While its unconventional design and vivid white facade may draw the eyes of passersby, at the 3D printed headquarters for Dubai’s Museum of the Future, it’s a series of neatly folded name cards that perhaps tells the more impressive story.
Inside the government-backed incubator, diverse participants gathered for the most recent meeting of Dubai’s Global Blockchain Council (GBC), a 40-member group formed to investigate blockchain and digital currencies. Far from members of IT teams, attendees included executives from tech giants like IBM and Ericsson as well as leaders of regional startups, trade bureaus, free economic zones and commodities exchanges.
The topic of focus in the run-up to the closed-door event was Keynote 2016, the blockchain conference the group had sponsored just days before, and all seemed focused on one issue – whether Dubai had sent the message to the wider international business community that it is serious about blockchain.
While the meeting was closed to the public, Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation, shared his take on the event, providing insight into why the group is looking to blockchain as a way to accelerate economic growth in Dubai.
Al Aleeli told CoinDesk:
"[Blockchain] touches everything from public records to contracts to economic exchange. Our message is 'We are interested, we are serious, and we want to get real work done today.'"
According to Al Aleeli, there is widespread belief in the local government that blockchain could help improve its own ability to offer services to consumers and businesses. The GBC, he said, sees its mandate in this wider context.
"Blockchain and the GBC are an essential component of positioning UAE as a global center for shaping the future," he said.
As such, it's Al Aleeli's Museum of the Future, a government initiative that's part physical destination, part think tank, that has emerged as the driver of this activity by creating the GBC and helping support and steer its agenda.
In addition to organizing and hosting the meetings, the Museum of the Future also plays a key role in connecting those interested in furthering its explorations.
According to attendees, topics of conversation at the meeting included the messaging the GBC should take given its visibility in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the progress being made on proofs-of-concept and how these projects could become among the first in the world to be released.
Just months into the effort, the GBC is now beginning to look at how to advance its work through projects that will resonate with the international community.
While the work underway has gained the attention of the regional media, members of the GBC voiced the belief that, to truly make an impact, it will mean advancing projects so that they are among the first globally to move out of the sandbox and into the real world.
Al Aleeli explained how the GBC is currently working within the existing regulatory context to encourage innovation, and that this means working in areas where the group is confident it can advance its work.
"Major free zones have a regulatory authority to encourage certain kinds of innovation, as long as it conforms with overall federal regulations where applicable," he said.
As in many other parts of the world, as projects near completion, the GBC intends to begin a process of educating a wider network of regulators and lawmakers.
As for how lengthy this process may be, even with government support, Al Aleeli noted that each emirate in the UAE has its own regulation, and that financial activities are governed by the Central Bank of the UAE.
In this context, it may be best to consider the GBC as a sandbox to workshop initiatives so that the tech can be considered more broadly by necessary stakeholders in the country's business sector.
With increased visibility, however, new challenges are arising.
The group is attracting more new members, with Dubai Trade, the Dubai Gold and Commodities Exchange and the Dubai Department of Economic Development being the most recent. Local and international startups Kraken, BitOasis, Umbrellab and Loyyal are also among its ranks.
Al Aleeli voiced his belief that this is positive, as the group has so far appealed to a diversity of stakeholders in the UAE because of its combination of participants.
"The group is unique because it includes both the people creating the demand and the people meeting that demand. This gives us the unique ability to craft partnerships within the group that could have tremendous impact," Al Aleeli said.
But, the GBC has had to take steps to rethink how it will add new members and needed expertise.
Al Aleeli said that, going forward, the GBC will focus on adding members that represent industries or skill sets that may be underrepresented today.
One particular need, Al Aleeli said, is for technical expertise, an area where the group's challenges are perhaps not unique.
Al Aleeli concluded:
"We may be interested in inducting more blockchain development and solutions companies in the near future, but otherwise the council is almost at capacity."
Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk