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Network News • 08-04-2021

The post-Covid renaissance czar

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 8 April 2021

PKF augurs that the steering team will succeed to attract a world-class organization in its field.

Soon after being appointed Minister for Research, Innovation and the Coordination of Post-Covid-19 Strategy, Owen Bonnici appointed Professor Simone Borg to head a steering group tasked with drafting a post-COVID strategy.

She heads the Department of Environmental Law at the University and will lead seven other members (including political appointees) to design a post-COVID strategy. It will give birth to a much-awaited Renaissance roadmap. This is no minnow achievement – it reminds me of the quest for the Alchemist stone that during the Byzantine period was proverbially thought to change base metals into gold.

Still, Bonnici is to be congratulated for quickly hosting a strong team with an aim to be the catalyst for change. This can light the fire to reach a sustained economic and social Renaissance – post the deprivations caused by the pandemic. Officially, the steering group is expected to take stock of our economy, and introduce new streams of niche markets. Ideally, Borg will blaze a path to show stalwarts of business how to consolidate the economic sectors that have enriched our lives during the “L’Aqwa Zmien“ surplus scenario. This is a tall order and there are many obstacles in the way especially when real change is involved.

Obviously, apart from economic change, there are a number of equally important improvements that must ensue in the environment, health, education and well-being of the island.  This will not happen overnight, yet it is interesting to keep in mind that the study is targeted to be ready by Imnarja (is this rush due to a looming general election frenzy hanging in the air – possibly around the fall)?

The role of the new research and innovation ministry fits the scene like a glove. One hopes this is not paying lip service to such an important ingredient of change, as we need more resources to beef up our lackadaisical approach to R&D. This strategy has to be multifaceted and reflect alternative scenarios in order to enable us to respond to post-pandemic realities with diligence and prudence but also with a certain degree of agility.

It stands to reason that the steering team must inculcate the need for higher value-added sectors which are sustained by indigenous research and development skills. This challenge looks us straight in the face. Simply put – we need to invest money where our mouth is. This means Malta starts by enriching our research and development ecosystem to reach an annual sum of 2% of GDP (circa €250m). It goes without saying that this is no mean task since so far, we only afforded 0.67% annually.

How can we harness the transforming power of research and innovation to accelerate the transitions post-covid? Our society desperately needs – a sustainable new economy for health, wellbeing and equality in its broadest sense. Are we seizing the once-in-a-generation opportunity of massive public spending to boost economic resilience by investing in research and innovation?

As part of the EU, we know that specific funds have been allocated to help a post-Covid revival. Consider the financial means of €1,8 trillion in the EU financial settlement fund for the next seven years including €95,5 billion for the largest ever research and innovation framework programme:  Horizon Europe.  The European Commission has just concluded a €1bn call for research and innovation proposals directly linked to delivering the European Green Deal.

Malta needs to apply for funds in the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This is a top objective for Prof. Borg’s Steering group as it will provide early support to Malta post-COVID investment and reform strategies. With nearly €672.5 bn to support Member States’ national recovery and resilience plans, the RRF will create synergies with other EU financial programmes like the structural funds in support of the green and digital transition.

Perhaps part of the reform will be a shake-up in Malta Enterprise. The aim is to inculcate a sense of ‘yes, we can’ at a time when the EU economy is set to face a slowdown.  Research and development that so far has been the Cinderella in our industrial kitchen with only lip service paid to catch up on opportunities that hindered growth among start-ups.  No real venture-capital facilities exist and access to bank finance is wobbly.

The good news is that Minister Bonnici’s incumbency includes the enhancement of investment in Innovation and consequently so the writer thinks that PKF’s past efforts to attract a world-class organisation in this field does not come a moment too soon. Alas, the dream of having an innovation and business accelerator centre of calibre will prove to be a true catalyst to anchor the existing manufacturing community and attract new ones.

This roadmap is an ambitious one as post-Covid European governments compete to attract international companies and start-ups particularly in fintech, AI and blockchain technologies. This culminates in the nexus of redrawing the ecosystem in start-up support for niche markets to compete in the digital world.

I recall a number of pioneering trips three years ago, by a delegation from PKF (with support of Malta Enterprise) which visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA to explore links to promote Malta as a domicile for business accelerator and/or Life Sciences.  Ideally a hub for innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs.

Another interesting landmark is the Boston-based Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). This houses more than 1000 companies in close to 50,000 square metres of premium office and co-working space across 8 facilities, including its expansion in St. Louis, Missouri, Miami, Rotterdam, Warsaw and Sydney.

In conclusion, PKF augurs that the steering team will succeed to attract a world-class organization in this field. The pace and scale of the global challenges of climate change, the flailing Euro and the digital revolution require us to be proactive in framing our post-COVID responses to ensure a sustainable, healthy, resilient and fair inheritance for future generations.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 8 April 2021
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