Islamabad 28th March 2020 – Talha Akhtar: As nations across the Middle East develop their digital infrastructure, Charles Yang, President of Huawei Middle East, notes that some of the most important advancements this decade will be a result of breakthroughs in basic research.The strength of industry over the past 1,000 years has come from a consistent focus on what we call “basic research”. This means looking at the foundations of mathematics and mechanics, optics, biology, and physics. Of course all companies need to undertake research and development to ensure that their products remain competitive. Yet this day-to-day innovation is more incremental, and must be contrasted with more disruptive innovation in basic research that leads to entirely new types of industries and services.
Theoretical advances in basic research triggered the invention of things like the steam engine and the nuclear reactor, and are the types of breakthroughs we must continue to prioritise in the decade ahead. This view was supported in the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2019 which noted that shifting the focus from innovation quantity to innovation quality remains a global priority.
Today the tech sector is an unparalleled champion of basic research. Global R&D has been driven most aggressively by the ICT service sector and producers, according to the 2019 Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard. BCG’s annual Most Innovative Companies List has also highlighted the crucial role of technology in innovation, and the impact of digital technologies on both digital natives and more traditional industries. It’s perhaps no surprise that nearly all of the most innovative companies for 2019 were technology brands.
A great example of basic research breakthroughs is the current proliferation of 5G connectivity. The investigation into polar codes by professor Dr. ErdalArikan—initially published in 2008 and which was backed by Huawei—defined an entirely new approach to maximising the rate and reliability of data transmission. That breakthrough in basic research ultimately led to the earlier-than-expected commercialisation of 5G technologies beginning in 2019.
Looking to the decade ahead, there is much we are still trying to understand with basic research. The ICT industry is running into many bottlenecks after 50 years of high-speed development. The times call for new theoretical breakthroughs and a new innovation strategy. At Huawei, we refer to this as moving from Innovation 1.0 to Innovation 2.0, wherein we look at not just technological and engineering innovations but theoretical breakthroughs and inventions.
For example, there are fundamentals of the AI domain that are still quite nascent, with massive potential for new AI algorithms and chipsets to build intelligent industries. Wireless network research is another important area, as the world seeks to boost spectrum efficiency at a time when billions of people and devices are coming online. The further development of quantum computing will also allow us to reimagine the basic units for storing and transmitting data, enabling us to more quickly solve the problems that traditional computers simply could not.
The good news is that, as the costs of global communication have fallen, the world has benefitted from a surge in the amount and quality of collaborative research between governments, businesses, and academia. This is no more visible than in the Middle East. Leading technology and engineering companies have shifted to working with the finest scientific minds in university laboratories. At the same time, private companies have been opening up their previously siloed teams to joint innovation programs. We have seen the value of these collaborations firsthand through the establishment of numerous Huawei joint innovation centres in the Middle East over the last decade.
Acknowledging the profound value of basic research, organisations and governments in the Middle East would do well to remember the ingredients that lead to breakthroughs.
One huge driver of basic research is the collaboration between private companies and universities. These collaborations can provide postgraduate students and researchers with the chance to receive practical training and hands-on experience. This in turn helps them to navigate the ‘valley of death’—the point in the development journey where a great invention resulting from technologically-focused research needs to transform into something tangible that will be successful in the marketplace.
Another crucial force behind basic research today is the development of global innovation networks. The relationship between the US and China is a prime example of this despite recent political positioning. The National Science Foundation in the US recently found that as a share of total cross-national articles published globally, US scientists and engineers published the most articles with Chinese partners, and that US firms spend more on R&D activities in China than in any other foreign country.
For nations in the Middle East, the value of cross-border cooperation is more important than ever in pursuing serious R&D programs. That cooperation is now deepening on the back of numerous efforts to reduce barriers to foreign investment and foreign talent. The Gulf countries in particular have made remarkable progress in liberalising markets, opening up residency programs, revising foreign visa and insurance regulations, and exploring more competitive foreign ownership laws. These reforms all create a more compelling framework for innovation.
In the end, advances in basic research are a lot like a symphony – one played by thousands of minds one generation after the next. Building a digital, intelligent world takes a joint effort. We must ultimately dissolve boundaries and work together to build an ecosystem that thrives on shared success across a huge number of scientists, professors, craftspeople, and policymakers. There is still a long way to go in our journey toward an intelligent world. But this symphony is one in which all of us have a role to play.