WHAT'S THE ROLE OF SERENDIPITY?
When British writer Horace Walpole coined the term ‘serendipity' in the 18th century, he referenced it to the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose main protagonists “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things t
The term essentially describes the accident of finding something good or useful, while not specifically searching for it. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on the important role that serendipity can play in innovation. As so often when new trends in research and innovation are involved, Silicon Valley companies have been at the forefront of embracing it.
Google has announced that its 1.1 million square feet headquarter complex near San Francisco will be designed to ensure “casual collisions of the work force. You can't schedule innovation. We want to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘ What do you think of this?'”
Meanwhile, Google's competitor Yahoo banned its employees from working from home last year, saying that the rationale behind the move was that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
Role of serendipity
Both initiatives go back to the idea of creating serendipitous moments. The role of serendipity in innovation is widely evidenced, with numerous major scientific
breakthroughs attributed to ‘accidental discoveries', among them the cholera vaccine in 1879 by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur.
To be sure, research and development (R&D), in particular on a corporate level, will always have to have a large element of structure and focus to it. After all, it is this type of R&D that produces essential, bread-and-butter-type innovations for companies, whether in the oil and gas industry or other sectors. As such, structured R&D will continue to play an important role. Just don't expect too many groundbreaking discoveries from it.
In the words of Stefan H Thomke, William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School: “Focused research gives you good products. Serendipitous research gives you great products.”
This is equally relevant for Gulf States that are only just embarking on their journey towards building world-class regional R&D centres and for companies or research institutions involved in R&D that are working towards groundbreaking innovations.
There are different ways of bringing about the “aha” kind of moments that potentially lead to breakthroughs. Applying the so-called proximity principle, which promotes physical proximity as a driver behind creative and innovative thinking, is one of them. With this in mind, research facilities may be designed to enable and facilitate unexpected connections intentionally through face-to-face interaction – as will be the case with Google's new headquarters. Similarly, creating other platforms that allow scientists and researchers to meet, exchange and develop views, ideas and thoughts also had a role to play.
This is where R&D and education clusters such as the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) or Masdar in the UAE come into play. The establishment of such centers has provided an important foundation for countries' long-term R&D ambitions, which have been drawn up with a goal to transform the countries into knowledge economies.
More R&D centres
Major international energy companies are among those that have set up shop at the new research and innovation centres in
“There are different ways of bringing about the 'Aha!' kind of moments that potentially lead to breakthroughs. Applying the so-called proximity principle, which promotes physical proximity as a driver behind creative and innovative thinking, is one of them.”
the Gulf. The oil and gas industry has been at the heart of some of the world's most ground-breaking innovations. Whether in liquefied natural gas, gas to liquids, deep water drilling or shale developments, it has been this fundamental commitment to innovation that has made these technologies possible. This wouldn't have been possible without constantly striving for new innovations and dedicated research.
The availability of this vast industry knowledge and expertise, combined with the presence of branches of some of the world's best-known universities and dedicated government organisations in the Gulf region, provides a unique opportunity for collaboration and innovation between all relevant stakeholders – academia, industry and government. This is of particular importance at a time when the region needs to find a common approach to pressing issues such as managing its precious water and energy resources, and boosting supply and demand efficiencies.
With this in mind, creating local and regional environments that allow serendipity to strive in order to bolster innovation and R&D will be even more critical. If applied successfully, it may give an important impetus to the region's energy sector and turn it into an innovator in its own right, providing truly innovative energy and water solutions not only to the region but to the world beyond.
Hopefully, the relevant stakeholders will works towards providing the type of environments and infrastructure that will contribute to creating serendipitous moments for scientists and researchers in the region in the future
BY SEAN EVERS Managing Partner Gulf Intelligence