This piece isn’t about me, but I should say up front that there’s a personal connection: Turkey is my wife’s homeland, and in the 12+ years since we married, I’ve come to care a great deal about her country — its history (ancient and recent) and its future. About a month ago, out of the blue, I was invited to attend and write about an innovation conference in Istanbul. I never found out why me, specifically, aside from the fact that Big Think often covers tech innovation; in my 3+ years here, no one on my editorial team has ever been flown anywhere to cover anything.

The conference turned out to be the 4th annual Turkish “Innovation Week,” put together by TIM, the Turkish Exporters’ Association — an umbrella organization linking some 60,000 Turkish businesses. In the four years since it launched, the conference has swelled from 20,000 to over 50,000 yearly attendees, and this year it boasted speakers including Turkish robotics pioneer Binnur Görer, medical technology inventor Canan Dagdeviren, architect Guvenc Ozel, Kickstarter co-founder Charles Adler, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.  

So in early December I flew from JFK in New York to Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul and spent four days attending conference events and dining at really nice restaurants with the conference's speakers and organizers. I came away at the end of the whole thing with a strong impression of a country divided: on the one hand, vast resources of creative energy and entrepreneurial ambition, and on the other an increasingly conservative political climate that threatens the free exchange of ideas necessary to support that ambition. Culturally and economically, Turkey is at a crossroads, and “Innovation Week” distilled some of its strongest potential for a future as a global leader, as opposed to an embattled, isolated nation whose best minds will seek refuge elsewhere.

In the “hopeful” column: The single most inspiring thing I saw at the conference was a panel of 16- and 17-year-old Turkish kids, many from poor backgrounds, who had won the Google Science Fair with projects MIT would have been proud to have produced. More on them later. And the fact that this conference, with its TED-talk-like expansiveness and open advocacy of creative thinking, free discourse, and equality for women in the professional world is possible at all in today’s Turkey, and that President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan (more on him soon) spoke at it, is, if not mind-blowing, at least noteworthy and exemplary of some of the contradictions at the heart of modern Turkey. Also encouraging: The “big business” leaders at the conference included Ali Koç of Koç Holding, a powerful, Rockefeller-like philanthropic industrial giant committed to progressive ideals. Although no one can do business in Turkey without government support, the Koç family have been outspoken critics of the current AK Party regime, which has been in power for over a decade with Erdogan at its head. 

In the “dispiriting” column: Erdogan rose to power in 2002 on a platform of economic reform and a “soft” Islamism that was supposed to act as a kind of natural corrective to the aggressive secularism that had preceded it, loosening restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in universities and public offices and establishing Turkey as a modern Muslim, Eastern-facing nation (rather than a would-be European one). At first, The New York Times and other Western press outlets accepted this story at face value, trumpeting Erdogan’s Turkey as a model of “mild” Islamism, a bastion for democratic values in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, in the years since, Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions have become increasingly inflammatory, paranoidand divisive, and he has established Turkey as one of the least free nations on the planet for the press, most recently by jailing one of Turkey’s most celebrated journalists, Can Dundar. (Note that I am publishing this article from the safety of a desk in New York City.) The “mild Islamism” has also become more overt, and Turkish society more religiously polarized. At the same time, Erdogan has presided over a Turkish economic upswing that, perhaps even more than the fanatical support of his “new Islamist” followers, has cemented his party’s hold on power. He has also greenlit massive development projects all over Istanbul — malls, subway tunnels, apartment complexes — a rapid, costly modernization effort seemingly at odds with his government’s cultural focus on the Ottoman past. But as my brother-in-law points out, these construction projects are mostly inward-facing, bringing immediate benefits to Istanbul residents and to contractors handpicked by the administration, but not driving long-term innovation or growth on the international stage.

