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Unleash the optimism of the Arab Spring to help innovation

Europe’s economic, financial and social crisis has coincided with upheaval in the Arab world, particularly North Africa, driven by the need for urgent political reforms.

At its worst, the crisis in daily life around the Mediterranean could drag both sides down as trading links and business and research partnerships are disrupted. But our shared travails may also set the scene for a path to economic recovery and growth.

Could we foresee a Mediterranean innovation ecosystem that combines the EU’s established technological and market position with the potential dynamism of young and ambitious populations in North Africa and the Middle East? A number of European International Cooperation projects have been exploring these possibilities. And initiatives—including an ERANET+ for the Mediterranean—are under discussion.

The Arab Spring has created both threats and opportunities for innovation in the region. The overthrow or reform of stifling and corrupt bureaucracies could create the mobility needed to foster the sharing of information on national research and innovation ecosystems and related policies and strategies, providing the basis for collaborative projects targeting the creation and application of technology.

On the other hand, the chaos and lack of resources that accompany such change could inadvertently stifle activities that were making headway even before the change. Certainly the collaborative thrust now has to take account of new directions in research and innovation policy and strategy in these countries and address their needs.

A recent survey by members of the Framework 7 Mediterranean Innovation and Research Coordination Action (Mira) INCONET project (see link below) found agreement about what hampers effective technology transfer—the processes by which knowledge, skills and artefacts flow between research and business, and across borders.

Broadly speaking the difficulties are inadequate framework conditions (for example the lack of an effective intellectual property system), insufficient expertise, lack of finance and a less tangible but important deficit in the culture of engagement. What do these mean in practice?

High on the list of barriers is a lack of communication and trust between potential partners in an innovation system. When we ran a series of foresight workshops on the future of innovative sectors such as solar energy and olive-oil production in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco (see link below) they found that the main business and science players had rarely met and even more rarely worked together. Ministries and other agencies also tend to operate in silos.

Attendees were often first rate, highly engaged in the process and keen to use these activities to inject innovation and long-term thinking and planning into the system. Such foresight activities provide an opportunity to build new networks, re-aligning existing ones and generally rethink development paths at a time when society is opening up.

Governance also appears to be a barrier—resulting in a lack of clear policies and resources. In closed societies, networks are too often defined by patronage, not opportunity. The problem is often not the existence of policies but the lack of means for their effective implementation. Wider institutional rigidity is an issue—for example, civil-service laws that inhibit mobility and interaction or academic career incentives where promotion criteria for individuals fail to give credit to technology-transfer activity. This is an issue that will resonate far more widely than in this region alone.

The core message from workshops and surveys in our Mediterranean partner countries is that people and their capacities are key. There are fundamental shortages of qualified engineers and technicians as well as of those practised in transfer and translation. Again, this is true elsewhere, but one of the most evident gaps is that in knowledge of markets. The relative isolation fostered by long-standing lack of mobility means potential entrepreneurs, and those who could support them, are often cut off from the market feedback they need.

Here again the EU can help. For example, the European Enterprise Network that links small business to new markets now extends to Egypt and Tunisia.

As the EU rethinks its economic identity, the prospect of a southern axis of development is an opportunity that could benefit the prosperity and security of citizens in a region where both have been in short supply.

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Jennifer Cassingena Harper is director of policy at the Malta Council for Science and Technology. Luke Georghiou is professor of science and technology policy and management at the University of Manchester. They write in a personal capacity.