Preparing for Expo 2020 will quite rightly be a huge focus for Dubai over the next three years. As a boost for tourism, a pretext for upgrading infrastructure and a vehicle to showcase the city to the world, the opportunity is golden.
Of more long-term importance, however, is what happens when the last visitors leave the site and it’s time to repurpose a very large space on the outskirts of town. As revealed in this week’s cover story, there are solid plans to create a knowledge and lifestyle hub on the site: the succinctly named District 2020. If those concepts bear fruit, the scheme will tick many useful boxes in terms of providing jobs and homes for the next wave of UAE inhabitants.
But there’s a bigger play at work that brings to mind a book published back in 2011. Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next speculated what cities of the future will look like. “A combination of giant airport, planned city, shipping facility and business hub...” the cover jacket grandly asserts, “...the aerotropolis will be at the heart of the next phase of globalisation.”
The similarities between that vision and the Expo site hardly need spelling out. Jebel Ali is home to the biggest port in the Middle East; Al Maktoum Airport is set to be the world’s busiest airport, and District 2020 is right there in the mix. In fact, it all seemed so closely aligned that it prompted me to phone the book’s co-author, Greg Lindsay. A senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation, Lindsay was also part of an early planning workshop for Expo 2020.
The logic is simple, he tells me. We think of the modern world as being about digital transactions and the frictionless movement of data or ideas. In actual fact, physical stuff can only move on a global scale via the air and sea. And it’s the same for the people who bring with them ideas and energy. It’s boots on the ground, basically.
Catering to this demand has already allowed Dubai to become a logistics hub for the Gulf and also large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and the wider MENA region. The city has become, as Lindsay describes, “the crossroads of the entire Global South.”
Of course Dubai isn’t alone in positioning itself as a hub for goods and services. Schiphol in Amsterdam is Europe’s flagship model, thanks to its strategic development around the airport. South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have all raised their profiles by doing the same. Less prominently, but no less interesting, around half of the world’s iPhones are made in Zhengzhou, thanks to Chinese infrastructure investment. Manchester, meanwhile, is busy positioning itself as the entry point for post-Brexit international investment into the UK.
Lindsay says that the ones who boast the loudest usually have the least best reasons for doing so, while the best ones just quietly go ahead and get things done. Which brings us back to Dubai.
District 2020 will be a huge success in the long-term if it harnesses the potential of DWC and JAFZA. More immediately, however, it needs to provide more than shops and offices for its plans to succeed. It’s not an easy task, as Shanghai discovered, though its Expo site has started to succeed as an arts district. Success in Dubai will depend on the interplay between the things it builds and the people who make best use of them. So in the end it’s not about cargo, it’s attracting people who come as a result.
To return to the cover jacket of that book, it continues:
“In our ‘flat world’, connecting people and goods is still as important as digital communication.... The aerotropolis will be not just a powerful engine for local economic development, but also a whole new international forum for ideas and innovation.”
Which should make Dubai District 2020 a very interesting place to watch.
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