Bridging The Digital Divide

At the Entrepreneur Middle East Round Table presented by du, experts from across different industry spectrums came together to exchange know-how on keeping up with the pace of digital transformation within their respective sectors.
Bridging The Digital Divide
Image credit: Entrepreneur ME
Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
15+ min read
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You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

This article was co-written with Aby Sam Thomas, Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East.

It’s not a stretch to say that digital transformation is one of the most talked about subjects in the UAE’s business realm today, and as such, it’s not a surprise to see institutions in the country, from both the private and public sectors, figure out ways in which they can integrate this paradigm shift in doing business into their day-to-day operations. However, it’s one thing for an enterprise to embark on a digital transformation initiative- and it’s another thing entirely to do it right.

This was one of the main points of discussion at the Entrepreneur Middle East Round Table presented by du, held in June at the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, which had experts from across different industry spectrums giving their takes on how organizations can go about successfully accelerating the pace of digital transformation within their respective lines of businesses.

Moderated by Entrepreneur Middle East Editor in Chief Aby Sam Thomas, the discussion featured the insights of Saqr Alhemeiri, Chief Innovation Officer, UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention; Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive Vice President, FinTech Hive, Dubai International Financial Centre; Hany Fahmy Aly, Executive Vice President - Enterprise Business, du; Marwan Bin Dalmook, Senior Vice President ICT Solutions and Smart City Operations, du; Benjamin Boesch, Head, Digital and eCommerce, VFS Global; Zeina Kaissi, Head of Emerging Technology, Smart Dubai; and Wai Lum Kwok, Executive Director, Capital Markets, Financial Services Regulatory Authority, Abu Dhabi Global Market. The discussion kicked off with Kaissi sharing a glimpse into the digital transformation drive that the Government of Dubai has initiated across the Emirate under the banner of her enterprise, Smart Dubai.

Zeina Kaissi, Head of Emerging Technology, Smart Dubai

As the government office charged with enabling the digital transformation of the city as a whole, Smart Dubai has been entrusted with the mission of making “Dubai the happiest city on earth through technology innovation,” which is rooted in the far reaching vision of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, for the Emirate. “We have this almost nearly impossible ambition (but we like nearly impossible ambitions, I think, as a nation) to completely digitize the government 100%, to have the government 100% paperless,” said Kaissi, referring to the Dubai Paperless Strategy, which aims to have all of the city’s applicable government transactions moved to digital platforms by 2021.

Related: H.E. Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr On Smart Dubai Office's Citywide Blockchain Implementation

“What we are doing at Smart Dubai right now is working with every single government organization to onboard their services into one channel, which is our app, DubaiNow, so that the user has a one-stop shop for government services,” Kaissi explained. “These services, when they are onboarded, they are fully digitized, and so, we do not leave any space for [the user to have to make] customer service center visits, and we don't leave space for paperwork as well.” As for the impact this initiative would have, Kaissi pointed toward the stats that were a key factor in Smart Dubai’s Paperless Strategy winning one of the prestigious Interactive Innovation Awards at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in March this year at Austin, Texas in the United States.

Speakers at the Entrepreneur Middle East round table presented by du. Left to right: Benjamin Boesch, Head, Digital and eCommerce, VFS Global, Wai Lum Kwok, Executive Director, Capital Markets, Financial Services Regulatory Authority, Abu Dhabi Global Market, Saqr Alhemeiri, Chief Innovation Officer, UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention, Zeina Kaissi, Head of Emerging Technology, Smart Dubai, Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive Vice President, FinTech Hive, DIFC, Hany Fahmy Aly, Executive Vice President - Enterprise Business, du, and Marwan Bin Dalmook, Senior Vice President - ICT Solutions & Smart City Operations, du

Through this drive, the government would be, by 2021, eliminating the use of more than one billion pieces of paper in its day-today transactions, which would, besides preventing the cutting down of 130,000 trees, result in cost savings of up to AED1.3 billion, and also save people 40 hours a year of their time, which they’d otherwise be spending traveling between service centers to process paperwork.

As Kaissi noted, it’s through showcasing tangible savings like these that enterprises can get their various stakeholders -be it their employees, their partners, or their customersto get invested in the digital transformation processes they set out for themselves. In the case of UAE telco du, Aly and Bin Dalmook explained that, three years ago, the company decided to pursue its digital transformation plans more aggressively than ever before, with the aim being to change the company’s customer experience models.

“That was the pillar, let's say, the keystone, to start all the transformation within du,” Bin Dalmook said. “We had to focus on new technologies and new services, to forge new partnerships, and to develop a new business model.” Today, while du has a lot to celebrate having recently launched 5G services in the UAE, Aly pointed out that enterprises like his shouldn’t rest on their laurels for too longthey should instead be making sure that they are on top of the latest technological developments.

