How should we reimagine government for the 21st century? The UAE offers clues

The Cop28 presidency's 'dual approach' could be a template for effective governance around the world

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology, speaks at the World Government Summit in Dubai last month. Pawan Singh / The National
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Next week’s World Economic Forum is the first opportunity for the global community to gather and build on the hard-won UAE Consensus. Beyond the ambitious political agreement established at Cop28, there are two particular ways the UAE’s approach reflected a step change in the thought leadership required to drive meaningful international change.

The first was recognising the value and synergy in building partnerships between business, the state and other stakeholders in addressing the most critical of problems. At the heart of this was the inaugural Business and Philanthropy Forum, which provided the first dedicated platform to include the private and the civic sectors in the Cop process. The two-day summit brought together the vision and resources of those outside government. It resulted in the pledge of new and significant private money and the launch of fresh initiatives backed by the ingenuity of business.

The second innovation at the heart of the UAE’s Cop agenda is the transformative role of artificial intelligence, which is also one of the four thematic priorities at this year’s Davos. As Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and Cop28 President, described it during his speech at the World Government Summit last February, “artificial intelligence is a critical success factor in the way forward” as we seek “to transform entire industrial systems that still rely and run on the energies of the first Industrial Revolution”.

The UAE has long recognised and responded to the paradigm shift that is taking place globally. Today it has established itself as a burgeoning AI superpower, but it has also identified that this new era of change will catalyse the capabilities and opportunities for government through partnership with business.

The Cop presidency brought this dual approach to the global stage, which will have a legacy that will live long in the Cop process. It is to be hoped that future conferences, starting in Azerbaijan in November, will follow their lead and pivot towards a future where we are empowered to solve problems in new ways by technology’s rapid and transformative power through partnerships between the public and private sectors.

Understanding the possibilities of what technology can enable for the state will be increasingly critical for effective strategy, policy, and delivery in the 21st century

This approach, for which Davos will act as a key forum for the continued dialogue and implementation, fuses together innovation and partnership, is applicable across all parts of government, and they are two of the key elements of what we at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change refer to as the Reimagined State.

What is clear to see is that the technological revolution is the single biggest force driving deep structural changes in the world today. The beating heart of that revolution is the rapid advancements being made in AI, driven by the creativity of the private sector. We should be under no illusion of its unfolding impact. The world is on the cusp of a new era of unprecedented and transformative change, which will redefine how we live and work.

Against this backdrop, governments need to reimagine the role of the state and its relationship with its citizens, embracing innovation as a tool that enables smarter governments that better serve their citizens.

Governments worldwide are no strangers to change; it is a constant aspect of governance. However, the pace and scale of change over the next few decades will be orders of magnitude greater than humanity has previously lived through. Rather than clinging to outdated models and dogmas, those who build agile and adaptive systems will thrive in an ever-evolving global landscape.

Understanding the possibilities of what technology can enable for the state will be increasingly critical for effective strategy, policy and delivery in the 21st century. The key to this approach is rethinking technology as a fundamental driver of change and governance, rather than an afterthought. Governments with innovation at their core will prosper. They will develop public services that reshape their citizens’ quality of life and foster an environment for the discovery and development of radical solutions to intractable problems, at both local and global levels. They will redefine the role of government from service provider to enabler and facilitator.

The advantages of this approach for citizens are clear. Here in the UAE, the Reimagined State is already in the works. By last September, the digitisation rate of government services in Dubai had already reached 99.5 per cent, surpassing advanced OECD economies such as the US, UK, Canada and Japan.

This translates into practical benefits: the UAE Ministry of Finance, for example, leverages AI to automate data extraction and utilises generative AI to produce immediate responses when citizens are registering for services or submitting inquiries. This creates a faster, smarter service that saves time for the citizens and optimises the state’s capabilities. Flagships of the UAE’s thought leadership, world-first MBZUAI has begun developing solutions for malaria, while private company AI71 is commercialising the UAE’s leading large-language model, Falcon, to deliver economic and social value in domains as broad as health, law and education.

The risk globally is that governments move too slowly and are unable to keep up with this coming wave of technology. It is rare for true technological innovation to come from within government. The private sector, with its greater tolerance to risk, is more able to invest in the necessary research and development.

This presents a challenge for governments who face the prospect of becoming “clients” of the innovators rather than partners in the global race.

Those who take the “client” approach will see this simply as a technological upgrade, where products are bought off the shelf like government IT systems have been developed in the past. These governments will find it more challenging to serve their citizens and compete globally. The “partnership” approach, which we advocate for as part of the Reimagined State, has a substantial societal impact. It promises a future where government and private sector collaborate to deliver better health care, enhanced government services, a stronger and more innovative economy, and improved education, leading to better jobs and improved quality of life.

To deliver this transformation, governments need not only strong digital infrastructure and new policies but also a shift in mindset, with multi-decade decisions being made. This approach will enable us to work together to turn our vision of the future from something that resembles science fiction into a new reality.

Published: January 11, 2024, 7:00 AM