Back to the Future
This feature was commissioned and published by Shawati Magazine
Predicting the future is a somewhat Kafkaesque task. Not only is it almost unfathomably heterogeneous and involving myriad unknown factors, the future is also an almost uncontrollable beast, marching towards us at speed and with only a small margin of predictability. Nevertheless, in 2016, the Dubai government decided to take that beast by the horns and set up the Dubai Future Foundation.
With a mission statement that includes enabling the future of Dubai for the advancement of humanity using a strategy labelled as “exponential government”, the goals of the foundation are far reaching and ambitious. “Dubai is on a mission to build a bright and prosperous future today, rather than wait for that future to come to us,” says the chairman, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai. In order for this exponential growth to happen, the foundation states that there are two key ingredients: radical optimism and radical action. But what does this mean in practical terms? Well, firstly it means that the structure of the foundation has to be set up to enable such action. Crucially, although the foundation is a government entity it does not fall under the federal umbrella. Therefore, it is not tied down by strict regulations, the team have direct access to the leaders and it remains agile in the way decisions are made. Secondly, the remit is always long term. The foundation is not driven by statistics or getting immediate results, instead it tries to encourage disruptive thinking beyond existing systems and considered norms as well as experimentation with prototypes. The 80+ members of staff – that number is quickly expanding – are all free to pitch ideas straight to management and there is an entrenched spirit of collaboration away from hierarchy and towards inclusivity. In short, every idea is considered and all ideas, as long as they are pre-market, are welcomed.
Finally, although all eyes are on the future, the management do not overlook the importance of recognising their forefathers. “Foresight is in our DNA as a country,” says Dubai Future Foundation Deputy CEO Abdulaziz Al Jaziri. “I’ll give you an example, when Sheikh Rashid built the ports at Jebel Ali he went against his advisors and built infrastructure far beyond the needs of the time. But he had vision and it is that vision that continues to drive us all forward.”
From germination to full bloom
The Dubai Future Foundation started out as only the seed of an idea and made its first manifestation as an exhibition titled The Museum of the Future, which was first presented at the World Government Summit in 2014. In it the roles of future technology across different sectors such as government services, healthcare, climate change and food security were examined. There was so much interest in this multi-sensory exhibition that it was expanded into a concept for a physical space, which is being built on the Sheikh Zayed Road and is set to open in 2020. Of course, it will not house artefacts from the past but the museum will function as an incubator for innovation demonstrating the latest inventions and trends.
Analysing trends and global advancements is the cornerstone of the way the foundation functions. Its primary initiatives include Dubai 10x, designed to keep Dubai ten years ahead of the rest of the world as well as Area 2071, which states that by the year 2071, the UAE will be the world’s leading nation. This ambition will be achieved by bringing together the next generation of Emirati innovators and the best talent from across the world with the collective aim of disrupting entire industries to bring about sweeping change.
Dubai 10x searches for propositions on how to propel the inner workings of the government forward at a faster rate. Each year, new projects are undertaken and for its second cycle, 37 government entities are working together in different sectors such as tourism, health, education, justice, sports, charity, culture, security and energy.
Area 2071 is a direct response to the federal centennial strategy marking the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the United Arab Emirates. It was launched in 2017 and focuses on four main objectives to elevate the government to the somewhat subjective status of being the “best in the world”. Those objectives are: economy; education; government development; and community cohesion. Dubai Future Foundation took this mandate as a starting point to create Area 2071 – a digital and physical space working towards solutions for the biggest global problems. It can be defined as an experimentation hub on a grand scale, the successful results of which will impact not only those living in Dubai but millions around the world through 12 primary sectors including: aviation, pharmaceuticals, education, sustainability, humanitarian challenges and emerging technologies. The ecosystem invites multinationals, governments and start-ups to work together on what are called ‘moonshot’ or exploratory and ground-breaking projects undertaken without any rigid expectations. This kind of freedom of thinking is the best way for practical change to take place.
