Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
May 16th, 2010

A 21st Century City – Part One

In recent columns, here and here, I have written about how looking at the world through a lens of centuries can help to clarify what is in ascendancy and what is in decline.  Is something 20th Century or is it 21st Century?

I recently spent five days in Dubai.  Dubai is truly a 21st Century City.  It is a city built for and in this century.  It is based entirely on a vision of the future.  As a futurist I look into and think about the future.  I look at trends, patterns, dynamics and directional energies to see what lies ahead.  It is clear that many large entities and certainly most cities do not really focus on the future let alone the long term.  Most are preoccupied with current problems, the next quarter or the next year.  This is not the case with Dubai.

50 years ago Dubai was a small town of thousands resting of a couple of sandy spits of land and now it is a sprawling city of 1.5 million.  Due to the benevolent and visionary leadership of three sheiks over the last 60 years a forward thinking city has been created.  What this vision has manifested is truly remarkable.

Many of you have heard of the huge debt issues that surfaced last fall in Dubai.  This is true, with many building sites idle.  This is no different that all the building sites, vacant blocks and endless numbers of dark McMansions littering the landscape here in the U.S.

What I see in the U.S. is a result of blind over optimism driven by greed, fueled by lending fraud that was detached from underlying realities.  What I saw in Dubai was a long term cohesive development vision that has been temporarily whacked by the 2008-2010 Global Great Recession.

Whenever a vision is brought into being, by definition it is out in front, ahead of its time and therefore subject to more risk and possibly ridicule than more traditional efforts. This is why Dubai’s current problems have been magnified as it is a large vision, ahead of its’ time that has suffered a significant but temporary setback.  As a Chicagoan I am familiar with Daniel Burnham and am convinced that the sheiks were either aware of, or are channeling Burnham’s underlying philosophy which was “Make no small plans!”  Dubai is a large visionary plan, temporarily slowed.

In the past 15 years literally dozens of high rises and skyscrapers have been built.  As an ardent fan of modern architecture, I was stunned by the beauty of many of these buildings.  It is as though the openness of the canvas and vision prompted architectural firms to be creative and leading edge in a way not allowed elsewhere.  To see this architectural beauty and mass on a desert landscape at the edge of the Arabian Gulf was both disorienting and intoxicating.  The feeling was that of looking at an urban desert oasis for the 21st century.

For the past four years I have thought that as a futurist, one of the places in the world that held both the greatest appeal and where I might offer the highest value professionally as a futurist was the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates). This is because it is one of the few countries in the world that seems to be looking out several decades to what it wants to be in 20,30 and 40 years.  Again, though the leaders of many countries speak to the future of their countries they are looking toward the next election and long term visions tend to be platitudinous and vague.

There are seven emirates that comprise the U.A.E., and only one, Abu Dhabi that has significant long term oil reserves.  Dubai has oil reserves that are expect to be largely depleted by 2015-20.  The other five emirates have no oil at all.  This reality has prompted the U.A.E. led by Dubai, though largely funded by Abu Dhabi to look ahead into this century to plan for a vibrant economy in a post petroleum world.  It seems to be the place in the Arab world that is dynamically and intentionally looking beyond the vast economic wealth created off of oil.

The vision, which can be clearly seen in development, is to create a global financial center that is geopolitically significant and extremely geographically important as the gateway from West to East and North to South.

I was in Dubai to deliver two speeches so I interacted with a lot of people at both gatherings.  I was frequently asked if this was my first visit to Dubai and if so what did I think..  After being asked this so often, I distilled the answer down to the simple truth:  “As a futurist I feel at home in Dubai”

In the second column on Dubai, I will look at some of the leading edge dynamics the city has put in place that could serve as guidelines and examples of what urban centers around the world could do to reinvigorate themselves for the 21st Century.

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