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Chief scientist refuses to stay in his comfort zone

The island’s Chief Scientist is tasked with making people think outside the box. THEO PANAYIDES meets a busy, vital, high-achieving family man

Everything about Kyriacos Kokkinos is clear and easily intelligible, except his job. ‘Chief Scientist for Research & Innovation of the Republic of Cyprus’, what’s that about? Even after you define it (“to orchestrate and grow our research and innovation ecosystem”), how does it work? I assume it’s one of those jobs – vague in itself, vital to the whole – that ties things together, a bridge between the ill-fitting parts of the system; what it requires, above all, is someone with sufficient authority (a strong enough CV, a record of high achievement, not to mention personal authority) to ensure that the various sides listen when he offers his counsel. Kyriacos – coming from 29 years at IBM Europe, during which he rose to become Executive Director and senior partner – fits the bill.

I park outside his home on a Saturday morning, a big house with a swimming pool in a rather remote part of town. This was all fields when he built his suburban spread in the late 90s; even now, his is the only house on the small cul-de-sac. I note with surprise that he’s about to have neighbours, another big house being constructed next door – but in fact he’s building it himself for his children, Michelle and Elias, who, in true Cypriot style, are being readied to live near their parents. I spot them from outside as I park my car, willowy-looking youngsters (from a distance, they look like teenagers) dawdling beside the pool; there’s a shaded area, a small dog sniffing around, discreet bronze sculptures adding a touch of culture; a middle-aged man – Kyriacos himself, I assume – lies on a chaise longue. It looks like the middle-class dream, the paterfamilias enjoying the fruits of his labour on a sleepy Saturday morning; very settled, and perhaps a bit complacent.

Appearances, it turns out, can be deceptive. For a start, even though Kyriacos is indeed relaxing at 11am – when I turn up for the interview – his morning has been far from sleepy; he was up at 5.30, planning the next two weeks in his diary, then headed to the CyBC studios to appear on a morning talk-show between nine and 10. Even the kids, it turns out, aren’t as young as I thought – Elias is 26; his sister is 30, recently married, and doing a PhD in Clinical Psychology – and it’s not a given that they’ll end up in Cyprus, let alone next to their folks. The surface isn’t totally deceptive; Kyriacos is indeed “a family man”, with all the accoutrements of a tranquil suburban existence – but he’s also busy and vital, and, like his children, tends to appear younger than he actually is.

He’ll be 60 in three months – but “I still feel young,” he assures me; “Honestly, I work as hard as I was working when I was 25, 35 or 45”. How hard? It depends, he shrugs. “For example, this week was extremely tough, and next week will be extremely tough, probably more than 65 hours a week – because I was abroad in Boston and Brussels for 10-15 days, so there’s a pile-up of work”. Brussels is a frequent destination, representing Cyprus on various EU programmes; Boston (actually MIT) was a one-off, “exploring collaboration potential” with researchers and entrepreneurs from the Cypriot diaspora. Still, it’s not unusual for a high-powered man to be jetting around the world; what’s unusual is what Kyriacos did this morning when planning his diary, balancing these two busy weeks with a period of introspection. He shows me the diary: the week after next is marked ‘Fenced for Internal Work’ – ‘internal’ meaning “reflection or planning, strategising,” he explains. Not just making lists of things to do (that would come under ‘operational’) but asking himself “Am I on the right direction?”, thinking about the bigger picture. Systemic thinking.

He is, after all, a systems person, a computer engineer by training, having studied at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (which was also where he met his wife Veronica). IBM offered him a job before he’d even finished his Master’s – and there he stayed for nearly three decades, the middle 12 of those years in Cyprus (so the kids could go to school here), the rest in increasingly senior positions all over Europe; “I was living on planes,” admits Kyriacos, which is also why he now enjoys his Saturday mornings by the pool. He left the company in 2017, worked as a consultant for a while, and was appointed to his current position in February this year. “My role is a political role,” he clarifies. “It’s a political appointment, I’m not a civil servant. I’m appointed by the President of the Republic, I report to the President, and my term ends with the term of the President”.

Being the ‘chief scientist’ of Cyprus – being the ‘chief’ anything – is a weighty role, but Kyriacos seems up to it. For one thing, he has form when it comes to social contribution, being one of those civic-minded people who enjoy sitting on boards and hashing out strategies; he’s been chairman of his professional association, as well as a director of various semi-governmental organisations including Cipa, the CTO and the Ports Authority (“I was always an active citizen”). For another, the fact that he’s largely self-made (his parents were working-class, his dad a butcher who lost his shop in the Turkish invasion), coupled with the fact that he tends to think systematically, gives him an air of phlegmatic self-confidence. “I made a compromise, [which was] very well-thought-out and the right decision, to come back to Cyprus as a Country General Manager,” he recalls of his IBM years – and it sounds like he’s bragging but it’s more like he’s stating a fact. It’s the level-headed pride of an engineer saying he once built a bridge that was very strong and made of reinforced concrete.