Another part of this process is an initiative called Dubai Future Accelerators, which is an intensive collaboration between leading government organisations and the world’s most exciting and innovative technology companies. It works under a rotating 9-week programme, which allows companies from all around the world, whether established or still in the start-up phase, to work under intensive conditions within the foundation’s head office in Dubai’s Emirates Towers to come up with the best plans to move the government forward. At the end of the 9-week period, if the idea is approved, the company will enter into an agreement with the government entity to make the idea become a reality. This rapid conception to application process is highly impressive and wholly necessary if the foundation is to achieve its goals of being not only the best nation in the world but 10 years ahead of everyone else.
Examples of change
Real and lasting change has already been implemented in many areas since the inception of Dubai Future Foundation (DFF). Perhaps the most widespread is the Dubai Blockchain Strategy, which was introduced by the Crown Prince of Dubai, in October 2016. It aims to make Dubai the first government in the world to apply all transactions through the blockchain network by 2020 and in October 2018, the Dubai Land Department became the world’s first government entity to achieve this aim. Conceived by the Dubai Future Foundation and implemented by Smart Dubai, the strategy is on track to meet its deadline.
Another part of transforming Dubai comes under the aptly named Autonomous Transportation Strategy aiming to have 25% of the total transportation in Dubai to be autonomous by 2030. Not only will this be cost effective it will also go some way towards reducing Dubai’s currently devasting per capita environmental impact.
Driving these and several other projects forward are educational initiatives such as the Dubai Future Academy, which operates like a kind of school of the future hosting courses, workshops and lectures in subjects such as thought leadership, strategic foresight and more specific areas of knowledge such as space exploration. Incidentally the academy is housed within the Office of the Future, the world’s first fully functional 3D printed building which in itself falls under strategic policy launched by DFF. Dubai’s 3D Printing Strategy centres on the development of 3D printing to improve people’s lives and commits the UAE to the use of 3D printing in 25% of its buildings by 2030.
Whilst many of these strategies are stemming from a place of global thinking, Dubai is also very much aware of its place in the region and the foundation also has an emphasis on empowering Arab speakers. Through the Mostaqbal Portal, the foundation creates Arabic content on future based topics publishing studies, articles, visual materials and infographics in areas such as space, science, health, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality – all worded in easy-to-understand Arabic. It also launched the One Million Arab Coders programme in 2017 to empower a future generation of Arabs by providing them access to free software development training to become fluent in the language of coding. This, which is the largest coding initiative in the world, is held in collaboration with the higher education platform Udacity and is constantly growing with more students enrolling into the programme and additional tutors and partners joining to support this growing community.
With all these projects and many more in place, I sat down with Dubai Future Foundation’s Deputy CEO Abdulaziz Al Jaziri to find out more.
Please outline your role and main responsibilities
As Deputy CEO I am in a position of leadership and it is my responsibility to filter down the vision of exponential government that underlines the Dubai Future Foundation’s key mandate. However, I am also the person that bridges the gap between the management and the rest of the team. I do my best to be approachable, establishing a kind of big brother relationship with my team and understanding where everything is on a day to day basis.
With initiatives in so many sectors, how do you manage the pressure to get things done?
We are often in situations where we think what we are about to do is impossible but with teamwork we get it done. There are times when we all have to roll up our sleeves and it can be exhausting but we are all there to deliver together. Working under intense conditions means that in our office, it feels like we get twice as much done in half the time. I’ve only been in my job for a year but it feels like five.
As Dubai Future Foundation, clearly you have your eyes on where Dubai is heading, how far ahead do you look?
To some extent His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s vision has no limit and it is important not to place boundaries on our innovation. Nonetheless, we are all aware that our day to day projects will have an impact in the foreseeable future and we do work towards practical goals. Our aim is to be ahead of the curve, we want to lead, and we want this to have a positive impact not only on the UAE but also globally.
The Dubai Future Foundation began as Museum of Future but that term itself is an oxymoron. Can you please explain why you chose this term?
The reason that the Museum of the Future started was although there were a lot of reports circulating about future technologies and advancements but nobody could really connect with this information because they couldn’t visualise it. Initially the idea was to create an immersive experience and now, the Museum when it opens in 2020 will function as a vehicle for content. It is true that the term itself is an oxymoron but that in itself is another example of the disruptive thinking at the heart of our organisation. Another advantage of this is that it also offers people an entry point. People are usually afraid of the future and the unknown but when you relate it to something that people are familiar with, like a museum, that can make it more digestible.
