We asked our 2020 intake of Technology Pioneers for their views on how technology will change the world in the next five years.
From quantum computers and 5G in action to managing cancer chronically, here are their predictions for our near-term future.
1. AI-optimized manufacturing
Paper and pencil tracking, luck, significant global travel and opaque supply chains are part of today’s status quo, resulting in large amounts of wasted energy, materials and time. Accelerated in part by the long-term shutdown of international and regional travel by COVID-19, companies that design and build products will rapidly adopt cloud-based technologies to aggregate, intelligently transform, and contextually present product and process data from manufacturing lines throughout their supply chains. By 2025, this ubiquitous stream of data and the intelligent algorithms crunching it will enable manufacturing lines to continuously optimize towards higher levels of output and product quality – reducing overall waste in manufacturing by up to 50%. As a result, we will enjoy higher quality products, produced faster, at lower cost to our pocketbooks and the environment.
In 2025, carbon footprints will be viewed as socially unacceptable, much like drink driving is today. The COVID-19 pandemic will have focused the public’s attention on the need to take action to deal with threats to our way of life, our health and our future. Public attention will drive government policy and behavioural changes, with carbon footprints becoming a subject of worldwide scrutiny. Individuals, companies and countries will seek the quickest and most affordable ways to achieve net-zero – the elimination of their carbon footprint. The creation of a sustainable, net-zero future will be built through a far-reaching energy transformation that significantly reduces the world’s carbon emissions, and through the emergence of a massive carbon management industry that captures, utilizes and eliminates carbon dioxide. We’ll see a diversity of new technologies aimed at both reducing and removing the world’s emissions – unleashing a wave of innovation to compare with the industrial and digital Revolutions of the past.
By 2025, quantum computing will have outgrown its infancy, and a first generation of commercial devices will be able tackle meaningful, real-world problems. One major application of this new kind of computer will be the simulation of complex chemical reactions, a powerful tool that opens up new avenues in drug development. Quantum chemistry calculations will also aid the design of novel materials with desired properties, for instance better catalysts for the automotive industry that curb emissions and help fight climate change. Right now, the development of pharmaceuticals and performance materials relies massively on trial and error, which means it is an iterative, time-consuming and terribly expensive process. Quantum computers may soon be able to change this. They will significantly shorten product development cycles and reduce the costs for R&D.
4. Healthcare paradigm shift to prevention through diet
By 2025, healthcare systems will adopt more preventative health approaches based on the developing science behind the health benefits of plant-rich, nutrient-dense diets. This trend will be enabled by AI-powered and systems biology-based technology that exponentially grows our knowledge of the role of specific dietary phytonutrients in specific human health and functional outcomes. After the pandemic of 2020, consumers will be more aware of the importance of their underlying health and will increasingly demand healthier food to help support their natural defences. Armed with a much deeper understanding of nutrition, the global food industry can respond by offering a broader range of product options to support optimal health outcomes. The healthcare industry can respond by promoting earth’s plant intelligence for more resilient lives and to incentivize people to take care of themselves in an effort to reduce unsustainable costs.
5. 5G will enhance the global economy and save lives
Overnight, we’ve experienced a sharp increase in delivery services with a need for “day-of” goods from providers like Amazon and Instacart – but it has been limited. With 5G networks in place, tied directly into autonomous bots, goods would be delivered safely within hours.
Wifi can’t scale to meet higher capacity demands. Sheltering-in-place has moved businesses and classrooms to video conferencing, highlighting poor-quality networks. Low latency 5G networks would resolve this lack of network reliability and even allow for more high-capacity services like telehealth, telesurgery and ER services. Businesses can offset the high cost of mobility with economy-boosting activities including smart factories, real-time monitoring, and content-intensive, real-time edge-compute services. 5G private networks make this possible and changes the mobile services economy.
The roll-out of 5G creates markets that we only imagine – like self-driving bots, along with a mobility-as-a-service economy – and others we can’t imagine, enabling next generations to invent thriving markets and prosperous causes.
Technology drives data, data catalyzes knowledge, and knowledge enables empowerment. In tomorrow’s world, cancer will be managed like any chronic health condition —we will be able to precisely identify what we may be facing and be empowered to overcome it.
In other words, a new normal will emerge in how we can manage cancer. We will see more early and proactive screening with improved diagnostics innovation, such as in better genome sequencing technology or in liquid biopsy, that promises higher ease of testing, higher accuracy and ideally at an affordable cost. Early detection and intervention in common cancer types will not only save lives but reduce the financial and emotional burden of late discovery.
We will also see a revolution in treatment propelled by technology. Gene editing and immunotherapy that bring fewer side effects will have made greater headway. With advances in early screening and treatment going hand in hand, cancer will no longer be the cursed ‘C’ word that inspires such fear among people.
Historically, robotics has turned around many industries, while a few select sectors – such as grocery retail – have remained largely untouched . With the use of a new robotics application called ‘microfulfillment’, Grocery retailing will no longer look the same. The use of robotics downstream at a ‘hyper local’ level (as opposed to the traditional upstream application in the supply chain) will disrupt this 100-year-old, $5 trillion industry and all its stakeholders will experience significant change. Retailers will operate at a higher order of magnitude on productivity, which will in turn result in positive and enticing returns in the online grocery business (unheard of at the moment). This technology also unlocks broader access to food and a better customer proposition to consumers at large: speed, product availability and cost. Microfulfillment centers are located in existing (and typically less productive) real estate at the store level and can operate 5-10% more cheaply than a brick and mortar store. We predict that value will be equally captured by retailers and consumers as online.
One thing the current pandemic has shown us is how important technology is for maintaining and facilitating communication – not simply for work purposes, but for building real emotional connections. In the next few years we can expect to see this progress accelerate, with AI technology built to connect people at a human level and drive them closer to each other, even when physically they’re apart. The line between physical space and virtual will forever be blurred. We’ll start to see capabilities for global events – from SXSW to the Glastonbury Festival – to provide fully digitalized alternatives, beyond simple live streaming into full experiences. However, it’s not as simple as just providing these services – data privacy will have to be prioritised in order to create confidence among consumers. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a lot in the news about concerns over the security of video conferencing companies. These concerns aren’t going anywhere and as digital connectivity increases, brands simply can’t afford to give users anything less than full transparency and control over their data.
9. Putting individuals – not institutions – at the heart of healthcare
By 2025, the lines separating culture, information technology and health will be blurred. Engineering biology, machine learning and the sharing economy will establish a framework for decentralising the healthcare continuum, moving it from institutions to the individual. Propelling this forward are advances in artificial intelligence and new supply chain delivery mechanisms, which require the real-time biological data that engineering biology will deliver as simple, low-cost diagnostic tests to individuals in every corner of the globe. As a result, morbidity, mortality and costs will decrease in acute conditions, such as infectious diseases, because only the most severe cases will need additional care. Fewer infected people will leave their homes, dramatically altering disease epidemiology while decreasing the burden on healthcare systems. A corresponding decrease in costs and increase in the quality of care follows, as inexpensive diagnostics move expenses and power to the individual, simultaneously increasing the cost-efficiency of care. Inextricable links between health, socio-economic status and quality of life will begin to loosen, and tensions that exist by equating health with access to healthcare institutions will dissipate. From daily care to pandemics, these converging technologies will alter economic and social factors to relieve many pressures on the global human condition.
