It is no coincidence that the world’s top special economic zones (SEZs) all have universities in them. Although there has not yet been extensive academic research on the topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that the presence of a university in or near a SEZ is a key factor in its success.

The Dubai Internet City in the UAE, the Cayman Enterprise City in the Cayman Islands and the Kigali Free Zone in Rwanda show us how three very different SEZs can all benefit from the presence of a university.

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The Dubai Internet City is one of the best known SEZs in the world. It is famous for being the Middle East headquarters of the world’s largest tech companies. Now, it is home to 1600 tenants, including some of the world’s most well-known blue-chip tech companies, such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM. Importantly, it is located across the street from American University in Dubai. The university opened four years before the zone, providing companies located there with an endless supply of tech-savvy interns from around the world.

The Cayman Enterprise City is home to a university as well. The zone is completely full, with all 250 spots for potential tenants taken. These include the likes of law firm Dentons, the web-browser company Brave and the crypto-exchange Binance. The University College of the Cayman Islands, located in the zone, works well to organise innovation-centric events.

Finally, the Kigali Free Zone is home to the famously selective Carnegie Mellon University Africa. The zone has just over 100 tenants, including Volkswagen’s self-driving car factory; Africa’s first native smartphone company, Mara Phones; and Apex Biotechnology, a manufacturer of HIV and cancer medications. 

Universities guarantee the presence of young, energetic thinkers. Students may or may not work in the zone; regardless, they guarantee that the zone remains in touch with current technological trends.

Most SEZs are sterile industrial parks or office blocks. Universities often at least try to create liveable spaces. The presence of a university will also encourage the creation of liveable, walkable and scenic physical spaces.

Finally, universities act as magnets for entrepreneurs. Nearly all universities have entrepreneurship programmes, and many organise start-up conferences. In all three examples mentioned here – Dubai, Cayman Islands and Kigali – the universities organised frequent conferences which attracted key figures from the global tech scene.

Many new SEZs now understand this. For example, the Konza Technopolis in Kenya has faced delays for nearly two decades due to difficulties finding tenants. Now, it hopes to jump-start its development by creating a space for the University of Nairobi

SEZs need to take note: nurturing the next generation of professionals is the best way to plan for the future.

Thibault Serlet is the director of research at the Adrianople Group, a business intelligence advisory firm.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.