"We believe that Dubai is the global capital of blockchain. We know how to execute and we're creating the ecosystem."
That statement, given during a talk by Wesam Lootah, CEO of the state-backed smart cities effort Dubai Smart Government, cut to the core of the message from government officials at Keynote 2017, a blockchain technology event held at the city's famed Burj Al Arab today.
Featuring speakers from Dubai's Department of Economic Development, the Dubai Future Foundation and Emirates NBD, the event sought to showcase the vision city leaders have for the tech, and the ecosystem approach they have thus far taken to encouraging its development.
This message was again visible during a morning address by Noah Radford, COO of Dubai Future Foundation, the government-backed incubator that kickstarted much of the innovation ongoing locally. While scheduled to be focused on implementation, Radford's instead shifted to providing a wider, global context for Dubai's approach to innovation.
"What I want to talk about is more important than implementation, and that's vision. This will be particularly important in the next 10 years."
Elsewhere, this broader narrative was called back by Danish Farhan, CEO of innovation consultancy Xische Holdings, in a talk that stressed the importance of stories in inspiring disparate groups to unite around ideas.
"When Dubai announced that it wanted to be the first government to run on blockchain, you needed a narrative that was far greater than the promise of blockchain," Farhan said.
The talks come amid an active time for blockchain development in the UAE, one propelled forwarded by Dubai's crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has set the goal of moving all government documents to a blockchain by 2020.
Lootah's talk emphasized the smaller steps toward this big vision, discussing how the Smart Cities program has sought to unite developers, researchers and business leaders to create an environment that could one day be "powered by blockchain" across its various services.
"His Highness has asked us to do today what others will do in 10 years. We are creating the future of blockchain right here in Dubai," he said.
The work comes on the heels of the organization's role in the development of blockchain locally through the consortium Global Blockchain Council (GBC) and Smart Dubai's own 'Blockchain Challenge', an initiative launched in February to boost local startup activity.
Pipeline of projects
Yet, Lootah also cited the inherent challenge of this aspiration at a time when vendors "haven't even released the 1.0 versions of their software".
In contrast to last year's event, which saw the Global Blockchain Council debut use cases and proofs-of-concept, there were noticeably fewer announcements this year. Still, hints were given at work underway.
Mohammed Shael Al Saadi, CEO of strategic affairs at the Department of Economic Development, discussed the historical challenges the organization has faced when attempting to encourage new businesses, and how blockchain could come to play a role here.
In one part of his talk, Al Saadi cited how new business owners could benefit from a unified ID, and why such a business licensing regime could benefit from the data security provided by blockchains.
He explained how such an idea could enable a "virtual customs" department whereby goods and the documents they require could more easily move between the relevant regulatory and private-sector entities worldwide.
Al Saadi said:
"[With blockchain], we could have the customs authorities of each of these companies and countries in Dubai. If you find a problem with the goods or the movement, we think that blockchain is the right tool for that."
Another notable debut was a use case presented by Emirates NBD VP of enterprise architecture Naimish Shah, who discussed the bank's work with a blockchain-based system aimed at eliminating check fraud.
Framed as an $AED25m (roughly $6.8m) opportunity, Shah explained how the bank is piloting a system by which checks could be marked with a QR code that would be embedded with data linked to a blockchain.
"When you give the check to the beneficiary, there's a self-service channel where the beneficiary can scan the QR code and know whether it's fraudulent," he explained. "You can identify the fraud at the source and validate the check instrument."
Still, Shah sought to voice some frustrations with his company's experimentation, and its struggle to make its ideas real.
For instance, he noted that it is not yet clear to banks which specific blockchain platforms will emerge as winners, or whether banks will grow comfortable with arrangements that will enable the technology's network effects to be best utilized.
In this way, Shah's talk provided evidence Dubai's incumbents, while moving quickly toward blockchain solutions, may be still be hitting some of the same roadblocks as their international peers.
Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk