Dubai's Digital Ambitions Pivot on its Talent (clusters)

If you’ve read my take on what it means for companies and their people as work digitizes, you’ll know I think small is beautiful. The reason? Because our research points towards a great “digital reorg” in the offing. Companies are reconfiguring themselves into smaller nodes to capture market opportunities as new, emerging “digital” niches grow. In fact, these smaller multidimensional teams are growing because they are easier to lead, with sales, marketing, service, product development, production, and technology staff often co-locating together and focusing on serving a single customer segment or functional need. Fascinatingly, these smaller, nimble clusters on the client side mirror what’s happening in many major countries around the world—and I saw this WRIT LARGE in Dubai more than any other city that I have been lucky enough to visit. For those who haven’t read my take on Dubai you can read it here).

Some background—in last year’s talent study, I called out the rise of talent clusters emerging in many cities around the world because I could see waves of entrepreneurial, digitally savvy, younger talent bubbling to the surface all over Europe and the word in fact. We know that the spiritual home of the start-up scene is San Francisco...but the start-up movement has been rapidly accelerating around the world into Berlin’s Silicon Allee, London’s Silicon Roundabout, Dundee’s Silicon Glen, Austin, New York, Singapore to Beijing (the list is endless and you can’t miss it. Go and visit your nearest WeWork to see how the millennial talent set likes to work). Each of these cities has a sizeable start-up scene with accelerators (start-up schools), lots of co-working spaces (like WeWork) creating a talent ecosystem that smart companies are beginning to leverage.

What is different about Dubai is that the government has engineered a set of talent clusters and begun to arrange its economy around them. They’re worth exploring because they represent a top down approach to ignite a start-up scene rather than an organic groundswell of talent and expertise that we are used to seeing here in the West. Case in point: check out Dubai’s internet city, its information technology park set in a free economic zone with ownership, taxation and custom related benefits enshrined in law for at least 50 years (the model isn’t going to suddenly change with a change of...err...sheikh). Or Dubai media city set up 15 years ago with the aim of creating a media hub for news agencies, publishing and online media—and it’s worked with nearly 1500 companies registered in a place that 10 years ago was simply desert. Or the intriguing Dubai Design District set up to nurture emerging local talent and provide a home for the region’s creative thinkers. Or Dubai’s healthcare city with the express aim of turning Dubai into a hub for healthcare across the Middle East and Africa, and a regional center of excellence for clinical services, medical education and research. Its success can be measured in the 28% growth rate in clinical facilities in the last year and a 20% uptick in staff relocating into the cluster (it has an autonomous visa program to ensure the optimum flow of qualified people makes the cluster work). Dubai and the UAE is betting big on healthcare tourism to drive infrastructure spending and bring money into the economy and its cluster model is an integral part.

What impressed me the most was the vision that Dubai has been building since the financial crash of 2008 (those Palms...) Here, we are only just catching onto the world of talent clusters and what they mean for talent and work in the future. But the sooner we recognize how the future of talent is beginning to shape up in the cities around us, and what it needs to thrive, then the stronger our economies will be...our latest report on the Work Ahead in Europe proposes that Europe needs a new North Star; a goal around which our countries, corporations, and citizens can coalesce to reignite the growth that will propel this region forward. I see Dubai building its own North Star, injecting “digital” into every aspect of work, life, culture, and society. As a taster to how the city is beginning to instrument itself and sees its future, there are accelerator backed innovation programs focused on the rise of the smart economy (which we’ve investigated here), smart living, smart environment, smart governance, smart people and smart mobility—the initiatives are wide-ranging and seek to leverage technology to help society in Dubai address its most pressing issues. Europe is playing catch-up...