Construction will become a synchronized sequence of manufacturing processes, delivering control, change and production at scale. It will be a safer, faster and more cost-effective way to build the homes, offices, factories and other structures we need to thrive in cities and beyond. As rich datasets are created across the construction industry through the internet of things, AI and image capture, to name a few, this vision is already coming to life. Using data to deeply understand industry processes is profoundly enhancing the ability of field professionals to trust their instincts in real-time decision making, enabling learning and progress while gaining trust and adoption.
Actionable data sheds light where we could not see before, empowering leaders to manage projects proactively rather than reactively. Precision in planning and execution enables construction professionals to control the environment, instead of it controlling them, and creates repeatable processes that are easier to control, automate, and teach.
That’s the future of construction. And it’s already begun.
11. Gigaton-scale CO2 removal will help to reverse climate change
A scale up of negative emission technologies, such as carbon dioxide removal, will remove climate-relevant amounts of CO2 from the air. This will be necessary in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C. While humanity will do everything possible to stop emitting more carbon into the atmosphere, it will also do everything it can in order to remove historic CO2 from the air permanently. By becoming widely accessible, the demand for CO2 removal will increase and costs will fall. CO2 removal will be scaled up to the gigaton-level, and will become the responsible option for removing unavoidable emissions from the air. It will empower individuals to have a direct and climate-positive impact on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. It will ultimately help to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels and give humanity the potential to reverse climate change.
Jan Wurzbacher, Co-Founder and co-CEO of Climeworks
12. A new era in medicine
Medicine has always been on a quest to gather more knowledge and understanding of human biology for better clinical decision-making. AI is that new tool that will enable us to extract more insights at an unprecedented level from all the medical ‘big data’ that has never really been fully taken advantage of in the past. It will shift the world of medicine and how it is practiced.
Improvements in AI will finally put access to wealth creation within reach of the masses. Financial advisors, who are knowledge workers, have been the mainstay of wealth management: using customized strategies to grow a small nest egg into a larger one. Since knowledge workers are expensive, access to wealth management has often meant you already need to be wealthy to preserve and grow your wealth. As a result, historically, wealth management has been out of reach of those who needed it most. Artificial intelligence is improving at such a speed that the strategies employed by these financial advisors will be accessible via technology, and therefore affordable for the masses. Just like you don’t need to know how near-field communication works to use ApplePay, tens of millions of people won’t have to know modern portfolio theory to be able to have their money work for them.
14. A clean energy revolution supported by digital twins
Over the next five years, the energy transition will reach a tipping point. The cost of new-build renewable energy will be lower than the marginal cost of fossil fuels. A global innovation ecosystem will have provided an environment in which problems can be addressed collectively, and allowed for the deployment of innovation to be scaled rapidly. As a result, we will have seen an astounding increase in offshore wind capacity. We will have achieved this through an unwavering commitment to digitalization, which will have gathered a pace that aligns with Moore’s law to mirror solar’s innovation curve. The rapid development of digital twins – virtual replicas of physical devices – will support a systems-level transformation of the energy sector. The scientific machine learning that combines physics-based models with big data will lead to leaner designs, lower operating costs and ultimately clean, affordable energy for all. The ability to monitor structural health in real-time and fix things before they break will result in safer, more resilient infrastructure and everything from wind farms to bridges and unmanned aerial vehicles being protected by a real-time digital twin.
15. Understanding the microscopic secrets hidden on surfaces
Every surface on Earth carries hidden information that will prove essential for avoiding pandemic-related crises, both now and in the future. The built environment, where humans spend 90% of their lives, is laden with naturally occurring microbiomes comprised of bacterial, fungal and viral ecosystems. Technology that accelerates our ability to rapidly sample, digitalize and interpret microbiome data will transform our understanding of how pathogens spread. Exposing this invisible microbiome data layer will identify genetic signatures that can predict when and where people and groups are shedding pathogens, which surfaces and environments present the highest transmission risk, and how these risks are impacted by our actions and change over time. We are just scratching the surface of what microbiome data insights offer and will see this accelerate over the next five years. These insights will not only help us avoid and respond to pandemics, but will influence how we design, operate and clean environments like buildings, cars, subways and planes, in addition to how we support economic activity without sacrificing public health.
16. Machine learning and AI expedite decarbonization in carbon-heavy industries
Over the next five years, carbon-heavy industries will use machine learning and AI technology to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. Traditionally, industries like manufacturing and oil and gas have been slow to implement decarbonization efforts as they struggle to maintain productivity and profitability while doing so. However, climate change, as well as regulatory pressure and market volatility, are pushing these industries to adjust. For example, oil and gas and industrial manufacturing organizations are feeling the pinch of regulators, who want them to significantly reduce CO2 emissions within the next few years. Technology-enabled initiatives were vital to boosting decarbonizing efforts in sectors like transportation and buildings – and heavy industries will follow a similar approach. Indeed, as a result of increasing digital transformation, carbon-heavy sectors will be able to utilize advanced technologies, like AI and machine learning, using real-time, high-fidelity data from billions of connected devices to efficiently and proactively reduce harmful emissions and decrease carbon footprints.
Despite the accelerating regulatory environments we’ve seen surface in recent years, we are now just seeing the tip of the privacy iceberg, both from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. Five years from now, privacy and data-centric security will have reached commodity status – and the ability for consumers to protect and control sensitive data assets will be viewed as the rule rather than the exception. As awareness and understanding continue to build, so will the prevalence of privacy preserving and enhancing capabilities, namely privacy-enhancing technologies (PET). By 2025, PET as a technology category will become mainstream. They will be a foundational element of enterprise privacy and security strategies rather than an added-on component integrated only meet a minimum compliance threshold. While the world will still lack a global privacy standard, organizations will embrace a data-centric approach to security that provides the flexibility necessary to adapt to regional regulations and consumer expectations. These efforts will be led by cross-functional teams representing the data, privacy and security interests within an organization.
How will technology change the world in the next five years?
It is very exciting to see the pace and transformative potential of today’s innovative technologies being applied to solve the world’s most pressing problems, such as feeding a global and growing population; improving access to and quality of healthcare; and significantly reducing carbon emissions to arrest the negative effects of climate change. The next five years will see profound improvements in addressing these challenges as entrepreneurs, the investment community and the world’s largest enterprise R&D organizations focus on developing and deploying solutions that will deliver tangible results.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a difficult lesson in just how susceptible our world is today to human and economic turmoil, it has also – perhaps for the first time in history – necessitated global collaboration, data transparency and speed at the highest levels of government in order to minimize an immediate threat to human life. History will be our judge, but despite the heroic resolve and resiliency on a country by country basis, as a world we have underperformed. As a global community and through platforms like the World Economic Forum, we must continue to bring visibility to these issues while recognizing and supporting the opportunities for technology and innovation that can best and most rapidly address them.
Around 3,300 years ago, the port city of Ugarit was a vibrant urban centre, located strategically on the overland network linking Egypt with Asia Minor and on the route between Persia and India in the east and Greece and Cyprus in the west. The city’s origins date back to 3000BC and the first alphabet and alphabetic writing system are believed to have developed there in the 14th century BC.
Today Ugarit is a Bronze Age archaeological site in northwest Syria, first excavated in 1929. It can tell us a huge amount about the past, but Ugarit is also a place in its own right. The conservation of the site needs to help us understand the site’s history, as well as preserving and restoring what remains. Our work on virtual reality and reconstruction can meet both these goals.
Although only 30% of Ugarit has been excavated, the discovered areas give clues about the organisation of the city. The buildings include royal palaces, large houses, tombs, sanctuaries, public buildings and temples. Ugarit’s golden age was between the 14th and 12th century BC, and the excavated ruins show that interesting political, social and economic evolution took place in the city.
The royal area shows evidence of a developed political system, with complex defensive architecture and a well-structured palace. Domestic areas reveal important information about the Ugaritic people’s everyday life and their veneration of the dead. However, the structures are in a ruined condition and some are deteriorating, thanks to being exposed for more than 90 years with only minimal maintenance and repair work.
A shift toward using virtual technologies as preservation methods to document historic sites and provide educational opportunities has taken place in recent years. This prevents misguided architectural conservation, which can damage a site.
Augmented reality can project reconstructions onto archaeological ruins, such as at the medieval village of Ename in Belgium. Elsewhere, virtual reconstruction has produced 3D textured models, including of the “Sala dello Scrutinio” at the Doges’ Palace in Venice.
We have used computer-aided design modelling to test out conservation options for Ugarit and to investigate the effects of possible conservation interventions on the ruins. This led to changes in design concepts and materials to better fit the aims of the conservation.
Preserving a sacred route
Excavations have revealed a key sacred route that linked the Royal Palace with the main Temple of Baal and passed through public areas of Ugarit. Researchers believe that the king followed this sacred path to practice cult sacrifices at the temple.
The route contains important tangible elements, such as the remains of the palace, houses, and the temple, for example. But the conservation strategy also intends to reconstruct the intangible aspects of the route – the monumental fortifications, the scale of the temple, and the experience of walking the sacred path, all of which cannot be easily grasped from the remaining ruins.
Virtual reconstruction is an effective tool to assess these proposals and judge their ability to protect the ruins, as well as revealing intangible aspects, such as the atmosphere of a street, which are lost to time. We have developed virtual tours which create an opportunity for screen displays to be installed on the site before the actual proposal is implemented.
These virtual tours include an area of the site that historically featured a plaza and tavern. Here the conservation approach includes the creation of a social and entertaining hub. This will allow the urban environment of the plaza and the dim and cosy interior of the tavern to be restored.
The tours provide reliable evidence for the second stage of the conservation proposal, the design stage and community consultation. However, the political situation in Syria has put the consultation process on hold.
This political situation also means that it is not possible to visit Ugarit at the moment – a position shared by hundreds of archaeological sites around the world. So the virtual reconstructions serve another purpose: they allow those interested a glimpse of this fascinating city and provide an opportunity to raise awareness of the site’s cultural importance with an international audience.
For many publishers in the Middle East region, Nabd – the largest personalized Arabic news aggregator – has become the number one source of referrals to their portals, exceeding Social Media networks, as a traffic source.
“In BBC Arabic, we consider our partnership with Nabd to be the most valuable and important of all our digital partnerships. This reflects the growing importance of news aggregators and the position of Nabd as a market leader. Our partnership with Nabd has enabled us to widen our reach and gain a new perspective of our audience needs”, says Mohamed Yehia, Head of daily output at BBC.
In its efforts to support its partners, the local, regional and international publishers, Nabd has launched a dedicated portal for publishers, enabling them to obtain and analyze detailed insights about their content, engagement, and users in Nabd.
“NABD is one of the top sources of traffic for RT Arabic. During the last 3 months NABD replaced Twitter as the second-best source of traffic from social media to the website”, says Maya Manna, Editor-in-Chief at RT Arabic.
Today, Nabd is considered by over 1,000 premium Arabic publishers, as a corner stone in their content distribution strategy, since it enables them to reach and tap into a massive audience, and continuously engage with them.
“We extremely value and enjoy our strategic partnerships with publisher partners. Such partnerships have empowered us to achieve our mission of supporting quality journalism in our region, and delivering relevant premium Arabic content for the Arabic audience globally”, says Mazen Singer, Chief Strategy Officer at Nabd.
Nabd is a Personalized Arabic Content Reader, enabling Arab users across the globe to stay up-to-date with their favorite topics on the go. Today, Nabd reaches over 20 million users, generating over 1.6 billion page views every quarter, making it the biggest Arabic app globally. It is currently available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.
The UK Labour Party is promising to provide free broadband internet to every British household by 2030 if it wins the 2019 election. To do this, the party would nationalise the broadband infrastructure business of BT and tax internet giants like Google and Facebook. Whatever you think of this plan, it at least reflects that the internet has become not only an essential utility for conducting daily life, but also crucial for exercising our political rights.
In fact, I recently published research that shows why internet access should be considered a human right and a universal entitlement. And for that reason, it ought to be provided free to those who can’t afford it, not just in the UK, but around the world.
Internet access is today necessary for leading a minimally decent life, which doesn’t just mean survival but rather includes political rights that allow us to influence the rules that shape our lives and hold authorities accountable. That is why rights such as free speech, free association, and free information are among the central rights included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, crucially, everyone needs to have roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights.
Before the internet, most people in democracies had roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights. They could vote, write to newspapers or their political representative, attend public meetings and join organisations.
But when some people gained internet access, their opportunities to exercise political rights became much greater compared to those without the internet. They could publish their views online for potentially millions of people to see, join forces with other people without having to physically attend regular meetings, and obtain a wealth of previously inaccessible political information.
Today, a large proportion of our political debates take place online, so in some ways our political rights can only be exercised via the internet. This means internet access is required for people to have roughly equal opportunities to make use of their political freedoms, and why we should recognise internet access as a human right.
As a human right, internet access should be “free” in two ways. First, it should be unmonitored, uncensored, and uninterrupted – as the UN’s General Assembly has demanded in a non-binding resolution in 2016. Second, governments should guarantee a minimally decent infrastructure that is available to all citizens no matter how much money they have. This means funding for internet access should be part of minimum welfare benefits, provided without charge to those who can’t afford to pay for it, just like legal counsel. (This is already the case in Germany.)
A political goal
In developing countries, digital infrastructure reaching everyone might be too expensive to guarantee immediately. But with the required technology becoming cheaper (more people on the planet have access to a web-capable phone than have access to clean water and a toilet), universal access could first be guaranteed via free wifi in public places. Supply can start off in a basic way and grow over time.
Should everyone in Britain have free broadband in their homes? There are many good reasons to provide the best possible internet access to everyone, such as increasing economic productivity, sharing prosperity more evenly across the country, or promoting opportunities for social engagement and civic participation. And, as such, free broadband for all may be a worthy political goal.
