These days, nearly every region in the world boasts a burgeoning tech scene. In the last few years, Dubai has gained particular notice.
Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles company that’s attempting to carry out Elon Musk‘s futuristic transportation vision, announced that it is set to build its first system in the emirate. And D.C.-based incubator and seed fund 1776 opened a campus in Dubai in October.
Dubai’s current governmental structure is relatively young: The United Arab Emirates recently celebrated its 45th anniversary. So in that sense, it is well positioned to give cutting-edge infrastructure a shot. The same task is much trickier for Brooklyn — and New York City at large — which have a few centuries on the emirate. But there still might be some takeaways.
That was the thesis of the Future Forum held at 1776’s Navy Yard campus on Tuesday evening. The Partnership for New York City and Tech:NYC presented the event in conjunction with 1776. In addition to 1776’s managing director Rachel Haot, who moderated, the forum featured Saif Al Aleeli, the CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, Linda Kozlowski, the COO of Etsy and Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer of New York City.
(By the way, 1776’s D.C. campus has video of a similar event it hosted with Al Aleeli on Wednesday, if you’d like to check it out.)
Fix procurement, embrace risk
The first takeaway? Get smarter about procurement. Al Aleeli explained how Dubai Future Accelerators, which the Dubai Future Foundation launched this summer, has in effect become “a very smart way of tendering.” Over the summer, the accelerator put out a call for applications addressing specific challenges in areas such as sustainable architecture and medical diagnosis. In the first month after it was announced, the accelerator received more than 2,000 applications. Of all the applicants, 30 were eventually selected. The program began in September and will end later this month.
Government procurement, as it’s typically carried out, often presents hurdles for startups. The process favors companies that are adept in navigating bureaucracy, not necessarily those with the best ideas or technology. The accelerator model addresses this issue. The startups get help with building their economic models and complying with regulation. In return, the government of Dubai gets the first look at potentially game-changing technologies. The program has $270 million earmarked for investments, Al Aleeli said.
(Stateside, the Department of Defense is thinking along the same lines. As we previously reported, it has also launched an accelerator program to solicit ideas from the tech community.)
Dubai serves as an economic hub for the Middle East as well as Africa and parts of Asia, and Al Aleeli said he hopes the accelerator will provide a model for others to follow.
“Our goal is, if this works, to replicate it throughout the region,” he said.
— 1776 NYC (@1776NY) November 29, 2016
The next big lesson: risk. Some areas foster a culture that tolerates risk much better than others, Kozlowski, who’s worked in Silicon Valley (at Evernote) and Hong Kong (at Alibaba), noted. Silicon Valley, of course, is famed for its tech denizens’ willingness to gamble. By welcoming Hyperloop One, which has reportedly undergone its fair share of management turmoil, Dubai has also demonstrated an outsized tolerance for risk. But most regions, she said, are far more hesitant.
“Many cultures around the world are just starting to embrace risk,” she said.
New York falls somewhere in the middle. With all the regular complaints about the MTA, for instance, New Yorkers would scream bloody murder if a multi-billion dollar transportation project turned out to be a bust. But public-private partnerships can help with experimentation, Haot noted, by lowering the investment barrier and putting fewer of taxpayers’ dollars at risk.
Sreenivasan noted that the city is looking to take cues from more adventurous efforts in other cities, such as Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Brooklyn is already in the game in one respect: A Red Hook company is developing technology for autonomous vehicles to wirelessly recharge themselves. And next year, the Brooklyn Navy Yard will host the Smart Cities NYC conference, organized by the Global Futures Group, which will include an expo featuring related technologies. (Of course, Brooklyn also boasts quite a few “smart cities” programs.)
Balancing the needs of startups and the public
The city treads carefully in regard to potentially disruptive technologies for another reason, Sreenivasan pointed out: They can have adverse impacts on existing businesses and workers. Uber, for instance, has raised some drivers’ ire over its decreased fares. Earlier this year, many local drivers went on strike for a day. In fact, the company’s name came up a few times during the event. During the Q&A, one attendee asked whether the government should protect established industries at the expense of innovative startups, citing Uber’s regulatory battles with the city.
Al Aleeli had a succinct answer: “The government should be brokering a deal that is in favor of the public,” he said.
But Sreenivasan had a lengthier response. “We need to have a way to work with disruptive companies,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure workers and consumers are treated fairly, and we need to make sure these companies have a sustainable model. If we adjust the laws for these companies, it has to make sense for the city.”
Sreenivasan also noted that one of New York’s strengths has been the tech scene’s collaboration with other industries.
“You can come here and work with the biggest players in the industry and make them better, not just destroy them,” he said.
The “gig economy” ushered in by companies such as Uber has also been a hot topic at Etsy, given that many of the marketplace’s sellers are self-employed. Etsy has recently delved into policy advocacy, Kozlowski said, including proposals to address income stability and accessible healthcare for self-employed workers. (Kozlowski’s colleague Dana Mauriello, who is Etsy’s senior director of wholesale and manufacturing, also discussed the company’s policy initiatives at the Make It In Brooklyn conference in September.)
The most innovative cities, Kozlowski said, support companies on two levels: by providing the resources for companies to grow and for other stakeholders, such as Etsy’s sellers, to thrive.
“Dubai caters to those multiple layers,” she said.
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