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The Future of the Future:
From nomads to knowmads:
Knowledge cities rise from the desert sands

This article appears in the issue January 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 1]


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It’s like something out of a Star Wars movie. Flying across the Arabian Desert at night, a glowing city rises along the coast. Its skyline looks like that of any modern city, except for a huge, brightly lit skyscraper that dwarfs everything in sight. Towering almost half a mile high, it is currently the tallest building in the world.

Not 50 years ago, the emirate of Dubai was little more than a fishing and pearl diving community along its 72-kilometer coastline, with wandering nomadic tribes in the interior. Clearly, something extraordinary is going on. You might say it’s a conjunction of two worlds. One is the 20th century commodity-driven economy, from which Dubai has received most of its current wealth. The other is the new, global knowledge economy, upon which Dubai’s future and all of our futures depend.

Moving outward from the world’s tallest skyscraper. you’ll find the world’s largest shopping mall, the world’s largest indoor ski slope, the largest hotel, artificial island and coming soon, the world’s largest LED screen (no kidding). Add a financial center, media city, humanitarian city and 20 free-trade zones, and you can see why it’s the fastest growing metropolis in the world.

But there’s one more element we knowledge entrepreneurs should find intriguing, and that is the rapid growth of the Knowledge Village (kv.ae). The ruling emir, Sheik Mo, as he’s affectionately called, understands that knowledge is the key to success in
the 21st century. So much so that he’s established a $10 billion foundation focusing on culture, education and entrepreneurship. While the hype surrounding the world’s tallest this and biggest that is an essential part of the branding, knowledge is clearly recognized as critical to a sustainable and peaceful economic growth. Remember, it is supposedly not the most stable region in the world.

Other cities rising out of the desert have also embraced that notion. Abu Dhabi and Sharja, which like Dubai are part of the United Arab Emirates, each have a University City. Qatar’s Education City, Egypt’s Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, and Bahrain’s $1 billion Higher Education City are all examples, to varying degrees.

Not all of this is new. The King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology has been a strategic center for scientific research and education in Saudi Arabia since 1977. And granted, a large part of the new growth is fueled by the good, old-fashioned, 20th-century western school of real estate development and speculation. Yet the common emphasis on the discovery and growth of knowledge is undeniable.

The move from tribal to global

Over time, knowledge seems to undergo ebb and flow between tribal and global, tacit and explicit. The Bedouins who roamed those lands used the tribal form of knowledge management. Tacit knowledge was passed down by direct observation of the day-to-day tactics needed to survive in the brutality of an extremely hostile climate.

In the west, conditions were relatively more benign, yet just as territorial. For example, knowledge of the design and manufacture of various goods remained within the custody of secretive guilds, and was selectively passed from master to apprentice.

One reason the tribal form of knowledge transfer worked was because the scale was localized, and the scope was relatively narrow. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Find work or starve. Now the problems are much more complex; the scale is global. It’s learn, innovate and grow, or we’re all in trouble.

A new knowledge society in the making

Although they may seem excessive, the indoor ski resorts and the glass towers, like the great pyramids of long ago, show what human creativity is capable of, if we put our minds to it. It’s the kind of motivation we need when confronted with today’s complex, rapidly changing problems.

The new knowmads, like their ancestors, understand that knowledge is vital. The possibility of having to defend against invading marauders still remains. But the explosive growth in population brings many new challenges. Instead of meeting the needs of a few hundred or a few thousand, the impact of what ultimately emerges will be felt by billions economically, environmentally, socially and in many other ways.

Actions to take

First, we all need to start letting go of our tribal instincts. For some, it may be breaking down the silos in our workplace. For others, like the indigenous peoples in the developing world, tribal tendencies run much deeper. Solving today’s problems means making the leap to a culture of greater openness to knowledge sharing and discourse. Such a level of cooperation will be essential as we put these knowledge cities to the test, as in finding ways to provide clean water for billions of people, rather than for just a few small caravans.

We all need to pitch in. During my recent trips to the UAE, I noticed a lot of twentysomethings from all over the world. If you’re in that age group, consider doing a stint in one of those far-off places for a few years. They need your talent, and you’ll get in on the ground floor of something very exciting, an experience you can take with you the rest of your life.

If extreme outdoor heat and humidity don’t appeal to you, especially you older folks, then plug into the action virtually. Imagine what we can accomplish with a global community of knowmads, physically clustered in knowledge cities and connected in cyberspace, co-creating a better future. What better place from which to launch a peaceful transformation to a sustainable, global economy, than from what was once one of the most hostile environments on Earth.


Daktara Mirghani S. Mohamed, assistant dean of the School of Management, New York Institute of Technology-Bahrain, contributed to this article, e-mail mirghani@gmail.com.


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