Dubai's Digital Ambitions Signpost the Future

Being in Dubai feels like being in the future. The place is stuffed full of shiny, vertiginous, gravity defying places to work, live, and shop—boy do they love to shop!—gleaming in the desert heat. The scale of the place is frankly jaw dropping—It feels like Las Vegas on steroids or if Las Vegas was conceived today rather than half a century ago. I was lucky enough to be invited to co-host a workshop on the Work Ahead with my colleague Mani Bahl. My take is Dubai is an exciting city state and it gives some pointers on how work, technology and the state could couple up to drive value.

Make no mistake, Dubai has had its problems since the crash of 2008. The region isn’t awash anymore with the money that funded its audacious build out of the Dubai Palms that rose from the gulf of Bahrain (and only one of the three palms has had any significant real estate activity to talk about). Although the IMF predicts growth in Dubai and the six other sheikdoms forming the UAE to be 2.5% this year, it was 4% in 2015 and government spending is forecast to rise by 3% this year. So that means a deficit is forecast to be around 4% of GDP compared with last year’s surplus of 5%. So it’s not surprising that Dubai’s sacred “tax free” status that expats love so much is up coming under fire. The ongoing squeeze on money, the need to innovate, and the region’s vision for itself as the Middle East’s hub, framed our discussions during the meeting and why the Work Ahead in APAC really matters. New technologies that power innovation and new ways of working are seen as vital to the region’s long term success.

Leaders across the region do get the power of new technology and continue to pour money into it. You can see the results in the city’s open data initiatives (that rival anything we do in Europe, Estonia not withstanding) to the simple business of running a city. Check out how the Dubai municipality is planning to move its people around the region: Elon Musk’s awesome new hyper-loop transportation service is due to open in 2020 and will radically reduce travel time between Abu Dhabi and Dubai from 90 to 12 minutes. The hyper-loop is really the stuff of the future or, rather, how I saw the future when I took my 1970s train ride complete with moldy cheese sandwich (if you’re a Brit you know what I am talking about...) But with all the shiny new technology, there’s also hints of Blade Runner to Dubai which I suspect our own societies could be tempted to replicate. I am not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Case in point. The government backed “Smart Dubai Office” recently outlined a development road-map for AI with the first robot cop set to join Dubai’s police force next month. Moreover, the Dubai police envisions that these new recruits will make up roughly 25% of its workforce over the next 10 years! Face recognition technology is now deployed on Dubai’s roads and it’s sophisticated enough it can recognize a face even if it’s sitting behind a tinted visor. Another intriguing lens on security I heard about there was a potential project to tag police weapons with motion sensors so every time the weapon is touched, held or drawn, it’s tracked with the precise coordinates and time. The plan is this data could then be correlated with a bio-sensor feed from the weapon’s holder to track his (no her) heartrate and stress. The resulting security map then allocates resources and maybe moves some of the Robo-cops into play...Scary? Yes. Safer? Undoubtedly. For now.

What I found super interesting was Dubai governments vision for the city and its use of publicly funded accelerators to get there. We make the recommendation in our Future of Talent research that organizations should build accelerators around specific problems or challenges—e.g. “how can we make this process more intelligent? How can we innovate with AI so our customers interact and buy more of our services?” The accelerator concept works by driving awareness and alignment between internal stakeholders and teams to foster cooperation across a company’s borders, but they also work to rapidly develop and scale innovative ideas and concepts. This is exactly what the publicly backed accelerator, Dubai Futures has done, and sees itself as a catalyst to promote the rise of a start-up culture in the region; to attract the best talent to the region (and charging almost no tax undoubtedly helps) but it also works to promote collaboration and knowledge exchange across the UAE. Right now, big plans being trumpeted by Dubai Futures to capture healthcare tourism spending with government keen to raise revenue. Dubai is seeking to turn itself into a healthcare hub for the Middle East as well as Africa. And in a great example of joined up thinking, Dubai has created its own talent cluster for health...a part of the city zoned off with its own legislation and freedoms to drive the expertise it needs. What does the growth of this talent cluster mean for Dubai? My next post will explore this in more detail.