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World Changing Ideas Summit deliberates if the Middle East can be a testbed for innovation

With its unique blend of opportunities and innovative initiatives, the region has the potential to catapult positive change on a global scale.

World Changing Ideas Summit deliberates if the Middle East can be a testbed for innovation
[Source photo: Fast Company Middle East]

Where do great ideas come from, and how can you generate more?

Well, they don’t come out of thin air due to massive cognitive leaps.

It comes when the chain of little mental advances eventually ends up with an innovative idea, and analogies lead from one idea to the next.

This was true for the Fast Company Middle East’s World Changing Ideas Summit, held on November 2 at the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which brought together futurists and thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to discuss ideas defining the next decade of development. 

This year’s summit explored four key areas that will define the future socio-economic landscape in the Middle East: artificial intelligence (AI), energy systems, startup ecosystem, and giga projects. These are definitive epicenters of innovation and progress, with the potential to reshape industries, disrupt traditional models, and drive monumental change. 

Here are a few takeaways from the summit: 


AI can alter human lives, economies, and the workforce. In the AI Decoded panel, experts highlighted the dual nature of AI, its potential to benefit or harm, and the need for careful consideration.

Is AI smarter than humans? “It’s not an absolute comparison. Given that we only utilize a fraction of our brain’s capacity, AI exhibits superior intelligence and is already proving more productive than most individuals,” said Abdallah Abu Sheikh, Co-Founder of Astra Tech & CEO of Botim. But is it a threat? “AI, like any technology, is not inherently a threat; rather, humans are the source of potential threats. However, the race to superintelligence does pose a potential threat,” he added.

Experts also addressed AI’s role in improving the economy, job loss, and the importance of employee reskilling. 

“We are currently in a phase where AI is reactive. AI agents assist us in organizing our work and creating a real-world impact. It serves as a valuable tool and friend, reducing the burden of our jobs and providing liberation. In another context, AI is becoming more efficient than humans, and AI may indeed replace some jobs. Consequently, we need to focus on reskilling these employees,” said Prof. Le Song, CTO, BioMap, Professor of Machine Learning, MBZUAI, Artificial Intelligence Scholar. 

Fatmah Baothman, a member of the Global Future Council on the Future of Artificial Intelligence, World Economic Forum, said AI has both positive and negative impacts on our lives and economies, and we cannot proceed with AI without acknowledging its risks. “AI, like a weapon, can be used for good and bad. Governments and international bodies are giving serious consideration to AI’s impact. It’s imperative to establish ‘red lines’ to ensure the respect of human boundaries. We must reevaluate how it adds value to humans.”

If left unchecked, the panel’s consensus was that AI could emerge as a threat to human capabilities. 


As the world shifts towards more eco-friendly and efficient energy solutions, the Energy in Motion panel questioned the Middle East’s role in switching to and shaping the future of a sustainable energy mix. 

Three sectors are responsible for 87% of global carbon emissions. The electricity and heat sector accounts for approximately 40%, followed by industry at about 26%, and transportation at 21%. Decarbonizing the energy sector is a paramount goal, said Otmane Benamar, CTO of Gas Power EMEA at GE Vernova, emphasized decarbonizing the energy sector. “This necessitates a significant shift towards renewable energy sources. We need to aim to achieve the energy trilemma – sustainability, affordability, and reliability – which is crucial when we consider that 800 million people worldwide lack access to reliable power.”

Furthermore, Benamar underlined the need to extend this trilemma approach to other sectors. “These sectors, on their path to achieving net-zero emissions, must focus on electrification as a primary strategy. However, it’s important to acknowledge that electrification presents a substantial challenge in today’s landscape.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Severance, Director of Growth at Masdar City, underscored the economic and environmental imperatives in the region. “Renewables offer the most cost-effective energy solution for the region. We are rapidly approaching a point of true economic parity for electric vehicles (EVs), making them a viable option,” he said. 

“To fully embrace this transition, we require a smarter grid system and an increased reliance on renewables.”

Moreover, he added, it is imperative to set a clear goal to phase out internal combustion engines and fossil fuel-powered vehicles. “The market can deliver on these advancements, but government involvement is essential to ensure regulatory certainty.” 

Another panelist, Jack Uppal, President and Managing Director of General Motors in Africa and the Middle East, emphasized the roadblocks to shifting to renewables. “This transformation isn’t limited to simply electrifying our fleet; we must diversify our solutions even within electrification.” 

He added it’s essential to consider alternative technologies like green hydrogen as part of a sustainable mobility strategy.


The summit also brought together the founders of three of the region’s unicorns to reflect on their origin story and how they scaled simple ideas to billion-dollar businesses.

They talked about the first-mover advantage, the importance of disruption, and surviving VC winter cycles, among other topics. 

“Having the advantage of being a first mover is undeniably helpful, but it’s not crucial. Being the second mover is feasible, but it becomes challenging to convince customers to switch once they’ve established habits with a platform. It’s possible to enter the market later and succeed, but it requires more effort and a larger investment,” said Mudassir Sheikha, Co-Founder and CEO of Careem. 

Mohamad Ballout, Co-Founder and CEO of Kitopi, spoke about the dynamics of market competition. “When you’re the first entrant, it can be more challenging to create your strategy. In our case, we didn’t have a role model to follow; we had to develop our playbook from scratch. The advantage of being a first mover is indeed more demanding.”

Another panelist, Mostafa Kandil, CEO of Swvl, reflected as a first mover, one encounters all the challenges, often requiring substantial financial investment to pave the way. “It’s a process of trial and error, especially when you’re unsure how to structure the business.”

“Being a second-mover can sometimes prove to be the more advantageous position,” he added.


The final panel of the summit looked at the region’s giga projects — whether these projects are merely to create economic curiosity or serve as test beds of future technologies. 

“Giga project is a terminology that’s been used a lot; it’s a project that has many asset classes – malls, residential, offices, museums. The mix can create an impact not seen in regular urban fabrics,” said Talal Kensara, Chief Strategy Management Officer of Diriyah Company. 

However, even though millions of dollars are poured into giga projects, the real challenge is developing a “well-curated value proposition to ensure there’s demand,” he added.

Agreeing with him, Dr. Hafiz Ali Abdulla, ICOM Board Member, Director of Marketing and Communication at Msheireb Properties, highlighted the role of the region’s leadership in pushing for ambitious projects. “We have a unique project that is part of Qatar Foundation; when we started, the vision was to build a sustainable, smart city in downtown Doha. It was challenging to get all the parts together.” 

Meanwhile, Kensara said the project aimed to give visitors a glimpse of the past and a journey to humanity’s roots. 

The World Changing Ideas Summit was the convergence of diverse perspectives and forward-thinking solutions, as experts deliberated on transformative ideas birthing in the Middle East and catalyzed the potential of catapulting positive change on a global scale.

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More