Stuck in the past: Universities, research and innovation in Lebanon

If you have read this blog before you’ll know that I’m getting back to a subject that I’ve always discussed, but it’s important, it’s essential and it deserves having more emphasis. Discussing it over and over again is the only way to promote how much important it has become.

To keep it brief, I don’t want to elaborate and write very lengthy paragraphs but I just want to say that throughout history and up till now, what defined a civilization were the things that it created and invented, innovation is what made civilizations great, and what gave to each of them its distinctive identity.
Our universities in Lebanon still provide top quality education but when it comes to research and innovation there’s an eerie void that shouldn’t last.
The education that we’re providing to our students is something from the past, it’s been discovered and formulated and it has become part of the history. Now what about giving them something for the future, what about involving them in crafting something for the future not only in applying information from the past, but also by using the leverage power of their minds to create things out of nothing, what about that? It’s beautiful and interesting, but unfortunately we’re far from it in Lebanon. Even the most prestigious universities in Lebanon have mediocre budgets for research and what is worse is that they have no strategy or vision to promote research and make it at the heart of the academic experience of their students, and at the heart of their existence as academic institutions as well.
The huge impact of this “stuck in the past” mentality is the unfortunate lack of innovation and creativity in our society and economic activity. I’ve been following the start-up scene in Lebanon and the MENA region in general, and it’s really sad that we didn’t see any of these start-ups achieve an important success. The main reason in my opinion is the lack of innovation.

If I ask you to give me two start-ups from Lebanon and the ME region, what will be the first names to pop in your head? I’m sure that many of you won’t be able to give two names and for those who can give a couple of names please tell me what difference did these start-ups make and how much success did they achieve during the course of their life time? Not much, right?
If I want to answer that question the first two names that come up in my mind are Cinemoz and MarkaVIP. Cinemoz is simply a copy of the American Hulu, the difference is that cinemoz has a library of Arabic movies and series, surely some people will argue that it offered too a technical solution to overcome the hurdle of the underdeveloped infrastructure in the region used for streaming media, but a technical solution is an on daily basis engineering routine it’s not innovation, and the whole concept of cinemoz is essentially a replica of Hulu, we’re just following the trend.
MarkaVIP is an online discount store offering a wide range of mid to high end brands, again what’s new here? Nothing, we neither invented e-commerce nor came up with the e-discount concept, it’s a copy of an activity that has matured for a long while in the west.

People are not searching to innovate, in Lebanon being early adopters in the region for a foreign technology makes us feel like gods coming to life straight down from the greek mythology, and if you think of it it’s really ridiculous. Following the trend and just following the trend is silly. Start-ups, technology conferences, accelerators, are all by themselves imported concepts because they became the trend in the west, and all these events loaded with talks that hold less value than their form and size, are more about social events than real work. People tend to associate themselves with them to get a social status and to boost their egos while the work done and achieved is little, and if you find this statement as incorrect please enlighten me and give me details on results, what were the results of these events over the last few years?
Now back to universities and the lack of research, it is the main problem because it’s the reason why we lack this engine of innovation, most of the successful American start-ups and ventures were started by PhD students and PhD programs’ drop outs. It is extremely important to promote the “think, create, innovate” culture to be able to put forward something new and interesting, the social and economic impacts of such a culture will be huge so it’s about time that we start giving this sector the big importance it deserves. Researching and discovering new ways to do things is an essential factor for any civilization that wants to grow, to promote itself and to protect itself.
So think, create, and innovate and always ask yourself: Where do I want to go today? The possibilities are endless if you harness the potential you have in your mind.
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