When I first moved to New York City, I did what everyone else does upon arrival; I looked up. I took in the instantly recognizable skyline, but I still could not understand what made the city so extraordinary. It was only when I began discovering the underground scenes that I finally recognized its sources of vitality and creativity. More literally, traveling on the city’s subway system, I was quite intrigued by one signpost in particular. It was prominently displayed on platforms and trains and emphatically stated: “Sometimes to Move Forward, You Have to Ride Backwards First”.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, this approach works. New York City’s subway system is old, complex, and has many renovations taking place throughout the year. It is often more effective, therefore, to take a train that is moving a few stops opposite to your intended direction, and change later down the line to an express train which heads back in the right direction. It might sound long winded, but passengers often end up at their destinations sooner than had they taken the obvious choice of train pulling into the station.
I recall this signpost every time I read yet another article touting Beirut as the “next Silicon Valley”. Lebanon’s policy makers have decided to jump on the knowledge economy bandwagon by replicating other tech startup ecosystems, assuming that it’s the expressway to economic growth and prosperity. The city is building technology parks and accelerators such as Beirut’s Digital District, inviting prominent international speakers to our tech conferences and sending our entrepreneurs on road trips to Silicon Valley and New York City. We are also attempting to ease regulatory hurdles by offering incentives to form tech venture investment funds through Banque Du Liban’s Circular 331.
This attitude towards technology and innovation, however, will hardly move us any closer to our desired long-term economic growth or increase our national living standards. To begin with, the majority of today’s technology, including web-based and mobile products are built to capitalize upon network effects, where a slight initial advantage in the number of subscribers snowballs into exponential growth. We are building and unavoidably participating in a global winner-takes-all marketplace, where less than 10 percent of startups thrive or achieve superstar status, while the remaining 90 percent stall and fade away. What’s more, nearly all of our booming tech startups, especially those with truly global reach, will end up relocating to Silicon Valley anyway, where markets are bigger and regulations more favorable. What we are actually doing is investing in a tech startup ecosystem the returns of which do not enliven the whole economy and only accrue to the individual successful startup founders, their handful of employees, and of course their bankers and VCs.
Why are we building an ecosystem that is irrelevant to the majority of the Lebanese population and that will only grow to feed itself? What we truly need is to invest in Strategic Design, the application of design principles to realize a specific purpose. This will ensure that our actions are in fact creating the positive change we are looking for. And right on point, its methodology always starts by taking a step back, to reconsider our assumptions and reformulate our questions, before deciding on a course of action. Here are a few questions that we can start with: what would we gain by becoming the next Silicon Valley, and more importantly, what would we lose? Why are our creative minds working on competing globally when we have pressing local and regional challenges that desperately require innovative interventions? Why does our national innovation strategy involve the mere copying of another country’s best practices, instead of truly carving a niche of our own?
Ultimately, Strategic Design is an instrument of choice. On the national level, it can guide our policy makers in determining where and how to intervene, what incentives to offer and what impact to seek. On the industry and individual business level, it can facilitate the uncovering of opportunities, which, incidentally, may or not may involve technology.
It is essential that we situate our economic activity in our genuine cultural identity and creative impulses, and that we build economic clusters around what makes us unique and distinctive. Our comparative advantage, on a global level, is obvious. Look no further than the fashion at the Oscars’ red carpet or the winning creative communication campaigns at the Cannes Lions awards show. But we need not focus exclusively on making international headlines. Addressing any of our economic, social and ecological challenges through innovative interventions will invariably boost our employment levels and increase our standard of living. Why attempt to be the next Silicon Valley when we can be an original Lebanon?