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Smart Growth Takes Root in the Middle East

02/26/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
Mlenny Photography via Getty Images

As jihadists continue their quest for transcendence through violence, the media promulgate the Western perception that discord reigns in the Middle East. But as I discovered on my first trip to the region, I needn't have worried over political unrest in Dubai, where more than two million people and 200 nationalities peacefully co-exist. If there is a mutual pursuit of anything in the UAE's bustling free zone, it is prosperity.

Ensuring that more Arabs prosper in the global economy was also the purpose of Innovation Arabia 8, last week's consortium of academicians and practitioners focused on equipping Arabs with the skills to compete in the information age.

"The Arab world has traditionally lagged in innovation, but now we plan to excel at it," said Dr. Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, who hosted the conference. In fact, if the interdisciplinary group of more than 300 attendees shared a common goal, it might be transcendence through excellence.

"The virtual world of today is the real world of the future," declared Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, who deemed "knowledge innovations the future path to wealth creation." He also identified commercialization as a key challenge to innovation, which made the commercial hub of the Persian Gulf region an emblematic venue for exchanging ideas.

Dubai's global reputation is something of a boomtown, but the city that sprouted from oil reserves is transforming itself into a post-oil economy through free-market capitalism and tourism, as well as through emerging sectors from e-learning to medical tourism. Dubai is also making strides to future-proof itself through smart growth, which values long-range, regional considerations of sustainable development over a short-term focus.

Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai, plans to turn Dubai into a "smart and sustainable city", one characterized by investments in technology and human capital, and a high quality of life. The framework of his Dubai Plan 2021 includes six themes that will redefine the emirate into, among other things, "a city of happy, creative and empowered people" and "a pivotal hub in the global economy."

The plan evolved from a multi-stakeholder process building on the success of the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015, which the Sheikh launched in 2007 as Dubai's first documented long-term strategy for economic and social development.

Seeds for smart growth were planted in 2002 when global sustainable architecture firm Gensler was commissioned to create the master plan for the Dubai International Financial District (DIFC). Concepts such as traffic circulation and an integrated transport system helped make the DIFC a benchmark development for the region. Considering that the financial centers to which Dubai aspires have evolved over a long period of time and were largely unplanned, the DIFC is yet another landmark for a city bent on becoming the regional gateway for capital investment in the Middle East.

Dubai's smart growth investments are expected to produce substantial economic returns. Dubai recently won the bid to host World Expo 2020, which is estimated to contribute $40 billion to the UAE economy and catalyze more investment in Dubai.

"The buildup of the physical infrastructure, properties and related services, etc. required to bring this event about will undeniably stimulate the UAE's economy for the next 5-7 years," said Gensler architect Tareq Abu-Sukheila.

Smart growth in a consumer culture?

If everything is bigger in Texas, it is biggest of all in Dubai. Iconic structures such as Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building and Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping destination, are monuments to the ambition that defines the city. But one wonders how Dubai can reconcile its sustainability aspirations with its culture of consumption.

The quandary is a familiar one, as my own hometown is another reputed shopping mecca challenged by rapid urbanization, increasing water and energy consumption, and an ever-expanding urban heat island. Imagine oak trees in place of palm trees, and Dubai could be Dallas, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the US and one of the fastest growing in the country. In fact, according to the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, the two cities are just a few spaces apart, with Dallas at #29 and Dubai at #33 among 50 global cities.

Dubai is a city rising out of the desert while Dallas may be at risk of becoming one. But despite the similarities, there are also notable differences. In Dubai, sustainable development decisions are more unilateral, where US cities require the alignment of city councils and their constituents along with support of planners and other stakeholders in order to adapt. They also need financing.

"The public sector is increasingly recognized as a key driver of innovation," Dr. Rudolf W. Strohmeir, the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, told attendees Innovation Arabia 8. Horizon 2020 is the EU's financial instrument for implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness by making it easier for the public and private sectors to work together. (Considering that seven of the top ten cities on the Sustainable Cities Index are European, all global cities might stand to benefit from the EU's methods for financing smarter growth.)

On a direct flight back to Dallas, I met the man responsible for one more of Dubai's iconic structures: Ski Dubai. Sherman Thurston, developer of The Grand Alps, told me that the Dallas area will soon have its own indoor ski attraction and "the one in Texas will be even better." Thus continues the global race for competitiveness - and Inshallah that it does, as the prosperity it brings could lead to greater stability in every part of the world.

But economic development also puts stress on ecosystem services. As the Middle East's diminishing oil reserves demonstrate, the earth's resources may be worth trillions, but they are also finite. As developers continue striving for transcendence through expansion, decision makers need to grow their consciousness of the earth's natural limits, seeking ways to bake energy efficiency and water conservation into urban and business plans.

Smart growth ensures that even as the relatively few prosper financially, the many will still have access to good health, well-being, and the benefits of nature's gifts. Dubai proves that smart growth can take root in unlikely places, producing an impressive return on investment when the circumstances enable it. However, without more public engagement to drive policy makers and politicians to prioritize sustainable development, it will remain a largely abstract concept. In every city, there can be no sustainable smart growth unless more smart people are willing to champion it.