Hany Fahmy Aly, Executive Vice President - Enterprise

“Some telcos have their own wallets and compete with banks in their countries and vice versa, some internet players want to become telcos or to become banks, so what technology does is removing the boundaries between industries, and therefore, our constant challenge is in knowing from where our next growth opportunity will come,” Aly said.

“The question comes down to what you want to focus on, being an information and communications technology (ICT) player, or being a payment provider, or being a consultant to companies, or just a simple infrastructure player. Also, it’s not only technology which we can develop that makes an impact, but also bringing in the people who can turn it into something even bigger.”

Wai Lum Kwok, Executive Director, Capital Markets, Financial Services Regulatory Authority, Abu Dhabi Global Market

VFS Global is an outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide that manages visa and passport issuance processes for its clients. As Boesch put it, the company is “in the business of eliminating queues,” operating in more than 100 countries, serving more than 60 client governments, all of which has required them to make the best out of the digitization efforts underway in each of the respective countries.

“We don't make a visa decision, but we collect all the evidence, documents, plus biometric data, that is required for the visa decision,” Boesch says. “So, in a way, we are a private company, but then we're not, because we act as an outsourcing partner to governments. I think we are at the intersection between policy set forth by all of our 60+ governments and consumer needs in various countries. If I take, for instance, our Chinese customers, Chinese visa applicants, you can see how far ahead in terms of expectations they are, because they're actually spoiled by all the consumer products, all the digital apps, they're using over there." 

"Then, some other countries are less progressed, so, in a way, the pressure actually comes from the consumer. And it is our job to take the pressure of those expectations off our clients’ shoulders, and translate it into products that fit with the policies of their respective countries. In doing that, we don't call it transformation but digitization, because transformation creates a certain degree of fear and resistance, because it sounds like a huge leap.”

Related: Initiating Ideas: Entrepreneur Middle East Academy Stages Workshop For The UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention

Alhemeiri agreed with Boesch’s sentiment, noting how although the UAE government had initiated the conversation around digital transformation by announcing the National Innovation Strategy a few years back, the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) has been taking cautious steps on this particular path in its particular line of business. “Digital transformation within the healthcare sector worldwide has been facing big challenges,” he said.

“While other sectors are speeding up really fast, the healthcare sector is more hesitant, and even the technologies available for digitization are not up to standard, such that organizations can actually take the risk and go ahead with that. However, even though this is one of the most challenging sectors, I think it's very exciting, because disruption does not wait for legislation, so we need to build an infrastructure that will enable us to survive within that disruption.”

Saqr Alhemeiri, Chief Innovation Officer, UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention

Indeed, during the UAE Month of Innovation last February, the MOHAP launched its Innovation Strategy 2019–2021 which includes four key pillars: healthcare leadership, R&D, healthy society, and leading operations and services. “It happened in association with all stakeholders in the market, local governments, federal governments, and private sector,” Alhemeiri noted. “However, we did it not only to focus on using digitization to increase the quality of healthcare, but also to create a healthcare system that transforms traditional model of care towards a valuebased healthcare.”

Looking toward the financial sector in the UAE, Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), since its launch in Abu Dhabi in 2015, has been playing a key role in driving digital transformation in the industry it operates in. “We are, in a way, a young startup regulator trying to establish our credibility on the international stage of our fellow regulators,” Kwok said.

“Most traditional regulators tend to adopt a wait and see approach, because I suppose that's the reality, but for us, the future of financial services is going to be technology driven. There's no doubt about it. And, one part of our objective, apart from making sure that there's financial stability and control in place, is that we want to help banks and financial institutions to start embracing and adopting this process. So, we are both a regulator, as well as a financial center developer, in a sense.”

Kwok added that ADGM’s attitude toward digital transformation was similar to that of the MOHAP, since they have learned that they need to juggle their roles as regulators, while also ensuring they are not hampering innovation in their respective sectors. In ADGM’s case, the international financial center has focused on creating an environment of innovation in the sector, with initiatives like the Digital Sandbox, a virtual space where fintech startups can connect with other institutions and regulators in order to experiment and develop innovative solutions, or its launch of the region’s first comprehensive crypto asset regulatory framework last year intended at regulating entities operating businesses in this arena.

Related: New Kids On The Block: Silicon Valley-Headquartered Plug And Play Partners With Abu Dhabi Global Market

“In a way, as a regulator, we have been quite busy in getting the banks ready for such a transformation, not to disrupt, but to slowly evolve,” Kwok explained. “Because at the end of the day, just like the health industry, the financial services sector is a very heavily regulated environment, and that's for a good reason. They are an institution of trust, they cannot afford to lose that trust, because once they lose it, they will lose their business completely.”

Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive Vice President, FinTech Hive, DIFC

FinTech Hive’s Al Mazrouei agreed that taking a cautious and measured approach had been a crucial part of the success she had seen at her enterprise as well. Launched by Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), FinTech Hive has been billed the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia’s first financial technology accelerator, which aims to drive innovation by enabling selected startups to create tailor-made solutions that will fit the needs of the region’s financial industry.

“At FinTech Hive, we started working with 11 financial institutions towards identifying their challenges, and we worked with them as an industry- we don't work on an individual institution's needs. This year, we're working with 22. So, the adoption of the idea of working with proofs of concepts, startups, prototypes, and so on, is actually out there. Last year, we had about 20 proof of concept cases as a result of the program, two of which went live during the program. So, it's evident that the institutions are aware of the disruption of the technology, and they want to be part of it. This is why they're opening their doors, their systems, their minds to working with the startups,” Al Mazrouei noted.

When it comes to the hurdles she had to face in developing this pro-innovation approach to doing things, Al Mazrouei acknowledged that she and her team had to cognizant of legacy issues in her industry, but, at the same time, noted that the UAE was still ahead of the curve when it comes to the region as a whole.

As the discussion veered into how digital transformation is being actually realized in the UAE, Kaissi pointed out that while many government bodies had launched several of their own digitization projects in line with the directives of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed, the resulting output can be seen as not being optimal for the consumer whose needs they should have been focused on.

“When you start giving awards to government organizations for the best app, what you end up with is 124 Dubai government apps on the App Store today, and that’s for a city of 3.1 million people,” she said. “Why? Because when the directive came out, it said digitize, but it didn't say how. And what happened was that everybody ran and digitized, and we now have a plethora of apps which are impossible to keep up with.”

Marwan Bin Dalmook, Senior Vice President - ICT Solutions & Smart City Operations, du

Kaissi went on to add that her team investigated the issue and found that there were only 5,000 downloads on average per each of those 124 apps, meaning that the user was not really using them, and as a result, was still going back to the customer service centers to get their government transactions done. Given this realization, Kaissi and her team at Smart Dubai are now trying to bring together all of the various applications on a singular app, DubaiNow.

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2018: Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive VP, FinTech Hive, DIFC

Of course, making this happen is easier said than done, with Kaissi pointing out that one key issue was a lack of proper sharing of data across different organizations. “It does not happen only in Dubai, but it is a universal government situation, which means that we are using our citizens or residents as walking USB sticks, which is how I call it, requesting them to submit the same documents to different institutions for their different needs,” she said.

“So, now that person is a data transfer tool, he makes photocopies of his papers, puts them in a file, and he goes around, and gives a copy to every governmental organization. But today, technology is far more advanced- you can share data, and you could share it securely, and you can share it immutably on the blockchain. You can do many things with that data to prevent any issues, in terms of consumer protection. But yet, our citizens and residents still need to get into their cars and go around, and submit that data personally. So, what we're saying to the citizens and residents is to create that pressure to get back their time.”

Al Mazrouei agreed that the most important point for any digital transformation initiative was to remain focused on the point of view of the end user. “If you look at the most successful technology applications today, which are Uber and Airbnb, they transformed the user experience more than anything else,” she said.

“It's not really the technology. It's really the user experience, and how the users are using it. Uber really transformed logistics, Airbnb has really transformed the hospitality industry, and has made all the other hospitality players rethink how do they offer that. So, definitely engage a focus group from within the organization, who will be the ultimate user of your technology, engage your customers, and then experiment with new technologies.”

Benjamin Boesch, Head, Digital and eCommerce, VFS Global

And a key factor to realizing this, du’s Aly noted, was installing a proper corporate culture. “Some time ago, once we at du had agreed about what spaces we wanted to play in, the second point was to get the whole organization on board, which meant the top management, including the shareholders of the company, but also and more importantly the team,” Aly said. “So, you need to energize all the different layers of the company to buy on to this vision. If you don't have this positive energy flowing throughout the whole organization that you need to change, then it's not going to work."

"However, once you have the vision, and once you energize the people, you can't just leave them, but you need to also remove obstacles, and enable that new environment. You have to see how you can help them achieve whatever frameworks they have set out for themselves, or you might need to spin off certain things, or you might need to change and evolve the strategy. And then, you have to set small steps and baby steps, and, as you move forward, take bigger and bigger steps.”

Of course, all of this has to start from the top, but as the speakers at the Entrepreneur Middle East Round Table presented by du concluded, an organization that seeks to digitally transform needs to have everyone within it clued in to that goalthat’s what will set it apart, and essentially make sure the business stays on course for the long-term.

Related: Scaling Up From The Middle East: Mona Kattan, Sima Ved, and Kunal Kapoor Explain How At Dtec Forum

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