But what is most important is ensuring that everyone has the kind of internet access required for roughly equal opportunities to use their political freedoms. Guaranteed internet access should be considered a human right in our virtual world, whoever ultimately pays the bills.
Mark Anthony Karam in an October 21, 2019, article that is a response to his “Does micro-mobility have a place in the GCC?” elaborates on possibilities of moving around obviously the plush urban centres of the GCC. But only during certain times of the year unless a personalised Air Conditioning apparatus is provided with the ‘cyacle’. The image above is credit to The National.ae .
With the rest of the world continues to see the micro-mobility sector enjoy growing success, could we see a similar success in the GCC?
Micro mobility was an ideal solution to the last-mile issue in countries like China or the US
The GCC might not be as ideal for a replicated success
There are several factors today that pose obstacles impeding its growth
Micro mobility, which involves light-weighted means of transportation like electric scooters and bikes for short trips, usually in urban areas, has continued to grow internationally. Countries like China, the United States and many EU nations are finding great success with this novel sector, which builds on many of the concepts of the sharing economy that innovators like Uber brought into the mainstream.
Lime and Bird, US rivals in the sector, reached unicorn status in a handful of years each since their founding. One of the reasons for their sudden success is that they solved the long-standing last-mile issue, capitalizing on a neglected market gap.
The GCC goes mobile Today in the GCC, some are attempting to solve this last-mile problem as well. Earlier this year, Careem announced that it had acquired Abu Dhabi bikeshare startup Cyacle, which would add a micro-mobility offering to their services. Launched in December 2014, Cyacle is a fully-automated docked bike-share service currently operating in Abu Dhabi. Stations run 24-hours a day via an app, a touch screen kiosk and docking system that releases bikes using a ride code or a member key.
At the time, Careem had also announced that it was partnering with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to install 350 bike docking stations across the Emirates, where citizens would have access to 3,500 bicycles to bike share.
Another firm, Dubai-based Arnab Mobility, is also providing a similar service.
“Global cities are currently trying to find solutions to the global warming problems mainly caused by fossil fuel vehicles,” Dr. Dheeraj Bhardwaj, Group CEO of Arnab Mobility, tells Gulf News. He ponders an age-old question: “Also, city inhabitants and visitors struggle with first/last mile transportation, congestion and expenses. How efficient is it for a one-ton hulk of metal to take one person two to three miles? Conventional transportation systems are currently insufficient with people dealing daily with traffic, a lack of parking spaces, as well as long walks from bus stops and metro stations.”
Yet, while these solutions offer a service on par with international counterparts, it is important to remember the financial, cultural, and climate situation of the region.
Firstly, it is important to remember that the GCC region is known for its oil-derived wealth, with many nationals owning multiple vehicles and often employing personal drivers to help family members commute. Secondly, travel distances for major outings are already quite short.
“With urbanization on the rise, the majority of trips people take fall within the category of micro-mobility and thus are prime candidates for bike and scooter usage. In the US, for instance, roughly 60% of all trips are 5 miles or less,” CBinsights explains.
One of the reasons micro-mobility solutions are so attractive abroad is because of their perceived value for the service provided. Instead of paying a whopping fee for a taxi get you across 4 city blocks in New York, a US citizen would opt to rent a Lime scooter for a fraction of the cost. In the GCC, with its small-sized nations, large roads and affordable taxi services, this is not yet a problem. The countries in the region, save for Saudi Arabia, are sometimes comparable to entire Western cities in size. Bahrain, for example, has an area of 765.3 km², which is half the size of London (1,572 km²).
Therefore, from a financial and spatial perspective, micro-mobility services might struggle.
Then arises the issue of culture perceptions. While women have been driving for more than a year now in Saudi Arabia for example, breaking gender bias and perception is still an ongoing challenge. The country is certainly moving towards progress, but micro-mobility firms will have to consider this nonetheless. Also, consider that environmental awareness and consideration only just recently began to receive mass attention in the region in the past few years. Getting people to opt for bikes over a more convenient car ride will still prove a struggle.
Finally, and perhaps the most glaring of the issues plaguing micro-mobility companies in the region, is the climate and weather. The GCC is infamous for its scorching desert sun and sweltering heat. While public transportation like the Dubai metro or public buses offer some reprieve from the heat with their AC units, an e-scooter or bike doesn’t. When it’s 50 degrees Celsius outside and you need to just get home after a long day at work, a taxi or Uber, even for the higher fee, will prove the go-to choice. That remains the sector’s greatest obstacle. How it addresses it is still in question.
Mark Anthony Karam has 4 years of experience in the field of visual and written media, having earned his Masters degree from the UK. You can get in touch with him here: email@example.com
ABU DHABI, UAE, Oct. 16, 2019 / PRNewswire/ — Abu Dhabi today announced the establishment of the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), the first graduate level, research-based AI university in the world. MBZUAI will enable graduate students, businesses, and governments to advance artificial intelligence.
The University is named after His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who has long advocated for the UAE’s development of human capital through knowledge and scientific thinking to take the nation into the future. MBZUAI will introduce a new model of academia and research to the field of AI, providing students and faculty access to some of the world’s most advanced AI systems to unleash its potential for economic and societal development.
His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of State, who has been appointed Chair of the MBZUAI Board of Trustees and is spearheading the establishment of the University, said: “The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is an open invitation from Abu Dhabi to the world to unleash AI’s full potential.”
“The University will bring the discipline of AI into the forefront, molding and empowering creative pioneers who can lead us to a new AI empowered era,” he added.
Experts from around the world have been selected for the University’s Board of Trustees. They include MBZUAI Interim President, Professor Sir Michael Brady, professor of Oncological Imaging at the University of Oxford, UK; Professor Anil K. Jain, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University, USA; Professor Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, Dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a technology executive and venture capitalist based in Beijing, China; Professor Daniela Rus, Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), USA, and Peng Xiao, CEO of Group 42.
Over the next decade, AI is set to have a transformational impact on the global economy, with experts estimating that, by 2030, AI could contribute nearly $16 trillion to the global economy and account for nearly 14% of the UAE’s GDP.
Professor Sir Michael Brady, Interim President of MBZUAI, said: “We are now at a turning point in the widespread application of advanced intelligence. That evolution is – among other things – creating exciting new career opportunities in nearly every sector of society. At MBZUAI, we will support students to capture those opportunities and to magnify their contribution to the field of AI globally.”
The University will offer Master of Science (MSc) and PhD level programs in key areas of AI – Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Natural Language Processing. All admitted students will receive a full scholarship, monthly allowance, health insurance, and accommodation.
Graduate students can now apply to MBZUAI via the University’s website. The first class will commence coursework at MBZUAI’s Masdar City campus in September 2020.
With regional governments now set to reduce oil dependency through policy and regulation change, the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the phenomenon of the Internet of Things (IoT) is now rife among all sectors in the region, added the report from MEED, a leading business intelligence provider.
