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Jeffrey Phillips


What Dubai Gets Right About Innovation

Just about everything

Published: Thursday, July 27, 2017 - 12:01

I have just returned from a trip to Dubai to speak at an innovation conference there. This is my third trip to Dubai, and I always come away consistently amazed at what the people and the government are doing. When I return to the States, people ask me what Dubai is like. I joking tell them that I was visiting the future.

In my three visits to Dubai, spanning only a couple of years, the development and progress has been really quite astonishing. I’ve had the good fortune to lead innovation programs and workshops in a wide range of countries and regions, from Western Europe to South Africa to South America and in many locations in Asia. There’s no other place moving as quickly and with such purpose as Dubai. 

During the conference we heard stories about the decisions taken to place Dubai on the innovation map. As an example, the sheikh asked his people to visit Singapore and Hong Kong, places with few natural resources, which were thriving. These insights were brought back to Dubai, and I think have accelerated the growth of the region and the city.

Innovation attributes/factors

Dubai has a number of factors that help it move quickly, including the fact that it started from a relatively basic standard of living and moved quickly to become a world class city. Moving quickly is easier if you have less invested in infrastructure. In a recent article for Popular Science, one of the ministers leading the transition talked about the dirt roads he grew up with, which are now eight-lane highways. Starting from a very humble base, Dubai has moved quickly to develop its air transportation (Emirates), its port, tourism, healthcare, and other economic factors. We will watch to see if Dubai can maintain speed and nimbleness as it grows and matures.

Dubai financial district

Dubai also benefits by being new and small. It is still a relatively small city-state and as such is relatively nimble. It has the ability to test and experiment with ideas, governance, and technology at a pace that few other larger countries can manage. As long as it keeps this nimbleness and flexibility, it will remain an innovator. Good examples of experiments and concepts are drones for personal transportation, a potential hyperloop, and massive solar investments.

Dubai also benefits from its location. It sits near a significant amount of oil, much of which is transported through the Gulf, right by its front door. Dubai and the Middle East are also the halfway point between Western Europe and India/China, making Dubai a natural transportation hub. And we won’t even mention its proximity to Africa, which when it develops will simply mean more transportation and logistics opportunities for Dubai.

Dubai benefits from two other attributes as well. It has a forward-thinking ruler, who has the ability to quickly implement his vision. This forward thinking trickles down throughout the population. Everyone seems infected by this vision and wants to know what’s next. There’s a real sense of possibility, of seeking to overcome obstacles. The sense of energy and optimism is pervasive.

Lastly, one of the factors that drives innovation in Dubai is a sense of openness, inclusion, and tolerance. I asked several of the conference attendees what they thought Dubai was doing well, and to a person they all mentioned engaging people of different perspectives; openness to new ideas; and tolerance of different people, nationalities, and ideas. To quote the Popular Science article, “The sense of mutual tolerance is palpable, almost joyful.” Many innovation commentators have noted that innovation thrives when diverse ideas and people interact in a place that can implement and accelerate them. Could Dubai model itself after Venice during the Renaissance?

Why these factors matter

These factors—tolerance, engagement, optimism, nimbleness, speed, location—all matter for innovation. Tolerance and engagement mean that the best ideas will be considered, regardless of their source. Optimism is vital for innovation because new ideas are constantly failing, and that may become an opportunity for risk avoidance and pessimism. I was surprised when one speaker at the conference talked about an idea failing and his company starting again. What was surprising was the fact that the attendees applauded him for failing and trying again.

The government has a very forward-looking posture and encourages experimentation. It’s organization and structure will reinforce nimbleness and speed as long as these factors remain top of mind. Additionally, the government has demonstrated that it will fund trials and experiments that solve key challenges. Solar farms and desalination programs are underway.

You may think of Dubai as a place for tourism, or to see the tallest building, or to ski indoors on a 100° day, and you’d be right. But don’t miss what they are doing to build an experimental platform for innovation as a city-state. The whole city and government are moving quickly, and it will bear watching to see what’s next.

First published May 17, 2017, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).