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Opinion and Editorial

Blockchain is making Dubai govt services more efficient

Shalini Verma
Filed on January 28, 2020

Today, Dubai is leveraging Blockchain to implement 24 use cases across eight industry verticals.

Every technology has its moment of hype, disenchantment, and validation. Blockchain is no different. In 2019, while part of the Blockchain world was crashing and burning (read cryptocurrencies), the Smart Dubai was steadily forging ahead with its Blockchain strategy.

Flashback to 2016, in a defining moment Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, outlined the city's ambitious plan to leverage Blockchain technology. The Dubai government had announced that its Blockchain strategy rested on the three pillars of government efficiency, industry creation, and international leadership.

Fast forward to January 26, 2020, I saw the same three pillars cited in the opening slide presented by Wesam Lootah, CEO of Smart Dubai Government Establishment, the technology arm of Smart Dubai office. Continuity is apparent in the Dubai government's approach to Blockchain. After all isn't that a key attribute of Blockchain?

As my car pulled up in front of Smart Dubai's office in Dubai Design District, I wondered why a government entity would have an office within a design and creative community.

As I stepped into the office, the vibrant and cool design was unmistakable. You could be standing in a well-funded startup office in the Silicon Valley. Yet the fluid design, inspired by shifting sand dunes gives it a distinctive Middle Eastern look. Its organic spaces are consciously crafted to facilitate creative collaboration and ideation.

On Sunday, Smart Dubai had organised a press conference to provide an update on its Blockchain strategy achievements. It was a pleasant gathering of media persons and members of Smart Dubai Office. Dr Aisha bint Butti bin Bishr, Director General of the Smart Dubai Office, gave her opening comments. Her easy and affable demeanour instantly made the audience comfortable. She spoke about her office's journey starting from 2017 when it organised the first Blockchain Challenge to invite startups. That was the start of Smart Dubai's persistent effort to nurture an ecosystem.

I asked Wesam Lootah about Smart Dubai's lessons learnt along this journey. He answered crisply, avoiding any hyperbole. His team learnt to shift the focus away from the technology to its utility and impact on businesses. He remarked that one does not have to know the workings of an engine to know the benefits of a car. They learnt to look beyond the known use case in finance. If the government spots a trust deficit in a transaction, there is a case for Blockchain. While there is a price to pay for an early adopter, Smart Dubai and its partners are aligned with the technology's evolution curve.

If you are among the pioneers, you don't have the luxury of learning from other's mistakes. You have to make them yourself and acquire your own cache of experiences. It is refreshing to see a government entity with an appetite for risk and the ability to move forward. This is as close as one can get to government operating in startup mode.

It could not have been easy. But they have come this far with uncommon elan. Today, Dubai is leveraging Blockchain to implement 24 use cases across eight industry verticals. Its Dubai Pay service used Blockchain to reduce reconciliation and settlement time across government entities from 45 days to instantaneously. This is just one of their initiatives to crank up efficiencies within the government. The Department of Economic Development in Dubai has launched Unified Business Registry Platform to help government departments and free zones issue and validate licenses. The startup Educhain is working with Zayed University and other educational institutions to digitise certificates.

Government efficiencies also come from sharing resources. Smart Dubai offers Blockchain as a service platform through its partnership with IBM, to allow government entities to develop use cases without investing in their own infrastructure. They become consumers of the Blockchain service as they focus on innovation.

The notion of a Blockchain-powered government is no longer alien to Dubai. It has shown how it is done by launching the Dubai Blockchain Policy at the Smart City Expo and World Congress in Barcelona last year. This is a manual of learnings of the community it is fostering.

Now more than 100 startups are scripting Dubai's Blockchain story. This did not happen overnight. It took careful execution of annual Blockchain events, challenges, and support extended to startups. Not surprisingly, Dubai is ahead of the curve with a 24 per cent growth of the Blockchain market in 2018, higher than the global average of 19 per cent.

Dubai's private sector need not look far for inspiration. It can take many lessons from Smart Dubai's execution. Dubai is also a good case study for other governments embarking on their Blockchain journey.

When the Dubai government set its sights on improving the happiness of its citizens, it placed a bet on Blockchain to drive its paperless objective. Even in Blockchain's early days, the government was not willing to sit on the sidelines. While many governments in the developed world are still playing a waiting game, Dubai has certainly made some bold moves.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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