The next phase: Investment-focused plans to repurpose Expo 2020 infrastructure


As Dubai looks ahead to Expo 2020, activity across numerous sectors related to the mixed-use District 2020 legacy project could catalyse rapid progress in the emirate’s plans to build an innovation-driven economy. District 2020 is the emirate’s project to rapidly repurpose the site of Expo 2020, building a new commercial and residential area, built around a technology-oriented business ecosystem. In September 2019 Shanghai-based investment firm Atlas Capital Holding became the latest company to follow Siemens and Accenture, among others, in committing to the project. In a move that significantly bolsters the tech credentials of the proposed development, Atlas Capital Holding will build a 15,000-sq-metre blockchain campus that connects blockchain researchers and entrepreneurs with investors.

Showcase City

Expo 2020 itself is being leveraged as a major opportunity to highlight Dubai’s potential. Germany-based multinational Siemens has been tasked with ensuring the entire site, from lifts and air-conditioning, to access control, are digitally connected. This entails providing infrastructure that will interconnect 130 buildings on the 4.38-sq-km site with internet of things (IoT) technology. The project will be a showcase of Siemens’ own IoT technologies, namely MindSphere, an open, cloud-based operating system, and Navigator, a sustainability platform for the management of energy use of buildings.

Located in Dubai South, District 2020 will repurpose 200,000 sq metres of LEED-certified structures built for Expo 2020. The competed project will offer over around 2.3m sq metres of gross floor area for third-party investors to develop residential, commercial, hospitality, education and mixed-use spaces. At the centre of the prospective project is the development of an innovation ecosystem combining multinationals, and small and medium-sized enterprises, along with academic institutions and accelerator and incubator programmes for emerging start-up firms.

Further to Go

While the profile of Dubai as a centre of business innovation has developed rapidly in recent years, as demonstrated by the success of the ride-hailing app Careem, and e-commerce platforms and, the emirate still has a ways to go to reach its goals. In 2014 the government launched its Dubai Innovation Strategy, declaring its intention to become the world’s most innovative locale by 2021. However, as a result of rising international innovation, Dubai’s position has fallen or remained static according to some metrics, with it falling from 28th out of 500 cities in 2014 to 33rd in 2018 in the Innovation Cities Index, published by data analysis agency 2thinknow. Meanwhile, even as the UAE as a whole increased its position in the Global Innovation Index – which is jointly published by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation – between 2018 and 2019, rising from 38th to 36th, this places it in the same position it occupied in 2014.

Part of the reason for this performance likely has to do with local human capital and financial barriers to starting a business. According to a 2019 report commissioned by Google and co-written by consultancy firms Wamda and OC&C, the UAE has some of the highest set-up and first-year operating costs for technology start-ups in the world. While Dubai’s low-tax environment reduces operational costs over the long run, start-ups must acquire considerable investment to begin operations. Nevertheless, 93% of all start-ups in the UAE are currently located in Dubai, and the government has shown a clear commitment to improving access to financing. For example, the Dubai government launched a new six-week accelerator programme for tech start-ups in July 2019, with a Dh100,000 ($27,200) prize. The report also highlights that the successful leveraging of Expo 2020 is likely to increase international investor interest in the emirate and support increased inflows of tech funding.