Abu Dhabi holds the prestigious title of the most livable city in the Middle East and North Africa according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's global survey. And today, where success against one's competitors is increasingly determined by user experience, that title resulted from a 360 audit of life in the Emirate to encompass work, play, and everything else in between. Abu Dhabi has opted for wholesale optimization of its public facilities and infrastructure, while providing conditions on the work front conducive to accelerated innovation by supporting a vibrant incubator culture. Enter Ghadan 21, the government accelerator program—initially boasting 50 projects—that is set to keep the Emirate at the sharp end of social, economic and commercial initiatives this century.
At the Speed of Commerce
Abu Dhabi's Ghadan 21 is the local reflection of a broader UAE initiative dating back to October 2016, called Government Accelerators, a cross-sectoral government platform aimed at galvanizing the action required to realize Vision 2021. Given the pace of competition and technological change, the overarching idea here is to act fast and deliver practical solutions for real projects within 100 days or less, depending upon the urgency. Recommendations for execution are delivered within seven, 15, 30, 60, or 90 days, whereupon a swift collective decision is delivered.
The Emirate is therefore actively promoting itself as a global innovation hub; a smart society where the financial weight of initial investment is partially lifted from the innovative process through grants. And the disbursement of 6,000 housing loans valued at USD3.16 billion has recently made it that much easier for entrepreneurs to set up house.
Not a Program to Sneeze (or cough) at
Ghadan 21 is Abu Dhabi's blueprint for the wholesale redrawing of its social and commercial fabric. Launched in 2018, the AED50-billion development plan for the Emirate rests on the four pillars of business and investment, society, knowledge and innovation, and lifestyle.
Prominent in all of this is the Ma'an platform for volunteer-based social innovations. It features social incubator programs that work to blend life quality and entrepreneurship. Within its scope are 200km of cycle paths and the greening of parts of the city with 16 community parks and other beautification schemes with a price tag of USD2.18 billion. Indeed, as the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office and member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, HH Sheikh Khalid bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, noted on the first anniversary of the program, Ghadan 21 has reshaped the Emirate's economy, knowledge ecosystem, and community in one fell swoop.
Urgent Response to the Pandemic
In 2020, COVID-19 brought about a paradigm shift that even one year ago was considered a futurist's fantasy. Working from home is one such outcome, with corporations coming around to the idea that it not only works, but offers new advantages, notably the ability to hire anyone from anywhere. But the skilled individuals needed to populate an innovative ecosystem require supportive conditions. Duly, in March 2020 Abu Dhabi's Executive Council launched its economic stimulus package of 16 initiatives for businesses and individuals alike to grease the machinery, as it were, thereby ensuring uninterrupted realization of Ghadan 21 goals, while mitigating the impact of COVID-19.
Fundamental to these initiatives is the ease and affordability of doing business in the Emirate, and the following are a few select components making it all work. The AED535-million Abu Dhabi Ventures Fund is geared at fostering start-ups and innovation ecosystems. The open data program allows investors direct access to vital information from the Abu Dhabi Data Authority on which to base commercial decisions. Once again, it represents a tangible shift toward greater state sector transparency and proximity to the industry.
The flexibility and transparency that underpin Ghadan 21 were confirmed in the Abu Dhabi government's decision to issue public-private partnership (PPP) tenders for AED10 billion worth of infrastructure projects. The PPP model greatly facilitates work on state projects. In March 2020, the first such tender concerned a 12-year contract to replace approximately 43,000 streetlights and traffic assets and systems operation and management.
Furthermore, the Sharaka initiative—an online platform—acknowledges the private sector's time sensitivity by allowing private sector companies in Abu Dhabi to submit their outstanding government invoices for fast-track payment.
What Abu Dhabi effectively has, then, is a “you innovate my back I'll fund yours" type of arrangement, one where the Emirate reaps the ultimate benefits of innovation tomorrow by propelling those firms and individuals behind it today.