More than 50 years ago, a seven-year-old boy visited the Seattle World Expo with his family. He marveled at the scientific and technological innovation on display. He rode the Monorail trains, enjoyed the roller coasters, and visited the futuristic exhibits, including one that demonstrated a revolutionary device known as a personal computer. That young boy was Bill Gates.
Today, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of history’s greatest technology innovators, says he was inspired by his experience at the 1962 Seattle World Expo. It just might have changed his life—and in the process, he changed the lives of billions of people.
Now, it is Dubai’s turn to inspire future innovators and pioneers. Dubai’s victory in winning the right to host the World Expo in the year 2020 is a remarkable achievement. It was the fruit of a nearly two-year-long campaign led by some of Dubai’s most dynamic public officials that included both a logistics and infrastructure plan as well as a strategic vision of the Expo as a place to connect the best minds from across the world to tackle some of the globe’s biggest challenges.
Built on the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” the Dubai World Expo and its innovative concept, ExpoLive, will gather leading thinkers to explore issues ranging from energy and water security to youth employment and new economic paradigms. It will also seek sustainable solutions to the growing gaps we face in our world today, from access to health care to infrastructure to technology.
It is fitting that Dubai seeks to be a hub and a connector through its World Expo bid. After all, that is the essence of Dubai, the 21st century’s newest global city, a place where more than 200 nationalities live, work and dream together. It is also one of the most connected places on earth. Every 90 seconds, a plane takes off or lands in Dubai. Every minute, 100 containers land at Dubai ports. Every day, more than 30,000 international visitors arrive in Dubai, to conduct business or simply to see the sights and sounds of the city. With more than 11 million international visitors per year, Dubai ranks in the top 10 of the world’s most visited cities, even surpassing New York, Amsterdam, Shanghai and Beijing.
Dubai International Airport is on track to become the busiest airport in the world in terms of international passenger traffic by 2015. Despite this, there is still tremendous room for growth. The new Al Maktoum International Airport, which will be adjacent to the World Expo site, will be open for passenger flights by 2020. At full capacity, it will have the ability to carry 160 million passengers a year.
Dubai also stands at the intersection of the most important geo-economic trend shaping our world: the rise of emerging markets and developing countries and the growing South–South trade around this world. As the weight of global GDP balances more evenly between West and East, North and South, new trade corridors and new investment destinations are emerging.
From Cairo to Karachi, from Jakarta to Jeddah, from Rio to Riyadh, Dubai plays a key connecting role, building new trade networks and connecting people around the world. The world needs hubs, connectors, gateways, nexus points. From Venice in the 16th century to Amsterdam in the 17th century to London in the 18th and Paris and New York in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Silk Road caravanserais to ancient Rome, hubs play a vital role in trade, in development, in cultural intermingling, in the transmission of ideas—in our collective future.
Throughout history, World Expos in Chicago, Paris, Seattle, Montreal, Shanghai and beyond have catapulted cities to prominence and progressed humanity forward. Dubai is already a prominent world city, so it does not need the World Expo for validation, but it hails from a wounded region, and thus Dubai World Expo shoulders a heavy responsibility.
One of the most pernicious gaps facing our world today is the “hope gap.” Too many young people are losing hope in the face of joblessness, corruption and economic indignity. There are no ways to measure hope, of course, but as Albert Einstein once said: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Hope counts, and this “hope gap” must be bridged.
One way to do it is to make Expo 2020 Dubai alive from this very moment by beginning a process that would proactively and tangibly build a new culture of innovation across the Arab world, and support an enabling environment for scientific and technological achievement, entrepreneurship and tangible, job-creating economic growth. It can be called “Dubai Expo 2020 Innovation Arabia” and it should be a program that connects all of the multiple actors from across the innovation ecosystem, from companies and governments and investors to universities and entrepreneurs and inventors. And it should start right away, not in the year 2020.
There is no force more powerful to grow an economy, empower individuals and build a better world than innovation. The Arab world has far too long lagged in innovation. Dubai and the UAE are well-positioned to serve as the hub of “Innovation Arabia.”
I look forward to the day, seven years from now, that I see the hopeful faces of a young Egyptian or Saudi boy or an Emirati or Moroccan girl who dreams of becoming the next Bill Gates roaming the halls of the World Expo in Dubai. Dubai Expo owes it to those young people to not only inspire them, but also help support a policy revolution across the Arab world that will build a broader enabling environment as they build their dreams.
Bill Gates could not have become Bill Gates if he lived anywhere but America. And Steve Jobs may have had a Syrian father, but he would have been just another youth with wasted potential had he lived in Syria.
Dubai and the UAE will justifiably celebrate for the next few days, but with great victories come great responsibilities, and there is no greater challenge facing the Arab world today. I hope Dubai lives up to the challenge.