The other day I was discussing over dinner with a friend about the topic that has been on the minds and conversations of most people living in Dubai in the recent months, the upcoming Expo 2020 announcement.
My friend is an expat who has been living in the UAE for many years, having successfully established his own logistics company, being well-knowing of the local culture and way of life, and having witnessed many facets of Dubai’s development in recent times, from the “build now, utilize later” mindset and the economic laws-defying prosperity of the mid 00’s to the 2008 recession and back to today’s rise to the top which seems to not reach a ceiling.
His comment was “Why the huge fuss? The only difference will be that we will have a few more visitors than usual, we will have a few more traffic jams, we will see the cost of living skyrocket for something that will influence us very little in practical ways in the long-term reality.”
But is that really the case? What exactly would be the impact of Dubai winning the Expo 2020 bid and how can we best utilize such an opportunity for sustainable and maximized benefits? While we are gearing up towards an announcement that faces enthusiasm by some, and criticism by others, but is by all parties expected to be confirmed, how well prepared are we for the day after?
Under the banner “connecting minds, creating the future” Dubai has attracted high profile endorsements from countries such as the UK, France, Canada, the Netherlands as well as from individuals, such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. If Dubai wins, it will be the first city to host the world exhibition in the Middle East region.
Today’s pending decision (minutes away as of now) on the hosting city is taking place only a few days before the UAE national holiday. Billboards, promotional ads, flags are prevalent everywhere, from the exterior of the Burj al Arab to the Metro stations and supermarkets.
All major international events, whether Expo, Olympics or World Cup, come with a great deal of skepticism and scrutiny. Notwithstanding the many successes, examples such as the Hannover 2000 Expo, the Athens 2008 Olympics, and others suggest that the actual results were not as hoped for. There is however potential for significant and sustainable benefits if things are done well, and the focus in Dubai is on getting it right.
Some of the most successful Expo hosting cities in terms of visitors, revenue and long-term impact, China’s Shanghai in 2010, Japan’s Aichi in 2005 and Australia’s Brisbane in 1998 managed to do so either by conveying a very specific message such as China’s industrial strength and urbanization in the case of Shanghai, the focus on environmental sustainability and green infrastructure innovation in the case of Aichi, or by launching a very effective marketing campaign in the case of Brisbane.
Dubai doesn’t seem to leave anything to chance and highlights readiness, desire and ability to host the Expo, embracing the entire community – locals and expatriates – and is in return achieving good support.
The Dubai Government and supporting teams have focused on all the right themes for the Expo 2020 by creating an inspirational theme by creating the infrastructure ( e.g. airport capacity), logistics, and city transportation, by nurturing tourism, by creating a quarter million jobs over the next 5-6 years, by engaging residents and others through the “Expo Live” project. Being an engineer and an economist, I think about sustainable economic development and industrialization, and want to suggest five complementary themes that will make the Expo even more impactful:
How can the impact of the Expo be sustainable and give a boost for Dubai to take it to the next level of economic and innovative performance?
One aspect of this is really focusing on diversifying significantly beyond trading, and increasing the indigenous content of products, services, and innovation.
Dubai and UAE should nurture innovation – big and small, government and private sector, indigenous and imported – and aspire to create an ecosystem for innovation, which attracts people in the future who want to live here.
Investing in education is foundation and will enable Dubai and the UAE to make a leap in the future knowledge-based society.
Environmental sustainability is a theme that will stay with us for a long time, and this is also an opportunity for Dubai to further its progress on this, e.g., in building materials, energy, and transportation. As an example, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a catalyst for introducing electric buses which still ply the roads of Beijing.
Customer service and focus is a theme that is closely associated with developed and innovative economies.
The Expo 2020 will be a chance to bring the world to Dubai and Dubai to the world – as in the figure below, I see it as a way to link Dubai and regional aspirations to the world, leveraging technology and innovation. Whether as citizens or as residents, and for whatever duration, we all have our reasons for being in Dubai as our native or elective home. It is up to us, as organizations as well as individuals, to put our best foot forward and support this opportunity for the benefit of our city.
About the Author
Dr. Anil Khurana is a Partner at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) based in Dubai. He leads strategy and innovation, and is also the Consumer and Industrial Products & Services industry vertical. He also leads PwC’s Annual Innovation Study in the region – an annual study that looks at trends, best practices, and innovation agendas. He has more than 25 years experience in strategy, operations, innovation and R&D, entrepreneurship, government, and private equity. He was also a tenure-track Business School professor at Boston University and a lecturer at the University of Michigan.