Omar Al-Ubaydli is the Director of Research at Derasat, Bahrain. His research interests include political economy, experimental economics, and the economics of the GCC countries. Al-Ubaydli previously served as a member of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and a Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He regularly publishes his research in international peer-reviewed academic journals, and his mainstream media articles appear in Arabic and English-language newspapers and blogs such as Al Hayat, The National, Forbes Opinion, and US News.
“How coronavirus lockdowns can boost innovation” is the title of your interesting reflection published in Al Arabiya last December 23. Can you help us better understand your thesis?
The key is in understanding that during a pandemic, lockdowns boost innovation compared to no lockdowns. The basic idea is that lockdowns are effective health interventions that save lives and maintain the managerial systems of organizations. Moreover, they are associated with good government policy, helping to create a more certain environment for investors. Data on innovation during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic support this thesis.
In The Science of Where Magazine we are primarily concerned with the relationship between new technologies and human society. The city theme, of course, is one of our assets. Certainly the pandemic has changed social relations but, on the other hand, it has accentuated creativity, the need to look beyond. Has the technological factor facilitated all this and how?
Absolutely. The dissemination of science is now dominated by electronic media, and advanced software has made it easy for international teams to collaborate. Together, these factors have contributed to an acceleration of scientific progress.
In the prolonged lockdowns, in your opinion, have the political ruling classes understood the importance of rethinking cities and territories according to phenomena such as the pandemic? My impression is that strategic thinking is still stuck in twentieth-century paradigms and that, consequently, political decisions are unable to anticipate either the pandemic or innovation. What visions do we need?
I think there will be a great reluctance to rethink cities, because the political ruling class benefit greatly from the existing framework by virtue of being property owners in town centers. Change will eventually come, but it could be in spite of elites rather than because of them.
The pandemic and the lockdowns, if on the one hand they aggravate ancient and pre-existing problems, on the other hand they immerse us in an unprecedented overall and complex metamorphosis (I am thinking of education, economy, nature of work but not only). Can we be positive for the future and look, as we say in Italy, at the “glass half full”?
Overall, yes, as long as adequate systems are put in place for dealing with future pandemics. That means effective contact tracing, as that is the only reliable long-term solution that is available at present. In the future, we cannot afford the fiscal spending that has occurred on this occasion, and so better precautionary investments are critical.