What makes a city great?
Academics and government bodies have long pondered over this question.
They emphasise various variables, from pedestrian access — itself tautological because it does not explain the rise of cities such as Los Angeles and Miami — to public spaces, to sustainability and, perhaps most importantly, to branding itself as a means to differentiate at a time when cities are becoming more alike.
Clearly the high order bit revolves around economics, (from the Latin phrase “crescit cum commercio civitas”, or the city is built upon its commerce).
Economic vibrancy stands at the centre of any city’s rise to global prominence, and there are a number of new players for the throne.
But equally, these are other variables interacting in the ecosystem that explain the relative rise and fall of great cities as a hub for attracting people.
While New York and London have emerged as global centres for finance, and Silicon Valley has fostered a culture of technological innovation, Singapore has been widely acknowledged as a success in terms of its cohesive strategy, balancing welfare, urban development and sustainability over the past few decades.
It has attracted a number of “copy cat” cities.
Which itself is something of a pun, because it adds little to the conversation, other than making the words look silly.
Dubai may be many things, but boring it is not. From its emphasis on being a magnet for media, finance, and health to its more recent initiatives of attracting talent for AI and fintech, Dubai has been the definition of a city that gives no deference to its supposed superiors.
But “place branding” has emerged as an important part of the dialogue in the evolution of major cities. City brands are meant to modify the perceptions of global audiences.
While the stories around its physical infrastructure may be self-promotional, they have to be perceived as credible. Only then can a culture develop around the infrastructure network.
For example, Boston, which was a pre-eminent city-state, saw its fortunes decline around the time of the Civil War, because despite its cultural and economic prowess, it was perceived to be linked to the fortunes of slaves.
In modern times, the challenge has become even greater, because global audiences are very diverse.
People come from different cultures and have different world views, which implies that they will have different perceptions of the same narrative. How then does a city become a unifying force?
In Dubai, apart from building global attractions and hosting world class-events from sports to concerts to the upcoming pivotal World Expo, the emphasis has been on diversity and multiculturalism. But this has come with a deeper characteristic — that of being a challenger.
Magnet for talent
Dubai may be many things, but boring it is not.
From its emphasis on being a magnet for media, finance, and health to its more recent initiatives of attracting talent for AI and fintech, Dubai has been the definition of a city that gives no deference to its supposed superiors.
In an age marked by identity politics, Dubai is building a narrative that says that every person (and position) will be dealt on its merits.
This tapping into the popular culture of the masses has meant that even as it has climbed the global rankings of world cities, it has remained true to its own core foundational principle of obsessive decorum, which is the opposite of its dictionary definition.
Its pace of rapid urbanisation continues to quicken, even as the rate of property speculation has slowed. Cities can be chaotic places, but great cities have a way of bringing out the best in its people, those with shared values of respect and trust, even as it barrels upwards to scale new heights.
In Dubai, it has come to mean the concurrence of style and content, along with what Martin Amis calls earning the right weight.
Fostering that culture of growth and vibrancy has been the key ingredient that has been increasingly lacking in most global hotspots in recent times.
Scaling new heights
The word obsessed (from its Latin root “obisdere” which means to besiege) is perhaps the defining characteristic in grasping the culture of Dubai.
It is obsessed with scaling new heights of grandeur. Like Paris, London and New York before it, Dubai embodies an obsessive mindset in terms of its ambitions for itself.
Its pace of rapid urbanisation continues to quicken, even as the rate of property speculation has slowed.
Cities can be chaotic places, but great cities have a way of bringing out the best in its people, those with shared values of respect and trust, even as it barrels upwards to scale new heights.
While some of its urban landscapes may be viewed with some ambivalence from time to time, its ability to weave its grandeur into the social fabric of the city has been its most spectacular achievement; its sense of self belief that serves as the biggest magnet for attracting talent.
Sameer Lakhani is Managing Director of Global Capital Partners.