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What could digital technologies mean for Egypt's future?

Ralph Simon, CEO and founder of Mobilium International in the UK, gives insights on the potential future of Egyptian creativity and entertainment potential in this special Interview with Ahram Online

Mary Mourad, Monday 30 Apr 2012
Ralph Simon
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Ralph Simon, CEO and founder of Mobilium International in the UK, has an interesting perspective on creativity in Egypt, suggesting it may lead to poverty alleviation.

Simon visited Cairo to attend the World Summit Award ceremony and exhibition that took place as part of the Cairo Information and Communication Technology fair this month 26 April. Simon’s expertise in the entertainment business marketing major stars using digital technology gives him an insider perspective on information and mobile technology and its tycoons worldwide, as well as insights on potential for the future in Egypt.

On visiting the Smart Village on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road which supports small businesses and entrepreneurs in the field of technology, Simon was impressed with the large modern 600 acres area dedicated to technology and innovation. He noted however that it does not have any art or creativity organisations, and not even a single piece of art.

“Glocal local - globally local but extra local ” is the concept Simon uses to describe the future potential from cross-fertilisation in the art field, where the cornerstone of entertainment is what he describes as “colloquial relevance.”

"300 million Arab speakers in the Arab world, and although no one size fits all, there's definitely a space for a pan-Arab thinking and initiative when it comes to content on the net. With interesting new technologies, there's potential to bring that contextual colloquial relevance to specific people and territories," Simon said.

Simon's own experience marketing Madonna's new album that made it to top charts in 35 countries led him to imagine what it would be like if she can record in Arabic. "There is not only interest in foreign acts recording in Arabic, but definitely local acts going international.”

The example that came to his mind was the band Kairokee that sang “Oh Square” with singer Aida El-Ayubi, and that was a major hit throughout Egypt. "What would it be like if they can sing in Zulu, Russian or Hindi," and here Simon explained how technology now would enable this.

“Just imagine the voice of Eskenderella band in one of their songs but translated to Hindi lyrics. That would instantly get them an additional quarter million fans,” Simon explained. Egyptian creative talent can easily be marketed abroad using mobile technologies, along with some youthful spirit.

"There are some fantastic musicians in this country and some fantastic creative people." As a follower of the entertainment business, Simon saw that an Egyptian artist would have to depend on Egypt as a main market and a few Arab listeners and maybe some diaspora, but with YouTube and other broadcasting, good music is open to the world. There's no limit how far it can reach, Simon believes.

Simon hopes that after the elections the government will put some emphasis on art, artfulness, and the development of creativity, since the revolution showed that there is a new kind of creativity that is still at its infancy now but could be developed.

Simon pointed to the creativity in everyday life. "What is being done now, in post-revolution Egypt to try and stimulate a whole new kind of creativity, being the one asset every Egyptian has got, irrespective of their background or color, is that everyone has creativity, but very few know how to use it. People are creative with how they raise their kids, how they avoid traffic, practice faith, and all requires creativity.”

Harnessing this creativity and making stars is possible, Simon says. “In the modern context, getting vitality on the web, new super stars of the digital age can come from any country in the world. They do not have to come from the traditional west to become known internationally." Simon pointed to the example of the fantastic guitar player from Japan who is just nine years old or so. He became an internet sensation, with some 7 or 8 million views, whereas in the past selling one million records was phenomenal.

One of Simon's current initiatives is to bring together telecom companies throughout the Arab countries and find a way to allow people who pay their bills or pay for charge cards to be able to make one-click-purchases, especially with a vast majority that does not pay by credit card. A similar initiative was carried out in the Philippines, where pay-as-you go customers are no less interested in what is going on, and they managed to bring together these competitors to benefit ordinary people, Simon says.

"Who is the next big Arab talent, the next Um Kalthoom? Where is that being bred today? Someone who can weave together both emotional and political significance," Simon asked. He acknowledged that with the current turmoil, people may not have the time, but in a country of nearly 90 million people, where some 50 percent are below 30 and tech savvies, there must be a way.

Questions of freedom and creativity are up for great debate, especially after star comedic actor Adel Imam was sentenced to three months in jail for his work. Simon found this alarming. He said that a World Bank Study shows that any country that develops and nurtures its creative industries, such as animation, film, advertising, design and music, sees a growth in its GDP.

"Even in China, the product bureau included a portion for creative industry in their 5-year plan, not just following the World Bank study, but also because creativity was behind much of today's world innovation, such as the Apple iPod and iPads," Simon said. Commenting on Egypt, he suggested that, "as the new Egypt will be in dire need for this economic development, creativity has to be the right, left and center of the new government, how else will poverty be alleviated."

How this links to reducing poverty goes back to the creative industries and communication; it is expected that many more millions of people will be online in the next few years with the development of smart phones. There is a need for a lot of creative content to cater for all of these diverse people, opening up enormous opportunities for creation and creativity at an accelerated rate.

Whatever the degree of conservativism in society, there are likely to be four areas that will still develop according to Simon: social media, social music (experimenting youth with local contextualize music), social broadcasting (a la YouTube), and social lubrication (online settlement). All the creative talents will have their own niche audience which given the global nature of that audience will still be very large in size. 

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