Last week I attended and participated in the ASBAR World Forum on the Transitioning to a Knowledge Economy. The focus of the forum was on strategies and tactics on capacity building in universities and industry providing a high level understanding of issues associated with transitioning the Kingdom's oil-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, reducing these issues into manageable and actionable tasks, and providing processes and methods to execute strategies to achieve the objectives of the Vision 2030 Plan.
Visiting Riyadh was an eye-opening experience. About a third of the participants were women, and several women entrepreneurs gave presentations. I found out that it is easier for women entrepreneurs to open a business and secure financing from the government than it is for men (a good start). There was incredible energy and a desire to make things happen to achieve the Vision 2030 objectives from the ministers to the citizens. The most valuable part, as it tends to be, were the informal discussions that happened during breaks and meals.
The Forum consisted of panel discussions and workshops, and was extremely well attended. There was considerable discussion about creating innovation ecosystems, ways to fund and nurture knowledge creation and innovation, roles of various stakeholders, and the infrastructure required. The speakers and participants agreed that transition efforts should be on multiple fronts such as attracting multinational corporations to build R&D facilities, the need to increase university-industry collaborations, partnerships between academia, government and industry (AGI initiatives), and instituting policies, laws and regulations that incentivize these activities. The strategies included were investing in research, entrepreneur focused education and mentoring, creating SBIR and STTR type programs, greater communication between the stakeholders, and creating prototyping and light manufacturing facilities. And, as we found there are already some efforts underway to build or enhance innovation centers within universities and engage in entrepreneurial activities. There are however some barriers which are being addressed such as culture in universities and industry, skills and training of technology transfer professionals, and an undeveloped innovation ecosystem to support and sustain startup companies.
Highlights of the Forum included the inauguration and awards by Prince Fasial bin Bandar, Governor of Riyadh. In addition, there were ex-ministers, ministers and deputy ministers representing government, and CEOs and vice presidents of corporations who participated in the discussion panels along with incredible speakers from around the world. The panel discussions promoted a great deal of dialog between universities, government, and industry. I was on a panel that discussed how universities and state or regional governments can work together and the impact of those collaborative efforts, a workshop on the role of a university in the knowledge economy, and a keynote address on building capacity for academic technology transfer.
The Forum surpassed all expectations and positive comments from the attendees indicating a desire for more events of this nature. Working with Dr. Yahya Al-Harthi to put the program together and recruit the international speakers was a great experience, and we hope to repeat our efforts next year.