Sultan Qaboos University attaches great importance to catching up with countries that have made tremendous advances in the techniques of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; this is no longer an option but a strategic requirement imposed by today's world. Several initiatives have been launched for different technologies such as nanotechnology, Internet of Things, and Blockchain. Dr. Rahma Ibrahim Al-Mahrooqi, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Sultan Qaboos University for Postgraduate Studies and Research talks about SQU’s preparedness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
How is Oman faring in terms of Research and Innovation?
Since the advent of the modern era, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’s vision has embraced research and innovation as a means of keeping abreast of scientific developments across a broad range of strategic areas. This is evident at SQU as its mission stipulates leadership in research across strategic areas and by His Majesty’s allocation of half a million Omani Rials for Strategic Research When He visited Sultan Qaboos University in 2000. In his Speech on May 2nd 2000, His Majesty indicated that the allocated sum was just a start and the sum would be increased as more developments take place in the field of research at SQU. The establishment of the Research Council in 2005 was another landmark to support research and innovation in Oman. SQU has now 14 research centers focusing on various strategic areas for Oman. SQU established the Innovation and Technology Transfer Center in 2018, and some companies have supported through their social programs the establishment of innovation centers and labs in quite a number of educational governorates in the country.
Given the fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is based on science, research and innovation, it is important for Oman to keep up with the times and to invest more intensively on research and innovation. Doing this will enable us to be a key player in the shape and growth of the fourth industrial revolution, and to make the revolution more sustainable and equitable for the nation and its people. This requires a wide scale approach to establish an echo-system that targets developments across every level of Omani society, including by establishing strong and direct links in the sultanate between research output and innovative social and economic advancement.
Can you please elaborate on what Oman needs to do to partake in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Oman has achieved a great deal over at least the past two decades in terms of research engagement. However, while Oman’s research output continues to grow thanks to the infrastructure and policies that are in place to support it, this growth in knowledge generation has yet to be matched by investment in development and innovation. This investment is necessary as, by taking a unified approach to research, development and innovation, it is possible to turn knowledge into value for the country and to ensure that it successfully manages to transition to a knowledge-based, skills-driven society with a competitive, dynamic, and innovative workforce. It is through the successful management of this transition that the foundation for joining the fourth industrial revolution will be established.
Can you shed light on the Innovation Index and its relationship with research funding?
According to the Global Innovation Index 2017, the most innovative countries in the world are almost in all cases those that spend the highest amount of their GDPs on research and development, either overall or in terms of spending as a percentage of GDP. Oman, which only currently spends a modest amount of its GDP on research and development, is ranked 69th in the Global Innovation Index among 126 countries.
A renewed commitment to research and innovation is necessary as the increasing pace of globalization, and the accompanying fast-paced rate of technological development, means that nations now operate in a far more complex international marketplace than perhaps at any other period in history. In order to succeed in this environment, it is imperative that Oman uses the opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution allows.
In this, Oman can look towards examples set by a number of governments around the world. Building a supportive ecosystem for innovation in Oman can help the country reach its goal of being an important part of the fourth industrial revolution. Oman can achieve this by developing in-country facilities and making available specialized materials to build and iterate products in a supportive, streamlined process at institutional (i.e. universities) and national levels. It can also make these accessible to all potential innovators in addition to establishing national innovation centres where innovators can access prototyping equipment, co-working spaces, mentorship, and networks of like-minded innovators and so on.
How can we enhance the existing infrastructure in Oman?
This infrastructure can be further enhanced through the strengthening the existing research centers and establishing dedicated buildings for them, with labs equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, and where advanced facilities and materials/consumable are readily available. Oman will also require further investment in research funding and the establishment of research chairs, following the Canadian model, in strategic areas. Also, strengthening research groups and teams and establishing databases of existing expertise in strategic areas. Finally, bureaucratic processes related to research and development need to be streamlined, with decision making and support made available in a dynamic and supportive environment. This will not only spread a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across the country, but will also help SMEs and individual innovators increase their efficiency and access to often costly resources and technologies that are the building blocks of the fourth industrial revolution.
It is also essential to ensure that innovation is integrated into the curriculum across all educational levels and that school and undergraduate and postgraduate students are provided with opportunities to engage in innovative projects. It is vital to focus on innovation capacity building at universities and colleges, by offering more cross-disciplinary degrees, and especially those that involve AI, engineering, science, and business studies, and integrating research and innovation into graduate attributes documents. This will create a pool of talented researchers and innovators that feed innovation into the private sectors, and especially into SMEs and start-ups.
These are vital steps to help Oman prepare to take advantage of some of the many opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution will offer. While we do not yet know just how the fourth industrial revolution will unfold, the only thing that is clear is that the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. By preparing Oman for participation in the fourth industrial revolution now, we can help ensure that the country will be a regional, if not world, leader in research output, innovation, and competitiveness.