Organizations are on board to make structural changes through the usage of advanced and innovative technology. But while many of the innovations that promise to shape the region in the coming years are still new, and sometimes experimental, others are widely known, even if not yet in common use.
MEED looks at 10 technologies set to transform the Middle East over the next decade.
Grid-scale batteries to enable energy diversification
Global investment in high-capacity batteries is transforming the market for renewable energy. The large-scale adoption of alternative energy has long been hampered by the unreliable, inflexible nature of its major sources, the wind and sun. The problems caused by intermittent energy production can only be solved by developing effective storage solutions; batteries that can store energy at peak production times for later deployment.
A significant drop in the prices of lithium and vanadium – essential battery components – in addition to improvements in battery efficiency, are enabling large scale adoption of energy storage facilities.
Abu Dhabi’s recent launch of the region’s first Grid-Scale Battery Deployment and the world’s largest Virtual Battery Plant is indicative of the region’s commitment to diversifying its energy supply.
Digital payment – fintech
The initial caution of governments in GCC to digital payments and financial technology (fintech) is beginning to abate and the first online payments were made across the region in 2018, following a series successful trials of the technology that persuaded authorities to relax regulation. With limited access to banking facilities, an estimated 86 per cent of adults in the region (Reuters) do not have a bank account. This, coupled with an increase in the mobile phone capabilities makes the Mena market a real opportunity for fintech investment. Research company Mena Research Partners estimated the fintech market in the Mena region to be worth $2 billion in 2018 and it is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2022.
There is a growing realisation that complex systems such as oil fields, electricity grids, building sites and entire cities can be managed more effectively if siloed data can be combined on a single platform. New remote sensor technology can provide critical real-time data, allowing managers to make quick, informed decisions and increasingly intelligent software is being developed to automate complex processes. Internet of Things (IoT), which is a convergence of technologies such as remote sensors, machine learning and real-time analytics, is central to the development of these smart, digital ecosystems.
The GCC has been a global frontrunner in the uptake of autonomous driving, with UAE leading the way. The Dubai Future Foundation in partnership with Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) launched the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy which aims to make 25 per cent of Dubai transportation autonomous by 2030, saving $6 billion annually. The RTA is currently conducting tests to decide the winners of the Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport, which are focused on the provision of first/last Mile transportation.
5G supporting the new digital ecosystem
In May this year, Emirates Telecommunication Company, Etisalat, launched the region’s first 5G enabled smartphones. The new 5G networks transfer data 20 times faster than 4G, have a bigger capacity, are more reliable. This vital development is needed to support the emerging ecosystem of digital technologies including IoT, smart cities, cloud computing and autonomous vehicles. According to Globaldata, the number of mobile network subscriptions in the Mena region is expected to be 15.8 million by 2023.
Shift away from traditional fuel sources to free up crude oil for higher value products and export sees an increase in demand for alternative energy sources. One of the most promising alternative fuels is hydrogen, which can be produced using solar photovoltaic technology. This will be showcased at Expo 2020 by the use of fuel-cell vehicles that run on hydrogen generated at a solar-driven hydrogen electrolysis facility at Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park.
Using AI to make the most of VR and AR
Initially gaining popularity through the gaming industry, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are increasingly being used for training, marketing and problem-solving. VR systems can have powerful applications when combined with artificial intelligence (AI). For example, it could be possible to develop a microscope that can highlight cancerous cells or the dashboard of a vehicle that can detect hazards and alert the driver using signals on the dashboard.
Electrification of transport
Electric Vehicles (EVs) potentially are among the most transformative of all emerging technologies, delivering a change as significant as the move from horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines in the early 2oth century. While electric milk floats and golf buggies have been widely used since the middle of the 20th century, huge leaps forward in battery capacity and materials technology have brought EVs to the edge of becoming mainstream modes of transport.
Their benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions and energy conservation could be huge. Technical challenges ranging from development of electricity charging infrastructure through to battery capacity and safety capabilities remain to be overcome however before EVs they will become our primary mode of transport.
By 2025, the global 3D printing market is expected account for an annual spend of over $20bn.The Middle East is recognising the potential of additive manufacturing, with Dubai leading the trend with its3D printing strategy, announced in April 2016, which set the ambitious target of all constructing 25 per cent of new buildings using additive manufacturing. The sectors that could see the most benefit from the technology are healthcare – for joints, teeth, medical and training equipment, aerospace, consumer manufacturing and construction.
Food security – Vertical farming and hydroponics
Increasing population, extreme climate conditions and political and economic instability are putting food security in the Middle East high on the political agenda. With the region importing over 50 per cent of its food, governments are looking to boost local production using soil-free methods of farming that are 70 per cent more water efficient than traditional methods and use fewer chemicals. New, vertical farming techniques that require less space can be adopted in urban areas to bring production closer to the consumers.
With these new technological trends disrupting the market, Meed has introduced the third edition of the MEED awards, assessing companies on their initiatives in becoming more technologically advanced. Powered by Parsons (strategic construction partner) and Acwa Power (official power & water partner) the MEED awards is due to close its submission deadlines by the end of this week. – TradeArabia News Service
The latest political upheavals in certain countries of the MENA cannot separate from the recent developments and trends in social media usage across the region. In effect, whether it is those gigantic streets demonstrations of Algiers, Khartoum, and Cairo and more recently those in Bagdad, it is to be acknowledged that these have something to do with the ease and spread of information to and from any movement of their respective populations. Facebook, of course, with more than 150 million active monthly users would by any standard be first with online Egypt its biggest national market. Besides that, lots of Twitter users in MENA post original content and YouTube channels together with Facebook are turned to for first-hand news, debates and any other information on all those on-going and immediate situations. In response to all that, countries have quickly devised new social media and websites regulations with distinct objectives of monitoring.
The following article on the same social media as used in countries of the GCC is illustrative on the specifics of that sub-region of the MENA’s.
Social media has continuously evolved and adapted to how users use it by presenting new methods and platforms to take advantage of its service. Apart from personal use, social media is a boon for businesses seeking identification, recognition and a broader reach. The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) aims to enhance the social media experience through a variety of tools to target the right audience. In effect, AI is facilitating this journey for businesses by developing a better user experience on social media platforms.
Automation and chatbots
Businesses can no longer afford to overlook the added value and service that chatbots offer in regard to automated responses and replies as a form of a feedback mechanism. Customers today have a plethora of options when it comes to choosing a product or service, and the longer a business’s response time is, the less the chance of a conversion. Thanks to auto-responders, more deals are being closed and locked down without any human interaction than ever before, effectively selling your products or services while you are asleep.
VR and AR adoption
More than 50 per cent of investments in Silicon Valley are currently related to virtual reality (VR), which is a clear indication of its impact and importance, especially when considering its fast integration with social media as a means for further exploring the realm of communication. Alongside it is augmented reality, which has helped businesses offer a real-time view of their product, service or experience, with the sector poised for maximum benefits from AR and VR being leisure and entertainment.
It is all about engagement
According to a 2017 survey, Instagram was rated as the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, with the platform contributing to higher levels of anxiety and depression. Experts say that public display of likes has some significant negative impacts. In response, Instagram will no longer publicly display the number of likes in an experiment that will alter how the platform is used, especially regarding influencers, whose main metric is the number of engagements. However, this will emphasise the importance of comments, elevating them as the primary source of a person’s or brand’s true influence.
