If you’ve been lucky enough to travel across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) region over the past few years, you likely will have noticed what I would characterize as a great sense of potential. From the energy and entrepreneurism of our youth to the tremendous value of our human capital and the vast reserves of natural resources, the ingredients for the region’s success are here. All we need is the right catalyst.

Well, that catalyst has arrived. We see three disruptive forces of innovation that will change the world of work across the globe and here in this region: the industrial internet, advanced manufacturing and the global brain – what GE collectively terms “the future of work”. Collaboration and connectivity will be central to this change, and the MENAT region will have a basket of powerful tools to address some of its challenges.

The industrial internet can boost productivity and efficiency to help achieve and deliver lower, affordable costs through use of wireless access to cloud data and sophisticated sensors. Advanced manufacturing techniques can bring greater speed, flexibility and innovation to the shop floor, enabling the rise of micro-factories and high-value artisanal workshops. The global brain can enhance industrial capacity by bringing technologies and workforces together across different countries to collaborate on ideas.

This is what’s possible, but let me step back and describe these forces in more detail.

The future of work explained

The industrial internet is about meshing the physical and digital worlds through the interplay between innumerable sensors and big data. Think sensors and big data telling you that a critical factory part will fail – not that it has failed.

Advanced manufacturing is about the emergence of new and less-expensive design and production techniques and new materials that are “democratizing” manufacturing. Think 3D printing, injection molding and the “maker movement”, which references a new era of individual craftsmen and micro-factories.

The global brain is where the collective intelligence of human beings across the globe are integrated through digital communication networks. Think open innovation challenges where an engineer working in Egypt provides a product design solution to a manufacturing problem in Saudi Arabia.

Because the MENAT region is so distinctive, GE wanted to explore how the future of work plays out here.

A recent study, Mapping the Future of Work in MENAT: A 2015 Outlook, explores how these trends are shaping under intensifying challenges such as oil prices, energy subsidies and slower economic growth.

The study depicts a positive picture, full of opportunity for individuals, entrepreneurs, small businesses, big corporations and governments. But it also highlights steps we must take to ensure the region benefits fully from these developments, and specifically, how we must adapt and collaborate to grow.

Micro-factories and employees without borders

In practical terms, the future of work unlocks tremendous opportunities for everyone in the region, especially for those with skills in areas such as engineering, design and code writing. For small and medium enterprises, and entrepreneurs, the global brain not only increases access to potential workers, but to increased problem solving by issuing open innovation challenges to source creative solutions.

For smaller firms, advanced engineering “democratizes manufacturing” through technologies such as 3D printing and other small-scale manufacturing that lowers barriers to entry, allowing small firms and even individuals to launch products, parts and components. This “maker movement” is already a growing phenomenon in Turkey, where the region’s first store selling 3D printers has opened, as well as in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Morocco.

Large organizations that are key drivers of regional economic activity, such as oil and gas, aviation and transportation, can benefit because advanced manufacturing would allow these local micro-factories to produce the high-quality parts and components companies need. A more localized supply chain can lower costs and reduce delivery times, while fostering dialogue across the supply chain, which can enable faster adaptation to changing conditions and accelerate innovation.

The result is greater employment, higher-value economic activity, innovation and a deeper and broader economic base. Ultimately, these trends will help MENAT economies transition from being consumers of knowledge and technology to being producers.

Nurturing this new future

The importance of collaboration and cross-fertilization among different industrial sectors and fields of expertise is becoming increasingly obvious. At GE, it is already one of the main drivers of innovation. We call it the “GE Store”. The GE Store allows every business in GE to share and access collective technology, R&D, and commercial and managerial expertise in order to achieve lower costs, higher efficiency and faster growth. It makes GE, as a whole, more competitive than its parts could ever be in isolation. We take alternators from our aircraft engines, designed to pass rigorous FAA certification, and use them to improve motors for pumping oil from the ground. We use imaging technology from healthcare equipment to inspect oil pipelines. In Egypt, we combine mobile gas turbines made for remote power and permanent, heavy-duty turbines made for industrial power to accelerate energy generation faster than previously possible – GE is set to add 2.6 gigawatts to Egypt’s power grid in 2015. These technologies cross conventional industry borders and provide solutions for better outcomes. Transferring solutions across the region can produce similar results.

We must harness the power of the collective and drive collaborative innovation across key stakeholders. Also, educational systems must be strengthened to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and more generally ensure schools are teaching the skills that business requires, including problem solving and creative collaboration.

The future of work is powerfully disruptive, and the MENAT region is ripe for a creative disruption that can improve living standards and opportunities. The challenge is for governments, academia, businesses and individuals to recognize that this change will come, whether we like it or not. By welcoming this change and preparing for it, we as a region can leverage this new world of work to ensure a bright future of broad-based, sustainable and equitable growth – and a stronger, more collaborative economy. Such a disruption comes only once in a generation. This is an opportunity the region cannot afford to miss.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May. 

Author: Rania Rostom is Chief Innovation Officer at GE in the Middle East, North Africa & Turkey and a co-author of Mapping the Future of Work in MENAT.

Image: Employees work at an assembly line in the Toyota manufacturing plant in Sakarya October 10, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal