Unlike some academic disciplines, the study of the future, be it to predict societal trends, technologies or the weather, has never really struggled to garner popular interest. This can be as much for its failures as its successes. As the UK deals with the aftermath of one of its worst storms in recent times, many are casting their minds back to perhaps the most famous forecasting mistake in the country’s history, when weatherman Michael Fish began a segment in 1987 by telling his audience that “earlier this morning a woman rang the studio to warn that there was a hurricane on the way”. “Don’t worry, there isn’t”, he assured them. The next day, Britain experienced its worst storm in three centuries.
As Mr Fish experienced, there can never be certainty in prediction, however qualified the expert. But even though some ideas miss the mark, there can still be important substance in ones that are even only partially correct. Seeing the burgeoning success of the automotive industry in the early 19th century, futurists were convinced that personal flying transport would become the norm by the end of the 1900s. While this did not happen as quickly, in the 21st century such technology could yet emerge. Indeed, at the end of 2020, visitors to Dubai’s Gitex Technology Week were able to witness the Hyundai Uber, an air taxi that can travel at speeds up to 290kph.
Why attempt the tough endeavour of predicting the future, then? In short, doing so can offer huge strategic value. And in trying to predict the future, a country can help shape it.
For years, the UAE has made ensuring adaptability in face of technological progress and emerging trends a key part of its growth strategy, work that is largely carried out by the Dubai Future Foundation. Today, the country opens a monument to this commitment, Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has described as “the most beautiful building on Earth”.
The physical structure is indeed striking, designed to convey the promise and uncertainty of the years ahead. Its circular form represents humanity, its green foundations the Earth and a large empty space in the middle an unknown future. Calligraphy adorns all around, showing that the Arab world has an important role to play in the future, as it did in the past, being the birthplace of sciences like algebra.
The significance of the Museum of the Future to the country runs deeper than aesthetics. A key function of the museum is to educate young people in the study and understanding of the future, with a dedicated “Future Heroes” section for children, with interactive exhibitions to build “future-proof skills”. In Dubai, a global tourism hub, these ideas will be on offer to young people from around the world.
Its introductory role in promoting the study of the future runs alongside its function as a home for those that are already specialists in the field. However automated life might become in the upcoming years, highly skilled workers will still be needed to drive progress. To help foster this, research labs and academic facilities for futurists are at the heart of the building.
By combining research, education and the traditional functions of a museum, futurism will solidify its place as an important part of the UAE’s identity. Dubai has often been referred to as a city for the future. It now has a museum to match.