"We as a government know very little about this technology. We focus on running the city."
The statement comes halfway through my talk with Mohammed Shael Al Saadi, the man in charge of economic development for the city of Dubai, and who's leading the push to ensure his agency's documents run on a blockchain by 2020.
Given the tendency of industry innovators to overstate and overcompensate, the comment comes off as both striking and refreshing, but it raises questions as well.
In a week spent speaking with local startups and financial services professionals, there's a sense that while the government buy-in here eclipses other jurisdictions globally, those in charge may struggle to meet objectives given the lofty goals set.
But Al Saadi doesn’t appear worried about this prospect.
As opposed to other regions (where minor laws are deliberated for years), Al Saadi believes that if governments really want to reap the benefits of the technology, they should simply see the potential and provide supportive, but limited, assistance.
He told CoinDesk:
In Al Saadi’s view, governments should be less focused on technology than the experiences they combine to create. And today, he suggests, the limitations inherent in traditional databases are one of the reasons that the Department of Economic Development (DED) is falling short of creating a hassle-free experience.
Al Saadi’s criticisms of the current process formed the bulk of his talk on the subject at Keynote 2017, Dubai’s annual blockchain conference held last week. There, he spoke in detail about processes filled with "nonsense things", a term he uses to describe a system that mandates a visitor on an investor visa justify his presence to every official he visits.
There, he estimated that an individual seeking to start a business would need to bring 500 passports and nearly 200 copies of their business license, or nearly 950 documents in total simply to navigate the DED's processes.
But while other speakers discussed more specific roadmaps for the technology, Al Saadi, onstage and in person, is more elegant in framing its potential.
To Al Saadi, blockchain is an innovation that makes digital a process that humanity has been using for commerce for thousands of years.
If Al Saadi seems keen to trust in startups, one reason might be his unique journey to his position as DED chief executive and how technology has helped him get there.
Quitting school after grade seven, Al Saadi struggled with dyslexia, but was later pushed to continue his education at the request of his commanding officer in the army. As Al Saadi tells it, he began training begrudgingly, at a vocational center where he commenced seeking alternative ways to learn.
"I had a passion toward electronics. I loved to see it, to understand it. I used to go to the oldest library on the other side of Dubai. We had only few Arabic materials, but my learning was all done through my audio and visual," he said.
All in all, technology proved a more trustworthy way of learning things, according to Al Saadi, whose first experience with English didn’t quite live up to expectations.
After picking up the language from a colleague at a dive center, Al Saadi recalls finally showing off his skills with a couple from London who he was tasked with chaperoning on a weekend trip.
"We're talking, and the couple were very impressed. When we reached the dive site, they asked me, 'Where did you study in London?' I said I had just been to London for two weeks. They said, ‘No, no, that is impossible. You speak good cockney,” he recalls.
Al Saadi was taken aback then to learn that if he was to go to the US or Australia, he would hardly be understood at all.
Al Saadi would again be astonished some years later by something else – a distributed, blockchain-based digital currency called bitcoin.
While he claims he first heard about it in 2012, he said it wasn’t until he learned that the technology could be used to make real purchases that it changed his thinking on how blockchains could be useful.
"One of my friends, he said his friend bought a car from the US with bitcoin. I said, ‘How?’. ‘How is this?’ ‘What is this bitcoin?’ He said, ‘He buys everything from US with bitcoin.’ I said I must speak with him," Al Saadi said.
While that follow-up conversation never happened, Al Saadi said he has since bought a small amount of bitcoin and even used a local ATM.
Still, he suggests that he views bitcoin with some skepticism.
"You can’t break it right now, because human beings haven’t created the capability. With the computation increments on a yearly basis, nobody know what could happen," he said.
Still, Al Saadi’s imagination is perhaps most captured by the applications of blockchain technology that serve non-monetary purposes. He went so far as to describe it as a new type of engraving system, one that could create unique digital items.
"What do I need to do to create a fake drug? It’s white powder compressed to units of the same size. We have a blockchain and I can make sure that this is a genuine medicine," he said.
By tagging information to a blockchain, Al Saadi believes counterfeiting could be eliminated entirely, reducing crime and contributing to public safety.
In his final story, Al Saadi evoked the kind of future he believes he could create should the DED succeed on its vision – one in which a visitor to Dubai with partner could have the baby at a local hospital, transfer documents to an international hospital and embassy, and then on to a local government that would be able to shift its strategic planning accordingly.
"It could know, we’ve got 10 new baby boys and 15 baby girls, and that they will all need immunization plans, and your son’s medication could be ready because your doctor knows, the system can tell you where to find it," he said.
To begin, however, Al Saadi is focused on making a seamless experience for investors by putting immigration details on a blockchain system, which would then be useable across any agency a foreign investor needs to engage with.
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