DUBAI: Blockchain is a technology that is both feared and revered, its potential to rip up the old order — from currencies to law — making it both a threat and an opportunity to long-established industries and institutions.
For Dubai, blockchain offers the promise to become a truly global tech leader, as Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, director general of the Smart Dubai initiative, explained to Arab News.
The Dubai Blockchain Strategy, launched in 2016, lays out how Dubai will use blockchain to improve government efficiency, create an entire new industry based on distributed ledger technology and help other cities make similar advances.
Gulf bureaucracy has historically been a source of anguish for citizens and expats alike, the frustrations of obtaining the documentation required to gain access to state-sanctioned services and a local driving license becoming a right-of-passage among the recently arrived.
Such stereotypes are increasingly obsolete, however, as governments turn to technology to streamline processes. Having introduced numerous smart services, Dubai now aims by 2020 to become the first city where all government-related processes run on blockchain. Should Dubai succeed, 100 million documents annually will be transacted digitally, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 114 metric tons and saving 5.5 billion dirhams ($1.5 billion) in administrative costs each year.
Blockchain promises to mean no more forlorn trips between government buildings to get the necessary paperwork in order, freeing up 25.1 million hours annually that could be put to better use.
“We want to give people back their time, which is the most valuable thing in life,” said Bishr. “With the realization of the Dubai Blockchain Strategy we will move the role of government to providing happiness to people.”
As Dubai’s economy grew and diversified, the amount of paperwork required to regulate industry mushroomed.
“Simple processes were getting ever more complicated. It was becoming clear there needed to be a giant solution to streamline growth from government processes,” said Bishr. “Governments believed for centuries they were achieving their objectives by fulfilling these transactional roles, which were done through a heavy reliance on manual processes and unnecessary labor and paperwork.”
Government-run Smart Dubai is leading the emirate’s blockchain strategy. Last year, it identified over 20 government use cases for blockchain that have advanced to the proof-of-concept phase.
“Once these are successful, we will roll them out across the city. These cases include daily life experiences, such as leasing or renting property, registering a student in school, obtaining a medical license, and more,” said Bishr.
Smart Dubai believes blockchain can create thousands of private-sector business opportunities in myriad sectors including real estate, health care, transport, energy, retail and financial services. Globally, the blockchain technologies market will be worth $20 billion in 2024, up from $315 million in 2015, according to Transparency Market Research.
Dubai wants to create a homegrown blockchain industry, with this year’s second Smart Dubai Global Blockchain Challenge attracting more than 200 applications from around 85 cities that showcased their best blockchain solutions that can support Dubai in implementing its strategy.
The top 17 entrants were flown to Dubai to present their proposals at the Future Blockchain Summit. In all, this year’s applications covered 53 industries.
“The idea behind this challenge is to stimulate ideas and to support startups to implement their ideas, putting them on a platform where they meet other government entities who want to use blockchain,” said Bishr.
“Several startups who came here last year for the summit have now established their company here and are working with government entities to implement their blockchain solutions.”
Dubai is working with open-source blockchain platform Hyperledger, plus Consensys, which builds programs on the Ethereum blockchain for public and private sector organizations. Consensys, whose clients include GlaxoSmithKline, has opened its Middle East and North Africa headquarters in Dubai.
“We don’t want to be plugged into only one type of blockchain, so we don’t miss any important benefits of the others,” said Bishr. “We need to be an open city with an open standard that accepts any type of technology that will fulfil our needs.”
In May, IBM teamed up with three Dubai government institutions to launch the Dubai Blockchain Business Registry Project, which promises to simplify the process of setting up and operating a business, while Smart Dubai is in talks with IBM and Consensys about building a “plant farm” in the UAE that will host all Dubai’s blockchain applications, said Bishr.
Dubai Future Foundation, chaired by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, launched the Global Blockchain Council in 2016. Today this has around nearly 50 members including du, Microsoft, Cisco, SAP and IBM.