There is a global standoff going on about who stores your data. At the close of June’s G20 summit in Japan, a number of developing countries refused to sign an international declaration on data flows – the so-called Osaka Track. Part of the reason why countries such as India, Indonesia and South Africa boycotted the declaration was because they had no opportunity to put their own interests about data into the document.
‘Digital colonialism’: why some countries want to take control of their people’s data from Big Tech
With 50 other signatories, the declaration still stands as a statement of future intent to negotiate further, but the boycott represents an ongoing struggle by some countries to assert their claim over the data generated by their own citizens.
Back in the dark ages of 2016, data was touted as the new oil. Although the metaphor was quickly debunked it’s still a helpful way to understand the global digital economy. Now, as international negotiations over data flows intensify, the oil comparison helps explain the economics of what’s called “data localisation” – the bid to keep citizens’ data within their own country.
Just as oil-producing nations pushed for oil refineries to add value to crude oil, so governments today want the world’s Big Tech companies to build data centres on their own soil. The cloud that powers much of the world’s tech industry is grounded in vast data centres located mainly around northern Europe and the US coasts. Yet, at the same time, US Big Tech companies are increasingly turning to markets in the global south for expansion as enormous numbers of young tech savvy populations come online.
Accusations of ‘digital imperialism’
Take, for example, the case of Facebook. While India is the country with the biggest amount of Facebook users, when you look at the location of Facebook’s 15 data centres, ten are in North America, four in Europe and one in Asia – in Singapore.
The economic argument for countries in the global south to host more data centres is that it would boost digital industrialisation by creating competitive advantages for local cloud companies, and develop links to other parts of the local IT sector.
Many countries have flirted with regulations on what sort of data should be stored locally. Some cover only certain sectors such as health data in Australia. Others, such as South Korea, require the consent of the person associated with the data for it to be transmitted overseas. France continues to pursue its own data centre infrastructure, dubbed “le cloud souverain”, despite the closure of some of the businesses initially behind the idea. The most comprehensive laws are in China and Russia, which mandate localisation across multiple sectors for many kinds of personal data.
Countries such as India and Indonesia with their massive and growing online populations arguably have the most to gain economically from such regulations as they currently receive the least data infrastructure investment from the tech giants relative to the number of users.
The economics aren’t clear cut
Supporters of data localisation cite developing countries’ structural dependency on foreign-owned digital infrastructure and an unfair share of the industry’s economic benefits. They dream of using data localisation to force tech companies into becoming permanent entities on home soil to eventually increase the amount of taxes they can impose on them.
Detractors point to the high business costs of local servers, not just for the tech giants, but also for the very digital start ups that governments say they want to encourage. They say localisation regulations interfere with global innovation, are difficult to enforce, and ignore the technical requirements of data centres: proximity to the internet’s “backbone” of fibre optic cables, a stable supply of electricity, and low temperature air or water for cooling the giant servers.
Attempts to measure the economic impact of localisation are extremely partisan. The most cited study from 2014 uses an opaque methodology and was produced by the European Centre for International Political Economy, a free trade think-tank based in Brussels, some of whose funding comes from unknown multinational businesses. Not surprisingly, it finds gross losses for countries considering localisation. Yet, a 2018 study commissioned by Facebook found that its data centre spending in the US had created tens of thousands of jobs, supported renewable energy investments and contributed US$5.8 billion to US GDP in just six years.
Like the equivalent arguments for and against free trade, taking a dogmatic position for or against the issue masks other complexities on the ground. The economic costs and benefits depend on the type of data stored, whether it’s a duplicate or the only copy, the level of government support for wider infrastructure subsidies, to name just a few factors.
India has been the most vocal supporter for localisation, promoting its own regulation as “a template for the developing world”, but it’s in a strong position to do so given the country’s relatively advanced digital industrialisation and technical manpower. Other emerging economies with large online populations, such as Indonesia, have vacillated on their localisation regulations under pressure from the US government which has threatened to pull preferential trade terms for other goods and services if they went ahead with restrictive regulations.
What governments do with the data
While the international economics of personal data may follow some of the same general dynamics as oil production, data is fundamentally different from oil because it does a double duty – providing not just monetary value to businesses, but also surveillance opportunities for governments. Some civil society activists I’ve met as part of my research in India and Indonesia told me they were sceptical of their own governments’ narratives about data colonialism, worrying instead about the increased access to sensitive personal information that localisation gives to governments.
It’s not just large corporations and states that have roles to play in this bid for “data sovereignty”. Tech developers may yet find ways to support the rights of individuals to control their own personal data with platforms such as databox, which gives each of us something akin to our own personal servers. These technologies are still in development, but projects are springing up – mostly around Europe – that not only give people greater control over their personal data, but aim to produce social value rather than profit. Such experiments may yet find a place in the developing world alongside what states and large corporations are doing.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – As data connectivity is becoming the Fourth Utility in cities across the Middle East, businesses and homes across the region are rushing to implement it. The region is prioritizing innovative technologies that pave the way for the future of smart cities as network operators start the commercial rollout of 5G.
“The Middle East is focused on high speeds, low latency and building connections that support smart city transformation,” said Ehab Kanary, vice president of Enterprise, CommScope. “With the acquisition of ARRIS and Ruckus Networks, CommScope has the resources of a Fortune 250-sized company that is well placed to drive the future of connectivity in the region.”
Below are three trends that will impact smart cities in the Middle East:
City planners must continue to make investments for the long term: Governments in the region are playing a key role in leading and funding smart city projects. City planners must continue to educate themselves about the future possibilities of – and requirements for – smart city infrastructure, consulting with IoT vendors and network connectivity vendors, and working to develop a plan for the long term.
Governments and the private sector must join forces: Connectivity is the basic requirement for smart cities, and fiber-fed 5G wireless is the infrastructure that will make it possible. But to enable 5G universally, cities and service providers will have to work together. Shared infrastructure makes 5G a viable business model for both cities and service providers.
As 5G technology spreads, cities will leverage it to become “smarter”: Most people think of 5G as a new wireless service for faster smartphones, but it is also a medium that enables a city to become smarter. Citizens and visitors will demand virtual reality, augmented reality and autonomous vehicle applications also be integrated into city services and capabilities. In the near future, countries in the Middle East are engaged in projects aimed at improving public services, security and quality of life.
During GITEX Technology Week 2019, CommScope will highlight its latest solutions to enable a smart future for network operators across the region:
Fiber for High-Speed and Robust Connectivity: Smart cities will be built on fiber. CommScope will be demonstrating fiber technologies for faster connectivity in buildings, the data center and central office.
Ultra-Connected Homes are Becoming a Reality: Consumers are experiencing an increasingly digital life and network operators are seeking ways to unlock the best user experience. CommScope will demonstrate how the company is delivering reliable, high-bandwidth Wi-Fi to every corner of the home and showcase how the smart media device brings connected home technologies together for a unique personalized experience.
