Technology is diminishing the significance of location. Regional hubs are becoming less important too, writes Sami Mahroum
In our rapidly evolving world, is Dubai a city of the future?
"Finland, Finland, Finland, it's the country for me. You're so near to Russia, so far from Japan, quite a long way from Cairo, lots of miles from Vietnam," says the Monty Python song. But upon a recent visit I made to Helsinki to talk about digitalisation, entrepreneurship and local culture, a persistent member of the audience wanted my opinion on what Helsinki's comparative advantage might be. I suggested that Helsinki could be at the centre of the world like Dubai, which drew laughter.
By plane, Helsinki is only an hour and a half away from Moscow, eight and half from New York, eight and a half from Shanghai, and about nine from Tokyo. And as air routes are set to get shorter with more flights connecting continents over the North Pole, Helsinki could become a direct competitor of the GCC hubs, Abu Dhabi and Dubai included. Finland as a country is already part of the Nordic countries, the Baltic region, the European Union and a close and old trading partner with Russia.
This is why I thought Helsinki could aspire to become at the centre of the world. And yet, it doesn't perceive itself as that, nor do outsiders perceive it this way. Monty Python says it is "a poor second to Belgium, when going abroad".
The capital of the country that has led the telecommunications revolution and gave the world Nokia, the Angry Birds, Arabia ceramics and Kone elevators. The country also has an education system that is hailed as a model for many countries around the world. The city sees itself as primarily the centre of Finland and aspires to become a centre for the Baltic region.
I arrived in Helsinki from another great city, Moscow. A majestic city that has all the signs and symbols of the seat of an empire. The government there is embarking on a rapid modernisation programme of its public administration and if trust in public services is to be boosted, there's nowhere better to begin than the tax authorities.
The tax services agency achievements to date are impressive, with revenues up despite an economic slow-down and with 142 million tax business and citizens filing their taxes online. The technology used is not only home-grown, but was also developed within the organisation itself. For a tax authority to have its own R&D department and develop its own solutions is truly an admirable feat. In this vast country with 11 time zones stretching from Finland to Japan, Moscow sees itself as the centre of Russia and aspires to remain the centre of the former Soviet Union zone.
Helsinki and Moscow aren't alone. Paris too has for long been indulging in its comfort zone as the centre of the francophone world. Worldly cities like London and New York that have occupied the world scene for much of the 20th century appear increasingly self-absorbed with fending off provincial encroachment.
The late Hans Rosling, the Swedish health demographer, made the following thrilling remark during his last visit to Dubai in 2016 to attend the World Government Summit: "Dubai sits at the centre of the world," he proclaimed. A conclusion he arrived at by looking at where the majority of humanity will be living in the next 20 years. But this is only one factor and one that lies outside anyone's control.
What is needed is a bold vision and the courage to face up to the future rather than to strive to protect the status quo. At the 2017 World Government Summit, a journalist asked Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, about the steps the UAE could take to revive an old agreement to create an Arab Common Market. Sheikh Mohammed replied that those days had been bypassed and that nowadays the country sought trade and business with the world at large. Certainly, in the nearly eight years I have been living and working in the UAE, not once did I hear about a plan or a strategy that didn't seek to ultimately create a global (rather than regional) centre or a hub of some sort.
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At a time when many great cities are seeking the safety of their comfort zones fending off globalisation and its offspring, bold and daring cities like Dubai and San Francisco are forging ahead to occupy the centre of the world. And they are not doing this by relinquishing their local identities. Any visitor to one of Dubai's many ultra-modern malls will, for instance, hear the call for prayer through the public address system throughout the day. Dubai, and the UAE in general, organise large-scale Arabic language literary and educational initiatives reaching millions of people in the Arab region. San Francisco and the nearby Bay Area are home to people and companies that are busy working on technical solutions on a planetary scale. They take the world as their stage and its citizens as the community to serve.
When I began university some 27 years ago, I had to make a choice of what to study. Given my Arab background, I was advised that I should specialise in Middle Eastern studies. The logic was that I would make my background work for me rather than against me in Europe. But I wanted to stand out as an Arab for what I did and not for where I came from. I ended up specialising in the social studies of science and technology, working in several countries across three continents, contributing to various local policy agendas as an expert in my field who happens to be an Arab. The world did not care much for where I came from, but they did care about what I could do for them.
It is the same with cities. Technology is rapidly diminishing the significance of location. Regional hubs are becoming less important too, everyone can connect with the world directly without intermediaries. The rivers and seas that have previously connected and separated the world and have given certain advantages for some countries and cities over others have been replaced by air travel and digital platforms. There are no more landlocked countries or cities, but only culturally and politically locked ones.
Sami Mahroum is director of the innovation and policy initiative at Insead in Abu Dhabi