Dubai: the world's smartest city by 2021?

This city-state, famous for its shimmering towers, endless shopping malls and outlandish architectural projects, is built on oil money. Dubai is unique. Created to reflect the aspirations of the super-rich, its prosperity is evident in the scale of the ambitious developments that define its appeal, including the dramatic Burj Khalifa and Palm Island archipelagos.

But as fossil fuels continue to fall out of favour and oil prices falter, Dubai has lost some of its economic brio, sparking a slowdown in its previously unstoppable building boom and casting doubt over the emirate’s future direction.

Building a world-class tech economy by decree

Dubai’s rulers believe they have stumbled on a solution, reimagining the region as a vibrant startup economy that will help to sustain Dubai in a post-oil era. It’s a bold venture. California’s Silicon Valley is doubtless the inspiration for the move, but can Dubai’s monarchs hope to replicate the organic ground-up growth of the tech ecosystem in San Francisco by imposing a top-down infrastructure?

Enter Dubai Future Accelerators (DFA), a government-led hub for entrepreneurs that is designed to incubate state innovation. The dozen or so government organisations – including big-hitters like Emirates Airlines – have the opportunity to pick startups with the potential to deliver additional commercial advantages. In return, the startups get access to the tools they need to grow, including free office space, accommodation and government-sponsored training.

Hyperloop One is an early success story but it’s not an outlier; around three-quarters of the 65 startups that have completed the program have signed up to future DFA collaboration. It’s a model that differs from most US programs, but early indicators show positive signs of growth, with a 45 percent increase in equity-funded private startups and startup investment passing $1 billion in the UAE for 2016.

Creating a startup-friendly climate

The government has also set up a ‘free zone’ – the Dubai Multi Commodities Center (DMCC) - in which foreign-owned companies can operate without the added burden of taxes and fees. Google-partner AstroLabs is a tech hub for entrepreneurs located in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers, offering some of the most sought-after workspace in the world and hosting 100 companies representing dozens of countries – many of whom wouldn’t have the funds to prosper outside the DMCC.

Dubai’s regulatory regime also has to be carefully negotiated by startups. Because the country’s attitude to debt is less liberal than it is in the US, companies offering venture capital (VC) are few and far between. Which means that home-grown unicorns are thin on the ground, although Uber-inspired transportation startup Careem has an estimated value of $1 billion, having benefited from funding from German automotive giant Daimler, among others.

The Dubai approach to business is less formal and more relationship-led. Organisations such as AstroLabs and DFA, as well as global startup network 1776 are not only providing workspaces and training opportunities but also the opportunity to make valuable business connections that will enable them to unlock the resources that can fund growth.  

Lofty ambition with high stakes to match

Dubai’s startup culture is still its infancy – especially compared to Silicon Valley – and with a much shallower pool of available investment capital. But, thanks to the government’s efforts, there is an emerging creative sector in a city that’s nurturing talent and moving in the right direction. Dubai is also beginning to attract the angel investors and VCs that are essential to sustaining startup momentum.

The city also has some ambitious goals, such as having the first blockchain-powered administration in the world and becoming the world’s smartest city by 2021, not to mention the creation of a Martian colony within the next century.

How achievable these projects are remains to be seen; meanwhile, improvements to Dubai's infrastructure continue apace. Scheduled for completion in 2021, Dubai Design District (D3) will form the epicentre of Dubai's creative community and act as a hub for artists, architects and designers, while technology, robotics and AI have already found a home at a new digital innovation centre in Dubai Internet City.

Dubai’s leisure and shopping facilities will leave you breathless

Dubai offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy downtime. Situated next door to the Burj Khalifa is Burj Khalifa is the famous Dubai Mall. Created on a grand scale, the mall is home to more than 1,200 shops as well as 150 restaurants, an ice rink, aquarium and underwater zoo.

If you want a flavour of old Dubai, it’s worth taking a trip along the Creek – the saltwater estuary that was an essential part of the city’s former economic strengths: fishing and pearl diving. The Dubai Museum is worth a visit, as are the winding souks where you can find gold, spices and textiles. A ride across the water on a traditional abra is a must.

Even a day at the beach turns into a five-star experience in Dubai. Kite Beach is the perfect location for watersports skills, but if you want to stay in terra firma, you could cycle, skate or enjoy a game of volleyball. Alfresco cafes and restaurants line the beachfront and offer an outstanding view of the glorious Burj Al Arab.

Silicon Valley – Tech Unlimited

A slender, horseshoe-shaped slice of real estate in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley is less a geographical location and more a state of mind. So-called because of its prominence in the evolution of global tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google, the area has become synonymous with technological innovation, inspiring the likes of design guru Steve Jobs and Tesla’s Elon Musk to change the course of history, while elevating Palo Alto’s Stanford University to its status as one of the world’s leading research institutions.

The climate of change

Rewind to the 1960s and Silicon Valley was more agricultural than urban, a place where fruit trees outnumbered tech businesses by quite a margin. As it became the go-to location for microchip developers like Intel, the intellectual and economic climate started to shift and the Valley began to attract wave upon wave of ambitious young entrepreneurs looking for a fresh way to do business.