Powering Connectivity for Smart Cities: As smart cities add new mobile-connected devices like security cameras and air quality sensors, they must have access to electricity. This is not always an easy task considering devices may be several hundred meters away from a power source. Network operators are using CommScope’s powered fiber cable systems to speed and simplify installation, and power these types of network devices.
Digital foundation for Smarter Buildings: As the number of connected devices grows, the location of these devices is becoming more important. CommScope’s automated infrastructure management (AIM) system knows exactly what is connected, how it is connected and where it is located. The software automatically tracks changes, issues work orders and documents the entire network. It also provides root-cause analysis in the event of failure, helping restore services faster.
Journalists are invited to learn more about these trends and technologies from CommScope’s experts in Hall 7, Stand H7-D43, taking place in Dubai on October 6-10, 2019.
CommScope (NASDAQ: COMM) and the recently acquired ARRIS and Ruckus Networks are redefining tomorrow by shaping the future of wired and wireless communications. Our combined global team of employees, innovators and technologists have empowered customers in all regions of the world to anticipate what’s next and push the boundaries of what’s possible. Discover more at http://www.commscope.com.
News Media Contact: Komal Mishra +971 43602440 Komal@activedmc.com
In MENA’s Maturing Ecosystem dated September 3, 2019, author Chloe DOMAT says that “as the region’s digital startups and fintechs grow and prosper, they must learn to scale, despite a highly fragmented economy.”
Once again this year, the digital economy of the Middle East and North Africa is set to break records. The first half saw $471 million in total funding and 238 deals, according to the latest report from Magnitt, a Dubai-based entrepreneurs’ network. That’s a 66% increase over the dollar volume in the first half of 2018 and 28% more deals.
Digital startups barely existed in the MENA region a decade ago. Now, fintech is a thriving sector embracing hundreds of new companies, jobs and investors. As the ecosystem expands with tens of newcomers each year, funding tickets get bigger and bigger.
“If we look back a few years, a deal at $2 million or $3 million would have made the headlines; today, we have multiple $10 million-plus deals,” says Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of Arabnet, a Beirut-based events and research company specializing in the region’s digital economy. “This is an indicator of the increasing maturity of the market.”
Major deals so far this year have included a $100 million capital injection in Dubai-based Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG); a $65 million Series A round for Yellow Door Energy, also in Dubai; and $42 million for Egypt’s Swvl, a transportation app.
There is still a disconnect, however, between the growing demand for funds at all levels and the capital currently available to satisfy it, industry insiders say. Money is expected to keep pouring in, as an increasing number of international institutions enter the region. Big names like Endeavor Catalyst (US), Vostok New Ventures (Sweden), MSA Capital (China), Global Founders Capital (Germany) and Kingsway Capital (UK) already make up a third of the Middle East’s investor list.
Aiming to attract even more foreign capital, countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also started establishing funds of funds.
Funding ($ Mil.)
Yellow Door Energy
For the first time, numbers of local companies are successfully reaching the end of the startup lifecycle and exiting through mergers or acquisitions. In March, Uber bought Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hailing application, for $3.1 billion, in a deal that marked the region’s first unicorn exit.
The pace has only picked up. At least 15 Middle Eastern startups have performed exits since January, including digital fashion platform Namshi, sold to Dubai’s Emaar Malls in February; the purchase by Majid al Futtaim, a Dubai-based shopping mall and retail operator, of Saudi Arabian online grocery store Wadi in May; and EMPG’s purchase of Jumia House, a property portal for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, in June.
These exits leave a new generation of former staff members with a lot of means. After Careem’s exit, 75 ex-staffers cashed out over $1 million each. That financial capital, as well as the beneficiaries’ acquired knowledge and expertise, will allow a number of them to start new business ventures.
The Imperative to Scale
While tech companies grow larger, entrepreneurs face new challenges.
“As mature startups move to larger funding rounds and raise interest for acquisitions, they need to scale operations, whether vertically with new business lines or geographically,” says Philip Bahoshy, CEO and founder of Magnitt.
Navigating across the region’s approximately 22 countries, each with its own complexities, is not easy, however. From Morocco to Iraq, Arab states differ dramatically from one another in size, population, wealth, laws, digital infrastructure and business culture.
“Seeing the MENA region as one big market is to a certain extent a misrepresentation because our markets are superfragmented,” says Christidis. “A company that wants to grow from Lebanon into Jordan into Iraq into Kuwait into Saudi Arabia has to enter five separate markets.”
The UAE is clearly driving the game. In the first half of 2019, the Emirates received 66% of the money invested in all MENA startups and captured 26% of the deals, according to the Magnitt report. Dubai has by far the most developed ecosystem, with a concentration of global firms’ regional headquarters, major funding institutions and accelerators.
The UAE, and Dubai itself, have worked to build an advantage. In 2017, the UAE became one of the first countries in the world to appoint a minister of artificial intelligence. Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has promised that the government will go 100% paperless by 2021.
“The UAE has been leading from the front,” says Amol Bahuguna, head of payments and cash management at Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD), which just launched a new e-invoicing service. “Everything that has to do with the government is going digital. You have a real top-down approach to innovation and things move fast.”
Much will hinge on how the UAE, and Dubai in particular, manage their response to the current economic slowdown. Recent government data show that real estate, financial services and tourism—the pillars of the economy—are in a slump. In 2018, Dubai also recorded its biggest net loss of jobs since the global financial crisis.
The Emirates have competition, too, from Saudi Arabia, the biggest emerging market in the region with over 34 million people and high purchasing power. The authorities there are keen to diversify their oil-based economy, including promotion of the digital sector.
Riyadh set up a fund of funds to attract foreign investors to support startups. Saudi authorities will invest dollar-for-dollar as a limited partner in any new fund that commits to investing in the kingdom. They have also promised to streamline the licensing process for foreign startups so that they can settle in Saudi Arabia easily.
New Saudi-based funds such as Saudi Telecom’s $500 million ST Ventures, Vision Ventures and Hala Ventures, that have emerged in the past three years, are becoming large players in the regional venture capital game, leading $10 million-plus investment rounds.
On the other side of the MENA map, North Africa is also showing strong digital growth potential. Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are investing heavily in the development of their own high-tech ecosystems, aiming to become the bridge to Europe and the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia recently passed laws supporting tech innovation; and in September, Tunis will welcome Afric’Up, a large pan-African startup-pitch competition.
Fintech’s “Gold Mine”
Although it hardly shows in this year’s top deals, fintech remains the fastest growing sector within MENA digital economy. In the first half of this year, fintech accounted for 17% of all deals, up 9% from 2018. Interestingly, almost 90% of the total $24 million funding went to early stage startups, underscoring that the sector is still in its infancy.
The data also reveals enormous potential. Arab countries are home to over 380 million people, half of them under age 26. Financial inclusion is among the lowest in the world, with only 52% of men and 35% of women owning a bank account as of 2017. The vast majority of those with bank accounts, however, own a mobile phone (86% of men and 75% of women).
