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

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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

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