The Arab World Turns to Its People for Solutions
CAIRO—The spread of social media and online communication has enabled instant access to large numbers of people, connecting companies to global audiences and giving voice to the masses.
Whether it’s raising funds, collecting signatures for a cause, or gathering user-generated content, the possibilities of capitalizing on this huge pool of talent, knowledge and skills seem endless.
While governments in the Arab world look at this rising power of the “crowd” with suspicion, some people are seeking to use it for social benefit. Tamer Taha, a researcher and consultant on innovation policy, is one of them.
Taha has launched an online platform that recruits the public to find innovative solutions to social, environmental and industrial challenges through a process he calls “CrowdSolving.”
Taha and his team help low-tech small businesses and nongovernmental organizations identify the problems they face and then link them to people with ideas for creative solutions through the platform Yomken.com. People who contribute winning solutions receive a financial award allowing them to develop their solution or make a prototype.
After building a network of more than 3,500 innovators and a track record of successful solutions in Egypt, the platform expanded its activities recently to other countries in the region through partnerships in Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Palestine.
“The Arab world has a problem in applying scientific research to solve social and industrial problems in an innovative way,” Taha said. “On the other hand,” he added, “there are innovators with good potential who don’t know how to market or fund their ideas.”
According to the Unesco Science Report: Towards 2030, the Arab world contributed only 0.2 percent of the patents submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2013. At the same time, the number of scientific papers produced by scholars in the Arab world doubled between 2008 and 2014.
The disparity between those numbers indicates a problem in transforming scientific knowledge into marketable products and services, Taha says. He believes CrowdSolving can bridge this gap by providing researchers and scientists with actual problems to solve, instead of theoretical exercises.
Yomken, launched in 2012, also acts as a marketplace for innovators to showcase their ideas and creations. For industries, CrowdSolving can reduce innovation costs and provide possible solutions from people in diverse disciplines through one point of contact.
Since the quality of the idea is the main criterion, people from different social and educational backgrounds can participate. This helps to decentralize innovation, allowing people to respond to challenges from any location.
“I think CrowdSolving provides everyone a chance to be part of the solution to everyday problems,” said Khaled Hijab, founder of Tech Tribes, a nonprofit group in Jordan that recently formed a partnership with Yomken. “This combines a democratic sense of responsibility and a sense of citizenship that capitalizes on creativity, scientific advancement and local talent,” he said.
The absence of proper channels for public participation is one of the reasons Hijab established Tech Tribes, which helps young people, cause-driven groups and other nonprofits to respond to community issues through digital tools.
“I wanted to create channels for participation that would gain people’s trust, channels that would respect people’s opinions regardless of their backgrounds, channels that are easily understood and widely accepted, and, most importantly, channels that the general public would not consider elitist,” said Hijab, who specializes in international social innovation and the application of information and communication technologies for development.
Another of Yomken’s new partner organizations, BuildPalestine, connects supporters around the world with social-impact projects in Palestine. The platform works with local communities to promote social entrepreneurship and CrowdSolving, with the aim of developing more innovative and impactful projects.
“The rise of social media makes it easy to reach and engage with the community and with supporters in all corners of the world, from Chile to Finland,” said Besan Abu-Joudeh, chief engagement officer at BuildPalestine. “Our goal is to take CrowdSolving challenges from Palestine, and put them out for the community to solve, both locally and internationally.”
Elsewhere in the region, other groups are appearing, with slightly different approaches but with a strong public-collaboration aspect.
“If we want to have a successful national Arab economy, we need these transnational platforms to source solutions from within the region,” Hijab said.
In one successful example of pan-Arab collaboration, a Tunisian courier company called Pedalo wanted to transform the rotational energy of its delivery bicycles into electrical energy to charge the mobile phones of couriers on the go. The challenge was posted on Yomken.com and a prototype of the winning solution was shipped to the company from Egypt.
Pedalo’s founder, Adnen Ben Haji, said the difficulty of finding affordable technologies in Tunisia encouraged him to approach Yomken.
“Innovators in Tunisia are not grouped together, so they are difficult to reach,” he said. “Industries, especially startups, don’t have the resources or time to go to every university and look for innovators. CrowdSolving was a magical solution because it connected all the dots”.
Other solutions posted on Yomken’s web site include a domestic groundwater filter, a harvesting machine for long-staple Egyptian cotton, and a machine for automatically sorting vegetables using artificial intelligence.
The platform invites academics, researchers, engineers and product designers to contribute solutions. It also welcomes contributions from university students and vocational-education graduates, who are often underestimated in Arab countries.
Businesses in search of creative solutions “should think beyond importing,” said Samir Soliman, community manager at AlMaqarr Coworking Space. “There are people who can provide local solutions. Vocational-education graduates have a lot of potential, but they need help to reach clients.”
Soliman is a vocational-education graduate himself who turned to Yomken with a creative idea.
Using equipment he had at home, Soliman created a movable threshold that travels with the door to prevent dust and insects from entering a space. The product is useful for places where fixed thresholds are not allowed for safety considerations or easy wheelchair access, such as hospitals. Yomken helped Soliman fund and market the product.
But this grass-roots approach has challenges of its own.
“Protection of intellectual-property rights is a major problem for the CrowdSolving model,” said Ahmed Shawky Moussa, director of Cairo University’s Technology Innovation Commercialization Office. “Also, the financial award is usually insufficient for solution providers,” he added.
Moussa believes that there is little motivation now for cooperation between industry and academics in Egypt.
“There are no incentives for industries which depend on locally developed solutions to cooperate with universities and research centers,” he said. “On the other hand, there are no regulations in research centers and universities that link career advancement to collaboration with industries and number of patents,” he said.
But this situation might be about to change, at least in Egypt.
According to the new investment law approved last year, money spent by investors to support technical education, finance scientific research and studies, or sponsor innovators will be tax-exempt, provided it doesn’t exceed 10 percent of the company’s profits. “This should definitely encourage more companies to bear the risk of innovation,” Taha said. “It should also motivate finance and accounting managers to encourage their companies to invest in such activities which, if conducted adequately, can yield higher profits.”