How Dubai is trying to predict the future

From tech to moral conundrums, two major events have taken place in the emirate this week that explore the promising, complex future of humanity

A hugging robot at day 4 of Gitex 2022. Leslie Pableo for The National
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According to Mark Beer of Asgardia, an international project that is trying to set up a space nation, environmental and health crises could eventually drive a billion people to live on Mars. It is a striking hypothesis, revealed at a striking gathering of leading future-focused thinkers at the Dubai Future Forum, which wrapped up on Wednesday.

At another site in the city this week, more than 5,000 companies from 90 countries are displaying cutting-edge innovations as part of Gitex 2022. From flying cars to delivery robots, the audience can be sure that at least some of the technologies on display will soon feature in their lives.

Some of these inventions are already close. Gitex 2022 is expected to see the first public flight of a Chinese tech firm's two-seater electric vertical take-off and landing car. Back in June, the electric aircraft company Eve Holding, owned by Brazilian plane maker Embraer, and UAE-based charter flight operator Falcon Aviation Services signed a letter of intent for up to 35 flying taxis. Deliveries are expected to start in 2026.

Many projects are in earlier stages of development, and it is fair to assume that many will not catch on. But that approach does not diminish the value of events such as Gitex 2022, nor is it a stain on the innovators who supply the prototypes and the investors that fund them. The future belongs to those who are willing to take risks to shape it, and this would not happen without the many investment bets being made today. After all, failures, even mistakes, have sparked historic success. Alexander Fleming's discovery of the first antibiotic began when he found mouldy petri dishes in his lab after returning from holiday.

It is suitable that the UAE is at the centre of exploring these ideas. The country itself is the product of embracing modern opportunities and taking risks. Now this approach is being turned into a formal strategic objective to focus the country on the future. Whether starting the Dubai Future Forum, hosting Gitex, including workers with specialist technical expertise in preferential visa programmes or Thursday's news that the Emirates will launch the Entrepreneurial Nation 2.0 initiative, which seeks to develop 8,000 small and medium enterprises and create 20 start-ups with a valuation of $1 billion and above by 2030, the country continues to invest in the opportunities present in the unknown.

It is important to stay on this course as global challenges that distract other countries mount. At the Dubai Future Forum, Amy Webb, chief executive of the Future Today Institute, spoke of what she viewed as the "now-ism virus": “From my point of view, governments, businesses and society – they’re now-ists. They’re not thinking like futurists. They’re preoccupied with the present.”

By hosting speakers such as Ms Webb and Mr Beer, the Emirates is providing a home for futurists. In recent years, the world overcame a terrible virus that forced governments to focus very much on the present. That has passed, and now it is time to immunise naysayers against this more conceptual malaise.

Published: October 14, 2022, 3:00 AM