This focus on innovation helped to create a thriving tech cluster that boosted the network of workers, suppliers and networks needed to support the rapid growth of this highly specialised sector and added considerable value and cachet to San Francisco as the preferred location for ambitious start-ups, as well as more established companies from further afield (Europe and China, for instance) looking to sprinkle a little Silicon Valley gold dust on their operations. Today, although some manufacturing remains, the Valley functions primarily as an ‘incubator’, a forum for hot-housing ideas that lead the world.

Disrupting the status quo

Silicon Valley continues to be the centre of tech-based innovation; the cutting-edge digital developments that enabled start-ups like Google and Amazon to rapidly grow into global brands are providing a new generation of companies with fresh opportunities to challenge the status quo. Far from slowing in scope and ambition, advancements in technology are causing ripples across formerly traditional businesses. A revolution in infrastructure – and in artificial intelligence (AI) – is opening up industries such as logistics, food and hospitality to completely new ways of operating.

So-called ‘disruptors’ like Airbnb and Uber have rocked the foundations of established operators by taking a radical approach to connecting customers with services – something that’s made possible only through technologies that enable a more fluid approach to traditional transactions. This notion of a ‘sharing economy’ doesn’t only allow big players to tap into new markets, it can also benefit businesses and individuals that wouldn’t otherwise be able to access funding. Tech company Kiva – headquartered in San Francisco - sources crowd-funded micro-loans that can change the lives of people in impoverished areas of the world.

A hub for entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurial model that’s gained traction in Silicon Valley has become a blueprint for businesses across the world. This agile approach enables companies to adapt their products and services to new markets and to anticipate changes rather than to react to developments as and when they occur. This process of continuous improvement designed to reduce the risk of stagnation is a start-up mentality that’s embraced by even the largest businesses as part of a drive to stay relevant.

Interestingly, many Silicon Valley companies share a belief in the value of establishing and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture that attracts like-minded employees and benefits the business and encourages disruption. Businesses that specialise in innovative funding opportunities are a product of this kind of entrepreneurial thinking. Early-stage venture capital fund Pear has helped to seed tech start-ups like Dropbox and Zoosk, while Silicon Valley Bank tailors financial services to innovators. Start-ups that need a place to work can get the support they need at co-working facility and corporate incubator RocketSpace.

Immerse yourself in the cool San Fran counter-culture

San Francisco is one of America’s most beguiling cities. Its liberal culture and remarkable bay setting makes it an unmissable destination. Victorian buildings sit comfortably amid striking contemporary architecture, while cable cars share the road with futuristic Teslas.

There’s lots to see and do in and around the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most striking landmark. You can walk or drive across it, but the best views of the bridge can be had from the genteel residential area known as Nob Hill. Fisherman’s Wharf offers all the charm of a historic waterfront setting – check out the shops and eateries at Pier 39. It’s also a great starting point for a sightseeing cruise.

Art lovers should head straight for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that reopened in 2016 following a programme of renovation, though the elegant Palace of Fine Arts is also worth a visit – if only to soak up the tranquillity of its lagoon setting.


How to Make the Most of Your Next Innovation Tour

Whether you are an MBA joining your class on your next international trek or an entrepreneur looking for the optimal environment to start a business – innovation tours can be extremely valuable in providing insight and knowledge into the world’s business and innovation ecosystems.

Our innovation immersions will involve planned visits to a series of notables companies and academic lectures, pitch events, guided tours and conferences with panel discussions. The problem is, these innovation ecosystems are extremely complex and their structure are not easy to grasp. To get at their true essence, it is paramount to go beyond appearances and delve deep into these complex environments by constantly observing, questioning and listening.

Visible activities such as start-up incubators and angel investor meetings merely provide detail to the outer layer and more obvious aspects of the ecosystem. To gain vital insight deep into the core of these ecosystem and understand the real drivers of entrepreneurship, a focus on the subtle elements is needed.

For example, an innovation tour to South Korea would benefit greatly from a visit to a military camp to observe young South Koreans undergoing military exercises. With military service being mandatory in South Korea, our innovation programme will give precious insight to the culture and mindsets of the people there.

Entrepreneurs alone do not reflect the whole entrepreneurship ecosystem. Researchers, investors, non-profits and government officials are just a few of the actors that help make up the network within the ecosystem. Focusing on different actors will help you understand the different motives for innovation in the ecosystem. Look for the conflict and collaboration between these actors and revel in it, not only will it give you a broader view of the whole landscape but will also directly reveal their entrepreneurship culture.

Optimizing the value and knowledge you gain from your innovation immersions requires a degree of susceptibility and inquisitiveness from your part. Innovation tours are not a place for re-active learning – you must be pro-active. As Einstein once said: “the important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”. So be curious and be engaged. The responsibility lies on to you have the desire to unearth information from all angles which will be crucial to your quest in understanding these complex entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems.

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