As Koç and others at the conference repeatedly pointed out, Turkey has a long way to go when it comes to investment in R&D. This currently stands at 1 percent of Turkey’s yearly GDP, placing the country 58th on the 2015 Global Innovation Index, below Mexico, Moldova, and Croatia, to name a few (apparently, most high-performing countries spend around 3 percent). Another obstacle everyone (Erdogan included) cited is the Turkish educational system, which (for reasons nobody made quite clear) has some serious, systemic problems. Koç called it “too centralized and very weird.” Finally, everyone seemed to agree that in order to nurture “innovation” (an impossibly broad term that for the purposes of this conference basically comes down to entrepreneurship and marketable technological invention) Turkey needs a whole new infrastructure to support it: incubators, venture capitalists, specialized schools, and most of all, government support.

Back to the Upside: The conference took place at a massive, four-story expo center adjacent to the Hilton Bosphorus. Throughout the halls, teams of college students from all over Turkey exhibited hybrid cars they’d designed as part of a Shell-sponsored challenge to go as far and as fast as possible on 1 liter of gas. I spoke with one team — “HidroIst” from Istanbul University, led by student Gürcan Sari, whose hydroelectric car went 136 miles at an average of 43 mph.

In another area, “makers” from a popular new television show, Turk Isi were demonstrating hacked and repurposed devices including a 3D printer that could print pictures in edible ink on your cappuccino and dozens of fascinating, modified drones whose purpose I couldn’t fully discern because neither their English nor my Turkish was strong enough.

In addition to the car-building teams and Turk Isi, the conference boasted a keynote speech from Dale Dougherty, the founder of Maker Faire and MAKE: magazine. Indeed, the influence of the “maker movement” was evident throughout the conference — ”Do it Yourself” being a familiar mode, perhaps, for a country that had a closed, mostly state-run economy until 1980. Until recently, in order to have access to technologies Westerners often take for granted — powerful home computers for example — many Turks learned to build, maintain, and modify them themselves. It’s an ironic truth that being underresourced makes people more resourceful.

The Google Science Fair Kids: Nowhere was this spirit more palpable than in the panel of teenagers who’d won prizes at the Google Science Fair. The panel, called “Innovative Generation,” was moderated by Dr. Cagri Kalaca, an avuncular figure with a kind, red face and an Einsteinian hairdo. He opened by quoting Rainer Maria Rilke:

“The future leaks into us to be transformed long before it actualizes.”

The most impressive presenter was Metehan Emlik, a 17-year-old from a low-income family in Sivas, Turkey. As a young kid, fascinated by electronics but too poor to afford components just for the sake of learning, he started secretly, deliberately breaking the few devices his family had, turning them into trash so he could dismantle and reassemble them at will. In high school he became obsessed with a national science competition, repeatedly asking his teachers and principal to let him participate. They all refused, telling Emlik, “We’d make fools of ourselves!” So he persuaded his parents to send him to a different school. There he was given free use of the lab and participated in multiple science competitions, often sleeping at the lab to finish his projects. His senior project (a missile guidance system) became so all-consuming that he failed to study for his university entrance exams, which in Turkey are the sole determinant of your college placement and major. Undaunted, Emlik found another science competition whose first prize included a scholarship to a university, and won it. In his freshman year at this college, he entered the Google Science Fair and won that too with a design that improved upon the landing gear for the Rosetta space probe. With Emlik's device, the lander wouldn’t have fallen over during its comet landing. Emlik’s core message, passionately delivered with evident triumph over his unsupportive former teachers, was that you must never let others tell you what you can’t achieve.

The team that followed — Cem Kaboglu and Sema Akkurt from Ankara — developed a spray-on, thousands-of-dollars cheaper alternative to skin grafts using stem cells. They discovered that “MHH type” stem cells, which grow into cartilage, heal wounds significantly faster than the kind that becomes epidural (skin) tissue. This is a significant (and very marketable) medical breakthrough with major humanitarian implications.

Other winning projects included a “smart cane” to help the visually impaired navigate public spaces far more precisely than with GPS, a nanofiber designed to protect people from electromagnetic radiation (which Turks seem much more anxious about than Americans do), and a black tea extract that demonstrably slows the proliferation of cancer cells.

There was no hyperbole here. These young people, often with very limited resources and against profound obstacles, have invented extraordinary things. Their existence, and the very credible threat of Turkey’s losing them to Harvard or MIT or Silicon Valley, is an airtight argument for serious Turkish investment in a new “innovation infrastructure.”

The Grownups: No less impressive was a panel of Turkish women including Dagdeviren, an MIT-based inventor of wearable medical electronics (including an external pacemaker and an early-melanoma-detection patch). Görer, a roboticist at Istanbul’s Bogazici University (widely considered Turkey’s finest university) described her lab’s groundbreaking work on robot-human interaction (she’s building and testing robotic personal fitness trainers for the elderly), and a discussion ensued about whether Turkey’s innovators have a “responsibility” to remain in Turkey rather than taking their talents and inventions abroad. Dagdeviren argued that MIT enabled her to work much more quickly, and to do more good in her lifetime than any Turkish laboratory could, and that she “gave back” by holding weekly open Skype tutoring sessions with young women all over Turkey. She defended a global — as opposed to a nationalistic — approach to innovation for the benefit of humanity. But Görer and many others at the conference argued fiercely for the necessity of supporting homegrown R&D.

In an unintentionally telling comment on the state of women’s equality in the Turkish workplace, the (male) announcer introduced the women’s panel thus:

“The men have done their part, and now the world needs some tidying up.”

Even Görer, in lamenting the paucity of female computer science majors (around 8/100 at Bogazici), argued that computer science is great for women “because you can do it at home, with kids.” Dagdeviren pointed out that Turkey currently ranks 125th out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap list. Yet this startling fact, which represents as great a challenge as any to Turkey’s future as an innovation leader, came up only once in the three days’ worth of speeches and panels I attended.

On the closing day of the conference, after several hours of back-slapping and award-giving from TIM to Turkish industry leaders for “most innovative” this or that, Erdogan spoke. For the first five minutes, he echoed many of the sentiments we’d been hearing for the past three days: that Turkey needs to improve its R&D infrastructure and spending (the official goal is 3 percent of GDP by 2023), that the educational system needs a complete overhaul, and that Turkey’s greatest natural resource is its vast, talented populace. Having dispensed with the obligatory innovation talk, Erdogan devoted the rest of his speech — 25 increasingly angry, fist-waving minutes — to railing against his critics on the Turkish left, essentially calling them traitors for “dividing the nation” at a moment when it faces serious threats from external and internal enemies (Russia, ISIS, the Kurdish separatists). Unlike the US, Turkey can hold an election at any time — so politicians’ public appearances, whatever their stated purpose, are always also stump speeches.

The word innovation seems innocent and politically nonpartisan enough on the surface. New, potentially profit-generating ideas? Why not! Cutting-edge technologies? Bring ‘em on! Increased revenues? That’s something we can all get behind! But within the Trojan horse of western entrepreneurship that TIM wheels each year into the expo center crouch subversive ideas like “open source,” “divergent thinking,” and serial risk-taking — ideas that run directly counter to the current regime’s intolerance of dissent and independent thought. You can’t have it both ways; either you welcome new ideas or you drive them underground. I left the conference with the sense that, in Turkey right now, the two approaches are locked in a mortal struggle, with the remaining titans of pre-AK Party Big Business supporting what they’re secretly hoping will become a “soft revolution” of entrepreneurial thinking.

My cabdriver back to the airport was an old-school Kemalist — a supporter of the modern, “European” values on which Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic in 1923. The cabbie had no special love for the Islamists currently in power, and complained that they’re culturally ruining Turkey. “But,” he said, referring to the economic crises that preceded the AKP regime, “in the past, I go to the ATM and there is no money. Now, there is money in the ATM. So I vote for AK Party.” That about sums it up, doesn't it?

But without the serious commitment to innovation they claim to have made, the AK Party won’t be able to keep the money in the ATM indefinitely. And the ideas innovation unleashes may ironically be the seeds of the party’s undoing.

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