Age of alignment

The paths of Dubai and China are converging in terms of how they approach innovation

Government, business and thought leaders, entrepreneurs and students contributed to a lively and informative debate at yesterday’s Dubai Week in China special event. Over the course of an afternoon at the Orange in Sanlitun Village in Beijing, panellists and audience members discussed the power of innovation and entrepreneurship to drive growth and unlock the true potential of cities and nations.

Moderator Afshin Molavi, Senior Advisor at Oxford Analytica, described “a world transformed”, noting that 25 years ago emerging markets accounted for around 15 per cent of GDP, whereas now that figure accounts for more than 50 per cent of global output. Remarking upon the modern cityscapes of Dubai and Beijing, he suggested that emerging markets should look to build “skyscrapers of innovation”.

John Kao, CEO of San Francisco-based innovation academy EdgeMakers observed that China has spent years developing its “innovation agenda”, and said that the leaders of the country had offered an “extraordinary amount” of support for innovation. Dubai, meanwhile, has “invested in the roots of innovation”.

“Dubai started as a trading centre where goods were exchanged,” he said. “Now it has also become a place where ideas are exchanged: innovation is a new currency.”

This notion was supported by Roland Daher, Head of Business Development at WAMDA, a Dubai-based platform for entrepreneurs, who said that the emirate boasted a strong start-up ecosystem and was therefore an attractive proposition for aspiring entrepreneurs. “We have since seen a rise in all activity from investment, to the number of start-ups, to people joining start-ups and deals taking place in the Middle East.”

“Dubai has become the de facto hub for entrepreneurship in the Arab world, whether they started in Dubai or came there to scale up.  Dubai has proximity to [the key growth markets of] Saudi Arabia and Asia, and the best infrastructure, and all this has led to ever-increasing entrepreneurial activity in the city.”

“Innovation doesn’t talk about a geographical location, whether Silicon Valley or Dubai silicon Oasis,” suggested Dr Yousef Al-Assaf, President, Rochester Institute of Technology, Dubai. “It’s about attracting talent and integrating ideas, and that’s where Dubai has everything we need in a city.”

Dubai has become the de facto hub for entrepreneurship in the Arab world

Roland Daher, Head of Business Development at WAMDA

Jeremy Zhou, Co-Founder and CEO Jide Tech, and the first Chinese employee at tech giant Google, highlighted a change in mindset among Chinese companies and entrepreneurs. “In the last ten or 15 years a lot of the big companies have been built upon something that was fundamentally an idea or innovation that was built abroad first,” he said. “What we are seeing in the last couple of years is that people are starting to grow up and do things differently. Companies don’t just want to innovate but to then take those ideas out to the rest of the world.”

Finally, Kao highlighted a convergence in the paths of Dubai and China, “not just in terms of economic development, but also based on what each place brings to the table in innovation comparative advantage, for mutual benefit and the benefit of us all.

“The historic alignment of interest in innovation between Dubai and China is a chance to remix things and chart a new path,” he added. “I think it’s going to bring great innovation to innovation.”