By mid-2018, the whole MENA region, including North Africa, had 381 million unique mobile subscribers, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile industry trade body. Smartphones accounted for 52% of all connections and are expected to grow to 74% by 2025.
“These figures highlight the tremendous opportunity,” says Nameer Khan, founding board member of the newly established UAE-based MENA Fintech Association. “The region is literally a gold mine.” The lure for fintech investors and entrepreneurs is the chance to enter an untapped market in which hundreds of millions of users could leapfrog from the cash economy to the digital.
Fintech subsectors widely thought to hold growth potential include insuretech, robo-advisory wealth management and sharia-compliant services. But payment services, not surprisingly, stand out prominently for both the number of startups and the value of deals. Mobile payment, money transfer and lending platforms remain the main focus; while more-sophisticated technologies such as blockchain, the cloud and artificial intelligence still lag.
Egypt’s Fawry is one of the biggest success stories in payments. Launched in 2008, the company raised $122 million; its initial public offering on August 8 sold 36% of its share capital for $97 million. Also attracting notice in the sector are PayTabs, a Saudi Arabian online payment facility that announced in August that it had raised $20 million to support its expansion in the region and into Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe; and the Dubai-based peer-to-peer lending platform Beehive, with a total capital injection of $15.5 million as of March 4.
The payment landscape looks to change rapidly, however, as larger players seek their share of the fintech market. Careem, for instance, claims over 30 million users in the region and is currently rolling out its Careem Pay e-wallet. If the service succeeds, Uber-owned Careem could become one of the biggest MENA fintechs.
Digital Banking Multiples
Banks and financial institutions view the fintech surge as an opportunity to outsource innovation and digitization. From simple online banking and mobile applications to investment platforms and e-wallets, most MENA lenders are seeking partnerships with startups. Some have even rolled out fully fledged, branchless digital neobanks, including Emirates NBD’s Liv., Mashreq Neo, and Gulf International Bank’s Meem.
These operate under a conventional lender’s license, however. Since they were developed by traditional banks, they are not industry disruptors, like startups Revolut and N26; rather, they act like new-business verticals, intended to seduce tech-savvy youth and target the unbanked. For a digital banking startup to seriously challenge the major players would be a monumental task.
“Banks in the Middle East are very large; what we are seeing recently is market consolidation, so they are getting even bigger,” says Arabnet’s Christidis. “I don’t think any of the startups really want to take them on, head to head. I’m not sure either that there would be investors ready to bankroll that kind of an investment. Furthermore, I question what kind of industry lobbying bite the banks would put on if they really started seeing that kind of thing emerge.” Christidis believes only an already established player from outside the region would have the financial muscle to give it a chance to compete.
Such a competitor might come from outside the financial sector entirely, however. Abu Dhabi Global Market, a key Emirati financial center, announced in July that it is ready to issue digital-banking licenses to nonbanking firms “with innovative value propositions.”
As this suggests, while the MENA digital economy is developing faster than ever, legal and regulatory frameworks need to adapt for growth to be sustained. Procedures to register a company, licensing and liability laws in case of business failure or bankruptcy are among the key differentiators governments will have to consider as they look to make themselves more competitive.
“Governments are showing concerted interest in building digital ecosystems for their countries,” says Magnitt CEO and founder Bahoshy. “There are still challenges to be overcome, but we can expect success stories to be more frequent, have higher value and have more impact in the coming years.”
In Lebanon, around 350,000 Syrian refugees don’t have access to enough safe and nutritious food. To stem the crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations introduced an electronic voucher system to distribute food aid. People are given debit cards loaded with “e-vouchers” that they can use in certain shops to buy food.
But we found that Syrian refugees living in rural Lebanon often have to make difficult choices when buying essential items at the expense of food. Their e-vouchers can only be used in exchange for food, not other essentials like nappies.
Refugees have to engage in “grey-area transactions” that work around the e-voucher system, by asking shop owners to sell them the nappies and instead record on the system that they bought food. This places refugees in a vulnerable position – shop owners often charge higher prices for scanning non-food items as food, but refugees have no choice but to depend on shop owners to cooperate.
Collective purchasing allows refugees to pool their cash and e-vouchers so that one person can buy non-food items for another and be repaid with food. This allows people a degree of autonomy – they don’t have to rely on shop owners to allow them to buy non-food items using their vouchers. Instead, the community can manage their resources and needs among themselves.
Unfortunately, the e-voucher system prevents refugees from buying goods in bulk. Shop owners are advised by the WFP that purchases by refugees should be typical of buying food for a family. If refugees want to buy enough rice for their community and benefit from a wholesale discount, then the shop owner can refuse the transaction. This makes collective purchasing – something refugees often prefer to do when they have cash available – more difficult.
The WFP is currently piloting blockchain technology to replace this e-voucher system in Jordan and Pakistan. This is an exciting opportunity to alleviate these problems and help to empower both refugees and the shop owners, but only if the refugees themselves are involved.
Food aid designed by refugees
Rather than using a debit card, under this new system refugees would have a digital wallet that is similar to a bank account that you can access online. And instead of it being hosted by a bank, it’s part of the blockchain.
A blockchain is a shared log of transactions, with each user being able to track how much money and goods have been exchanged. This is constantly updated as transactions of food aid and money transfers are agreed between the customer and the shop owner. Each transaction forms a block of new information. The digital ledger is an expanding chain of interconnected blocks of information – hence the name, blockchain.
The WFP is using blockchain technology to cut costs on currency exchange and bank transfers. But the blockchain still allows transactions between refugees and shop owners in the same manner as the e-voucher system. If this new and innovative technology mimics the model that came before, the restrictions on what refugees can do will continue and blockchain will mimic paternalistic aid models that focus on efficiently distributing aid, rather than empowering refugees to leverage their own ways of coping with food insecurity. But if aid is designed with input from refugee communities, the technology could give Syrian people in Lebanon more agency when buying the essentials they need to live.
Blockchain can write smart contracts, which would allow people to buy items together. These are agreements whose terms are automatically enforced by an algorithm. Smart contracts act like a lock box with two keys that can be used to open it, one key is given for each party involved in the contract.
When the smart contract is created, both parties set the conditions that need to be met for them to be able to use the keys to open the lock box. Both keys need to be used for the lock box to open and for the money to transfer to complete the transaction. Before this can happen, both parties must agree that the conditions of the contract have been met. With this, refugee communities can negotiate collective purchases with shop owners and hold them accountable to the agreements they make.
Negotiating the terms of the smart contract means that refugees have more of a say over what they consider to be a fair deal. Once the smart contract is in place, the agreed sum of money for the purchase will be placed in a digital wallet – the lock box – that is bound by the terms of the smart contract. The value of items purchased by refugees is deducted once they’ve verified their identity with a retina scan, but the money will only be released to the shop owner if the refugees verify that they received the items.
We saw how these smart contracts could rebalance the power disparity between refugees and shop owners. Including refugees in the design process of humanitarian technologies and aid models can ensure they incorporate the values and practices of the people they’re supposed to help. Future innovations must be rooted in the daily lives of refugee communities. These technologies can empower people and make a real difference to their lives, but only if they’re allowed to design how they work.
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