Sparking Innovation in Kuwait


A team presents its initial direction to the other participants

A team presents its initial direction to the other participants

What could you create with four months, the full support of your company, and the mentorship of a team of innovation experts?

Each year in Kuwait, the opportunity to answer this question is given to ten lucky teams by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) — a nonprofit institution created in 1976 by the Emir of Kuwait to promote science, technology, and innovation.  

The annual KFAS Innovation Challenge is a four-month blended learning program hosted by a prestigious university in which teams from Kuwait’s private-sector companies are incubated with support and resources as they work on a project from their own business. Each company is carefully selected and commits to support a team of three to five employees for the duration of the program as they rigorously dedicate their time and attention to developing a new solution for their brand.

For 2018, Innovationship partnered with the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles to act as the Learning Director and design thinking experts for this inspirational program. Working within the KFAS framework and collaborating closely with UCLA Anderson staff, we guided the creative learning journey for the participants. The four-month schedule combined instruction in design thinking, team dynamics, and business model innovation over three workshops, a series of coaching calls, and online collaboration involving over a dozen teachers and coaches.


In January 2018, five members of our team travelled to Kuwait City for a week-long kickoff workshop, where we met the ten teams for the first time. The forty participants were an eclectic mix: a few were from major banks and investment companies, but we also had teams from a hamburger chain, a shipping and logistics firm, and a luxury real estate developer. The teams were welcoming and a delight to work with — a large number of them had been educated in American or British universities and everyone spoke English well. By the end of the week of instruction and exercises, each of the the teams had identified a direction to pursue within their organization, ranging from customer-experience initiatives to the launch of a new restaurant in Los Angeles.


The teams were given nine weeks to focus on their project until the next workshop. They used the design thinking approach we had introduced to them in the first workshop, with the help of coaching calls from our design thinking coach and a team dynamics coach. Workshop #2 in March, also in Kuwait, focused on business innovation, the use of tools like Business Model Canvas, and the preparations for the next phase of implementation for their projects.

That left the teams another month to move their project forward, consider their emergent business model, and begin the process of creating a presentation to “sell” their idea to the leadership of their companies. As the project work grew more intense, so did the demands on their time — most of the participants worked on their project in their “spare time,” since they still had their initial roles and responsibilities to maintain.


At the end of April, the ten teams all met for Workshop #3: a week in Los Angeles, at the UCLA campus. During their time in California, these new design thinkers got immersed into the professional innovation world, taking inspirational tours and hearing talks at a few prominent Los Angeles-area companies, which allowed them to hear about innovation practices from experts at Riot Games, Netflix, and Disney.

The core of the final workshop allowed the teams to finish and deliver their project presentation, which they would ultimately use to show their bosses the merits of their innovation. The content included the primary design challenge and solution, their plans for implementation, and the learnings of the KFAS program. After so many weeks of work and creative collaboration, the results were impressive, to say the least.

Today, a number of the teams have already launched their KFAS Innovation Challenge projects, including a innovation lab for a bank, a luxury resort home on the Arabian Sea, and an AI-assisted virtual bank teller. It was an honor and a delight to participate in this forward-thinking program and to collaborate with Kuwait’s newest generation of enthusiastic and bold innovators.


We were impressed by our short stays in Kuwait City. Though Kuwait is a conservative country in a conservative region — as an Islamic country, it allows no pork or alcohol — we were pleasantly surprised by its modernity and equality. Almost half of the forty participants were women, who were equal members of their teams. Clothing styles varied based on personal choice, some men wearing more formal dishdasha (the traditional robe known by many names in the Middle East) and others dressed comfortably in jeans and sweaters. Similarly, some women wore hijab and scarves and others wore business casual clothes that would be unremarkable here in California. It was a favorite conversation of all parties to explore cultural differences between life in Kuwait and the United States — and of course most of them knew more about our culture than we did of theirs!

About 70% of Kuwait’s 4.2 million people are expatriates from countries like Turkey, India, Egypt, and the Philippines, creating a rich, diverse culture in service industries — barbers, taxi drivers, hotel staff, and merchants. Enriching the ingredients of this melting pot even more, Kuwait is a shopping destination for many Gulf countries. Visitors from Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates gather in Kuwait City for its bustling souks (the traditional marketplaces better known elsewhere as bazaars), malls, and other stores.

A typical souk stall selling nuts, dates, and packaged goods

A typical souk stall selling nuts, dates, and packaged goods

Visiting the popular Souk Al-Mubarakiya, we saw gold and other luxuries, dates and nuts of many types, dishdashas and other garments of fine cloth, and an array of perfumes for men and women, in stalls lining a maze-like group of halls and plazas.

For contrast, we took a tour of the Avenues, a modern mall with over 800 stores that is so large it feels as if you are in the outdoors. A big surprise was the number of familiar American and British stores and restaurants, like Marks and Spencer, Pottery Barn, Olive Garden, and, of course, Starbucks.

That’s a Cheesecake Factory on the left!

That’s a Cheesecake Factory on the left!

Born as a hub of maritime trade, and made prosperous after World War II through its vast oil fields, Kuwait faces a new era. Though it is one of the world’s richest countries, with a high literacy rate and an educated workforce, its economy has been almost entirely dependent on oil and the future may be less rosy unless it can grow its private sector. The goal of the KFAS Innovation Challenge is to help spark new thinking, new processes, and an entrepreneurial spirit across all businesses, and it looks to be a successful endeavor. 

We are grateful for the opportunity we had to share a new mindset — along with specific skills and tools — that can help Kuwait design a future they create for themselves.