All well and good; but is an engineer – especially one who’s always been part of the system, in the maw of a giant corporation – really the ideal person to kick-start innovation in Cyprus? He’s the first to admit that there are problems. “This is what I call the syndrome of the frog,” explains Kyriacos, and tells the story of the frog in a pot of boiling water – only the water isn’t boiling at first, it begins at normal temperature then grows slowly, progressively hotter, maybe “one degree every five minutes”, so the frog stays in the water (adjusting, so it thinks, to increasing discomfort) till it finally boils to death.

This, he concludes, is our danger in Cyprus, everything getting slightly, progressively worse – but, so we think, still bearable – until we get to a tipping point. “Look at our education system,” he intones. “Look at our values as a society.” Despite our shiny towers and marinas, we’re 22nd (out of 28) on the EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index, measuring digital competitiveness – “digital transformation” is also part of his remit – and only about 0.56 per cent of GDP goes on research and development. Cypriots have always been traders, says Kyriacos – “but trading now is almost dead, in a globalised economy”. He’d like us to be in the top 10 of DESI, and would like that sliver of GDP to be about 1.5 per cent (meaning an extra €250 million a year). Both targets, he insists, are achievable.

His own role is that of enabler, facilitator. Researchers at the university might be doing excellent research, for instance, but it doesn’t translate to innovative new products. “The challenge there is that it’s a closed society, and they don’t externalise this accumulated knowledge”. Academics think about publishing papers and enriching their CVs; they don’t think about sharing their discoveries with ministries, or entrepreneurs. At the same time, entrepreneurs tend to be “old-fashioned, trading-mentality” types, while the ministries (though he doesn’t say it) tend to be full of sluggish civil servants. “The bridge is very weak,” sighs Kyriacos. “There is a ‘valley of death’… You have to create the right environment, and this is my job.” He’s there to orchestrate, to offer incentives to both sides – and also, he claims, to try and shock the frog out of its placid acceptance. “I want to believe that I don’t live in a comfort zone, never! I’ll always challenge myself, and I’m trying to challenge the people around me… Most of the time, it’s unpleasant for the recipient,” he admits. “But it’s my obligation to do it.”

Fighting words, to be sure – though you have to wonder how much difference one man can make. Ironically, given his systemic approach, our problems are themselves largely systemic. Is there really the political will to change things? Kyriacos pauses, allowing the stillness of weekend suburbia to settle briefly on our conversation like a passing breeze. “I think, at political level, all politicians – no, most politicians – are genuine when they say ‘We want to change this’,” he replies. “What’s missing is the execution part, they don’t know how to do it. I mean, they know – we know; I do not distance myself from the system, I’m part of the system now – it’s just that you need to operationalise.” He speaks of “a governance system” to execute projects, of accountability, of knowing “who will do what by when”; he speaks of making kids more creative. He doesn’t explain how to do all this in a system where civil servants are entrenched no matter what, teaching unions dig in their heels rather than work extra hours, and politicians are determinedly non-confrontational. He must sometimes feel a bit frustrated, I suggest delicately, coming from the private sector. “Challenged. Not frustrated,” he replies just as delicately.

At home in suburbia

Everything about Kyriacos Kokkinos does indeed seem clear and intelligible: the senior manager, the corporate board member, the family man. Yet there’s also one thing we haven’t mentioned – a magazine he discovered by chance, at the age of nine, and was instantly smitten by. “That was my first window to the world. I subscribed immediately. If you go to my library, you will find the National Geographic from 1969 until today”. National Geographic, with its photos of African tribes and (just as importantly) its adverts for Rolex and Cadillac, played a big part in the life of a curious boy from Nicosia who was drawn to the wide world beyond – to America, but also to computers which weren’t exactly commonplace in the late 70s, to a love of new ideas (in a word, innovation) and a knowledge-based society.

It’s been rather a structured life – too structured, some might protest, for a man tasked with nurturing outside-the-box thinking – but that curiosity, the pull of the world, that refusal to stay in his comfort zone (in his pot of water, as the frog might say), has always drawn him, and helped him to excel. He even has a wild card, the unexpected fact that he co-founded New York Sweets – the popular confectionery chain – in 1985, having learned about American desserts while working his way through college in a restaurant on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. He worked hard in New York, summers too, not coming back to Cyprus once during those years. Does he ever feel like he missed out on his 20s? It sounds like he was very busy, and very focused.

“I’m very busy and very focused now, but I don’t think that I miss anything,” he replies, every inch the responsible high achiever. “I think, as long as I’m in control, I don’t regret my decisions. Even if it’s a wrong decision – and I don’t think that I’ve made many – I’d still insist that…” Kyriacos pauses, casting a glance around the pool area: “I mean, look at the result. At the age of 20, 25, would I imagine that I’d be in this situation, have this quality of life, this respect from society?… I would say it was my most extreme dream of where I would be at 55 or 60.

“So here I am now. Am I satisfied? I think I achieved my goals. I have a good family, I have a good quality of life. I am professionally – I believe – respected by my profession and my ecosystem”. The Chief Scientist of Cyprus smiles, three months shy of 60 and still trying to push for better systems, new ideas – and why not, more reflection and ‘deep thinking’ too. “I think the word ‘retirement’ in a knowledge-based society is irrelevant,” he tells me. “I still feel I am relevant, essential, and a citizen of planet Earth.” I leave him to it, to think about the challenges ahead and enjoy his Saturday morning.

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