x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Big ideas count because we haven't invented the future yet

It is young people who understand innovation best and who seem to have grasped that their future careers depend on being able to innovate and adapt.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Richard Dawkins, the British scientist who popularised evolutionary biology, but is now better known as a high-profile critic of organised religion, was the first person to apply the word "memes" to cultural elements that can be reproduced. He explained memes as ideas that replicate like viruses - for example clothing fashions or architectural designs, phrases or songs - reproducing and evolving through time.

The theory is not without controversy but there is something astonishingly powerful in an idea. A mere collection of words or images can galvanise people to take to the streets, to build businesses and countries, even to kill. Above all else, ideas - people saying let's build a city over here, or run a society this way, or make a machine that can do this, and persuading others to agree - have shaped our history as humans.

The image of a swiftly multiplying idea, replicating from one mind to the next, is behind the slogan "Ideas worth spreading" of TED, or Technology, Entertainment, Design, a US-based annual conference of the world's thinkers, a version of which is now coming to the Emirates. TEDxDubai, an independently organised event approved by TED, is gathering speakers from technology, business and the arts for a one-day conference on October 10.

TED is just one of several large "ideas" conferences that take place across the United States and Europe. There are many smaller gatherings, some organised for specific industries, some informal, such as Promise of a Generation, a Dubai-based network of professionals who meet to discuss topical issues. To be sure, there's an appetite for them: meeting colleagues across an industry is valuable for networking, hearing prominent speakers useful for education. Yet there is something more mysterious about bringing people together, something hard to measure, something that happens when you squeeze a bunch of people into a room and let their ideas simmer. They start to think.

In a world of banks and buildings, it is sometimes easy to forget that the most precious commodity is not money or property, but people and their ideas, the starting point of every innovation. The power of bringing people together, of multiplying their ideas simply by aggregating them, lies behind the thinking of TEDxDubai's organisers. "We wanted to focus more on people," says Giorgio Ungania, the curator of the event, "on people who are dreaming big. Emiratis are craving this. There's been a focus on building what you might call infrastructures. People are attending TEDxDubai to get inspired, to get a different point of view. To stop a bit, look around and see what amazing things other Emiratis are dreaming up."

I have some first-hand experience of this power to inspire. Since last year, I have been running a salon in London, a modern version of those gatherings of intellectuals that flowered in ninth-century Baghdad and 16th-century Paris. On the face of it, the idea is straightforward. A group from the worlds of the media, the arts, business and diplomacy get together to hear high-profile speakers and discuss ideas with them. But the power is not in the speakers; the power is in the discussion.

Simply by bringing such a diverse range of people together, sharing their experiences, the salon is able to harness ideas, to make clear new ways of thinking. The Middle Space is now the largest media and arts salon in London and the events have a power that go beyond the mere fact of professionals meeting each other. In some ways, it is easy to dismiss all of this as mere talking; empty words for a leisured elite. But such creative sharing has real world applications: it is not merely philosophical abstraction. More than almost anything else, ideas and innovation will be what drive economies in the future. Creativity is a currency - and countries that have more of it will find themselves richer in the long term.

Politicians in developed countries talk a lot about moving to a "knowledge economy". The logic is impeccable: there is almost nothing that cannot be manufactured more quickly and cheaply by the millions of hands in the developing world. Outsourcing manufacturing, communications - even legal and financial work - to Asian countries such as India and China looks like a financial no-brainer. Where there is heavy lifting to be done in business, it makes sense to go where the most hands are.

Yet the impact of large numbers of people entering the workforce in developing nations will be felt beyond traditional industries. Every year, India produces more English-speaking scientists, engineers and technicians than the rest of the world combined. Workers of the developed world are not competing merely with many hands, but with many more minds. Concurrent with this change is another: the accelerating pace of change itself. The World Future Society, a US non-profit body, has predicted that two-thirds of the jobs available in developed economies in 2020 have not been invented yet.

Couple that with the observation that the only job that cannot be outsourced is the initial inspiration and it becomes clear that the focus of modern economies needs to be on innovating products and services - not on building the product, but inventing it. Apple, one of the most successful technology companies, does not build products; it simply invents the idea of them. That is the secret of modern business success and the reason why the world's most successful economies - the US, the European Union and Japan - are also the ones that file the most patents. Generating future ideas is the future.

And those who are the future know it. Innovation is not exclusively a young person's game, but it is young people who understand it best, who seem to have grasped that their future careers depend on being able to innovate and adapt - at TEDxDubai, for example, students have taken a quarter of all the available seats. Creative sharing is not just important for individual countries: it might well be the only way to save the planet. Population increases, dwindling natural resources and economic upheaval are all practical problems that require creative solutions, not merely more of the same.

Population expansion will not be solved by building more cities, nor energy dependence by drilling more oil wells. What these problems require are creative solutions, ideas that will not come from within their narrow fields. Ideas, after all, don't happen in isolation - they are an accumulation of many different sparks. One of the best examples of this cross-pollination of ideas is the science of biomimicry, using solutions found in nature to solve human problems. Looking to nature for scientific inspiration is not a particularly new idea (Leonardo da Vinci was a fan), but some of the possibilities are astonishing in their application.

The poster boy for biomimicry is the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, a building that regulates its internal temperature without air conditioning or heating, using less than 10 per cent of the energy of a similarly sized building. The design came from the way termites in the country build huge mounds and use convection currents to keep the internal temperature of these dirt mounds constant despite large external variations between night and day temperatures.

That is an excellent example of cross-pollination of ideas - without input from scientists, designers, architects and computer modellers, the building could not exist. Those who deal in creativity deal in the currency of the future. The immense value of creative gatherings like TEDxDubai is their ability to spark innovation in unpredictable ways. Ideas may well evolve like viruses - and viruses often make the hosts themselves stronger.

Faisal al Yafai was named Journalist of the Year at the 2009 Muslim Writers Awards. He is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010.