DUBAI // The man considered by many as the "father of the internet" yesterday urged the Middle East to accept "new ways of doing business" and embrace technological innovation for future growth. In the 1970s, Vint Cerf was an instrumental figure in the development of the internet's technical building blocks. Yesterday in Dubai, he called for a new approach to business and entrepreneurship, one that funds research and embraces failure alongside success.
"If you want innovation in this region, you need to step away from traditional ways of doing business, such as the son going off into the family business, and accept that there may be new ways of doing business which is more successful," he said. "There is a natural human tendency to keep what has worked in the past." Although the MENA region has a population of 337 million, only 17 per cent can surf the internet, a situation that could hamper long-term economic development and isolate local markets if not addressed now, executives from Google, the US search engine giant, said yesterday.
Mr Cerf is widely known as being instrumental in the development of the internet during the 1960s and 1970s and was one of the lead designers behind the general architecture of what the World Wide Web is today. He was in Dubai in his role as a vice president of Google, the world's largest internet company. Google's first Arabia 2.0 conference yesterday brought together technology and government leaders from across the Middle East to explore how innovation can take off in the region.
"I hope that there is a growing appetite of information-sharing in this region that will make a knowledge economy more robust," Mr Cerf said. "It will take some serious investment in education, and business practices will have to learn to adapt in the digital world." He said that one of the central obstacles in improving the level of new technology and innovation in the region would be to advance the level of broadband internet connections.
About 6 million internet users in the Middle East - or about 12 per cent of the total online population in the region - have access to broadband networks. The Middle East is often cited as having one of the poorest quality broadband connections in the world. Mohammed Gawdat, the managing director of emerging markets for Google, said the Middle East lagged in developing Arabic intellectual property and content.
According to statistics from the World Intellectual Property Organisation, only 3,224 patents have been filed in the Middle East since 2002. Japan, by comparison, filed more than 233,000 new patents in 2008. "When you think about the evolution of innovation in the region, you would think about how the world is accessing information in the region, but the region is not responding well," Mr Gawdat said.
There were only two Web pages for every Arab speaker online, compared with nine Web pages in English and five in Russian. Marwan Juma, the minister for information and communications technology in Jordan, said he was developing an office that would encourage and safeguard the country's intellectual property patents and ideas. The UAE is also working to increase the amount of research and development projects undertaken. Technopark, a free zone based in Jebal Ali, is negotiating with Intel, IBM and Nokia to develop joint-venture research and development facilities.
Mr Juma received a loud ovation after saying Google should invest more of its engineering resources in the Middle East. Although Google operates local offices in the UAE and Egypt, its Arabic engineering team is based in Zurich. "The only way [Google] can help us transform our part of the world is by being in our part of the world," Mr Juma said. The address may have already paid off. Shortly after the panel discussion ended, Mr Juma was seen discussing bringing Google to Jordan with Shannon Maher, the engineering director for Google, who heads the company's Arabic development team.