

“We see the potential every day at a global level and the Arab region is no different. Did you know that today, in Lebanon and the UAE, there are as many women graduating from engineering as men, if not more? This is important, because the future is in code and we want women to be writing it, too.”