What is this museum is expected to do?
As I said, it is a vehicle for content. Part of it will be a platform for displaying the world’s most cutting-edge inventions but primarily it will be a forum for global thinkers from around the world thinking about aspects of the future in all its many facets.
For Area 2071, does the physical space or virtual space take priority?
It is certainly a physical space before it is digital space because the reason we built it is to bring people together: governments; the private sector; and start-ups. Through Area 2071, we unite different players from around the world; those who share the same passion and vigour for the future, and we provide a collaboration space to allow for solving significant human challenges at scale.
What other platforms do you use to disseminate and share the knowledge you have acquired as an organisation?
Part of our role is enabling our wider audiences access to high quality and relevant content when it comes to envisioning and designing the future. That’s why one of our early projects focused on the notion of sharing and disseminating relevant content in Arabic. This is shown through our launch of the digital platform Mostaqbal Portal and our publications, Popular Science and MIT Tech Review, which serve as a platform and tool for Arabic readers to acquire and have access to the latest technological and scientific news, research and emerging trends impacting society.
Dubai 10x states that the UAE would be 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. What does this leadership look like?
The reason His Highness wanted to implement Dubai 10x was to trigger a revolutionary way of thinking. The role of Dubai 10x is to start thinking about the very fabric of what drives us forward. Under this initiative we must disrupt and create leadership across all aspects of society, be it economic, social, technological or otherwise. 10X is now seen as a proof point to what government excellence looks like; through adopting innovation and emerging technologies as engines for growth, and through creating a mindset that supports the very definition of innovation.
Our biggest issue is changing the mindset of existing entities, to make them think like entrepreneurs and to understand that every decision they make has a ripple effect. Two years into the programme, we now know that to make this work best, we need to bring governments and industries together across all levels.
Let’s talk about the Dubai Future Academy. Is the primary aim of this academy to empower people with the best knowledge to be armed for the future?
Of course, it is. As we plan to disrupt our present by thinking what the future might look like and work to solving today’s challenges with tomorrow’s technologies and trends, it becomes critical that we prepare and enable everyone to become part of the process.
We do this at the Dubai Future Academy by equipping generations to come and future leaders with the skill sets of the future. Our aim is for it to become the knowledge hub for those creating the future and everyone who has an interest in understanding the future and the opportunities it brings.
How do you teach people about things that have yet to happen?
By making it tangible. Everyone reads about AI, blockchain and other technologies but we need to know what that actually means for us on a day to day basis. We try to make it something they can address.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
When I started my career, we were bench-marking towards other countries who had done similar things before but now the most challenging part is that there is no point of reference, we are doing things that have never been done before.
Although you are always looking to the future at Dubai Future Foundation is there any sense in learning from the past?
The same values that have taken Dubai forward for the past 50 years are the same that will take us into the future. Sheikh Rashid (God rest his soul) had a dream for Dubai and pursued his vision. The same sense of foresight guides us forward towards both our current and future challenges.
How does all that Dubai Future Foundation affect our daily lives in 2018?
We are two years old, we are slowly trying to understand how we function in this landscape and we are starting to work with the private sector. In time, the constant efforts we are making will reveal itself to the citizens in Dubai and indeed, the rest of the world.
I’m also interested in your notion of the future. As you mentioned, many people see the future as something that leaves them feeling out of control. How do you teach people to believe that they can have an impact on the future and inspire them to act on that belief?
That is our core role at Dubai Future Foundation. Part of the future is that people will have to reskill themselves, they will have to understand that their jobs will not look the same and they will also, most likely lose their jobs. This is not a new notion, people have been reskilling themselves since the beginning. Even here in the UAE, pearl divers lost their jobs and people were blindsided by that but then new opportunities came up with the discovery of oil. The moral of this story is that we shouldn’t be blindsided by the future. Our role at the foundation is to make people believe that the future is both positive and optimistic, something that will change your life for the better.