When he was invited to judge a conference for aspiring entrepreneurs in Dubai in November 2010, Christopher Schroeder was admittedly skeptical. “I had a narrative bias, a CNN view of the Middle East,” he said. “I couldn’t get it through my head that politically and socially hierarchical places like (then) Mubarak’s Egypt were kicking up a technology ecosystem. But my world view completely changed after the event.”
In fact, the Washington, DC–based Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist was so impressed by what he witnessed—more than 2,000 young, tech-savvy men and women participating from North Africa to Yemen with smartphones in hand and big ideas in mind—that he spent the next three years interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs and investors in the Middle East to better understand their aspirations, motivations, and innovations. Schroeder’s research culminated in his first book, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). And today, he’s convinced that what’s happening in the Middle East is just the beginning of a tech-enabled, “bottom-up revolution” that will soon disrupt traditional business practices everywhere.
Schroeder recently sat down with strategy+business to discuss innovation in the Middle East and why he thinks leaders around the world continue to underestimate the power of mobile technology.
S+B: What makes the Middle East ripe for innovation?
SCHROEDER: An entrepreneurial spirit has long been there. Dubai was a desert 17 years ago, and somebody willed that city to happen. But the biggest difference today is the ubiquitous access to software and technology. The spread of broadband, increasingly through smartphones, has already begun to change everything, and it will only accelerate over the next five years.
S+B: How so?
SCHROEDER: Most mobile providers told me to expect at least 50 percent smartphone penetration in the region. The Gulf has already exceeded this level. So we’re not just talking about better phones, and more of them, but literally supercomputers in the hands of millions. This means that millions of people can see how millions of other people live. They can connect with anybody anywhere and collaborate instantly.
I think people are underestimating the fact that the entire world soon will have access to essentially all of human knowledge at their fingertips. Really, what’s happening is that we’re unleashing a complete revolution in bottom-up human behavior. The essence of empowerment is the ability to feel that you’re not afraid, and that you’re not alone. If someone like you does something really cool, you start to believe you can do it, too. Then you have a flywheel effect of people doing amazing things.
We’re unleashing a complete revolution in bottom-up human behavior.
S+B: What do you mean by “bottom-up”?
SCHROEDER: There’s a line in my book from an Egyptian woman, Dina Sherif, who’s a corporate social responsibility expert. She said it never ceases to amaze her how well-intentioned, top-down institutions—like governments and big businesses—think that they, sitting in Washington or in London, have the best idea of what’s good for people on the ground.
But all of a sudden, with technology, people everywhere have a voice. We have access to what people all over the world are actually doing, what they’re capable of accomplishing, what works, and what doesn’t work. Given the opportunity, people can often solve the problems in their backyard better than anyone else can. So to play out Dina’s phrase, she said a top-down view sees people as problems, while a bottom-up view sees people as assets who can solve their own problems.
S+B: How are companies capitalizing on this bottom-up phenomenon?
SCHROEDER: First, I’d argue that technology capabilities that connect us—like Google, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and so on—are the ultimate facilitation platforms of bottom up. With Google, almost anybody anywhere can find orderly access to the world’s knowledge. And almost anybody anywhere can connect with others under almost any circumstance, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.