Analogue leadership in a digital world

On my way back to London in May I decided to stop in via Dubai to catch up with Intersticia Fellow Osheen Arora.  Having some time to spare I popped in to visit the Museum of the Future.

Dubbed the most beautiful building in the world by its creators the building seeks

to confidently straddle the past and the future, applying advanced technology to traditional artforms. The building ‘speaks Arabic’: its facade is a canvas for the poetry of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum rendered in the calligraphy of Mattar bin Lahej.

It’s form is ‘futuristic’ and stands in stark contrast to the Dubai skyline with it’s geometric towers and multi lane highways.  It aims

to provide light in dark times: in an age of anxiety and cynicism about the future, we are showing that things can and must progress.  Our imagined futures are fundamentally hopeful, but honest about the dangers of the present.

These are noble aims and as I wandered around the pristine and beautifully presented immersive experience I was reminded of conversations that we had had with the young people who came to our Future Worlds Challenge Brave Conversations in Sharjah in September 2022.

One of the exercises we did with these young people was to ask them about Science Fiction and the role it had played in their lives. The response was that, apart from the relatively modern content available to most young people in the digital age, the main stories they had heard were those of fantasy such as The Arabian Nights and Sinbad.  According to this observer the genre of Science Fiction is Arabic cultures is relatively new and is linked to the post-colonial era and particularly the English language.  Arabic cultures have a long heritage of curiosity and knowledge building which can be experienced in a visit to the House of Wisdom in Sharjah, but it seems that true Science Fiction (based on science and technology and depicting scenarios that could be true one day) is relatively recent.  As with Chinese Science Fiction the integration of translations of western science sparked an interest in the ideas explored but this came in waves as local cultures adapted to their own changes and moves to become increasingly industrialised.

The House of Wisdom, Sharjah

As a child Science Fiction stories and both British and American television shows and movies were all around me and I grew up on a cultural diet of Lost in Space, My Favourite Martian, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Dr Who, Thunderbirds, Superman, and anything else I was able to watch.  I would be glued to the television as I came home from school and had afternoon tea, and if I was allowed at any other time.  I read Azimov, H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, William Gibson, Douglas Adams, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, Philip K. Dick and later Cixin Liu from cover to cover.

What I have found as I’ve run our Brave Conversations workshops over the years is that this upbringing is not common, but I believe that the thinking processes around this type of storytelling and imagination are now crucial to how we face the rapid socio-technical developments which are all around us.

In this interview historian Yuval Noah Harari describes his thoughts on the importance of Science Fiction:

It shapes the understanding of the public on things … which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.

This is the essence of what I senses at the Museum of the Future, a desire and ambition to educate and demonstrate new ways of thinking about the future from a non-Western point of view.  As I wandered around there was nothing particularly outstanding or mind-blowing in the exhibitions themselves, but what was new and different for me was a fresh approach to technological development coming from the perspective of a young developing nation.

Dubai’s history is fascinating.  Not that long ago it was a fishing and pearling village on Dubai Creek which developed into a major shipping port. In 1966 everything changed with the discovery of oil and over the past fifty years Dubai has undergone nothing less than a radical transformation of which the Emirati are, and should be, rightly proud.

In the Museum of the Future a vision is presented of the world in 2071 largely based around Hope.  From the extraplanetary sky-lift taking visitors to the orbiting Space Station O.S.S. Hope; the Lunar Equatorial Solar Belt providing shared energy back to the Earth; the HEAL Institute with a Digital Amazon and DNA Library; the Alwaha Wellness Centre, finishing in Tomorrow Today, the visitor experience around the Museum is one of hope in the power of human ingenuity to increasingly understand and manage our planetary environment and beyond.

I sensed a freshness about how everything is presented as the Emirati culture experiences the transition of Science Fiction in to Science Fact.  But I also felt a certain naivety and almost childlike approach, something positive and expansionary with a limitless zeal for new bright shiny things.  This made me conscious of my own biases and cultural conditioning which is much more suspicious and hesitant, rehearsing scenarios in my mind about what could go wrong instead of working towards what could go right.

The breadth of the ambitions of people in this part of the world are staggering as can be evidenced by the Saudi Arabian led NEOM, (Neo-Mustaqbal – New Future) an entirely new model for sustainable living, innovation and advanced manufacturing and eco tourism.  Whilst NEOM has its own share of challenges there is something about the sheer audacity of the project which echoes something of the courage that drove other great construction projects throughout history or the Moon landings more recently.

The Museum of the Future is a bold statement by the Emirati government that they are thinking long term and want to be a player in the modern world we are all co-creating.  This just doesn’t come from throwing money at things and hoping for the best; it is something that evolves through taking responsible steps building on each previous one and understanding the deeply intertwingled relationship between technical tools, social systems and human nature.

I am very excited by the emergence of these different and diverse ways of seeing, alternative ways of working and fresh approaches to the challenges of being human as we co-evolve with socio-technologies.  We need these diverse approaches and different ways of thinking.

I just hope that non-Western cultures don’t feel that they have to copy and emulate what we in the West have done to succeed.  We need to learn from them as much as the other way around, the world we are building is for all of humanity not just those of us who happen to live in the more developed parts of the planet which have so successfully exploited natural resources for our own benefit.

The way forward is together celebrating the richness of human cultures and the hope that together we can create something positive for future generations.