UAE exhibition offers a brief history of the future

Imagine a world in which oil, water and other precious resources are running out. Eco Future, the new exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat does just that.

Text and films are used as well as games to highlight the eco-friendly message.
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Since the gallery space at Manarat Al Saadiyat opened in 2010, it has played host to a wide range of temporary exhibits, from Paleolithic tools, Egyptian mummies and cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumer to a goat stuffed by Robert Rauschenberg, sculpture by Richard Serra and paintings by Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. In short, the stuff of the past.

As the name of the latest exhibition to open here suggests, Eco Future promises something very different. Not only does it offer a glimpse into the environmental challenges we are likely to face in the not too distant future, it is also interactive and consciously seeks to change the mindset of the people who interact with it.

As visitors queue for tickets, they will be greeted by the sight of four Emirati children - Yas, Moza, Ali and Sara - who stand surrounded by towers in a crude cityscape made from recycled cardboard, water bottles and balls of string.

Characters from an imagined future where "it's hard to find fresh water, oil and gas" and where "some of the stuff you all love isn't around any more", each is an avatar with its own personality, waiting to guide children and their families through the often complex themes and issues raised by this many-layered exhibition.

Dressed in a hamdanniyya and kandura, Yas is a thoughtful boy who believes in looking to tradition before chasing after new technology, but this doesn't stop him from riding his quad bike.

Moza is very enthusiastic, sports a shayla and abaya, and will always look for an answer in science and new technology, while Sara is an effective listener who believes in the power of community and good relationships to solve problems.

Finally, Ali believes in taking action to conserve nature and isn't afraid to argue his case, something that becomes all too apparent in the exhibition's first room, when the characters argue about how best to introduce the exhibit.

The patter is fast-paced and serious when it needs to be, irreverent when it doesn't - something that sets the tone for the rest of the show.

Given that Eco Future includes interactive games, objects, film and text, and that it addresses six key environmental issues including water and food security, healthy living, climate change, sustainable transport and urbanism, the characters act as a useful and very necessary framing device.

Not only do they act as guides and prompts that help visitors to discover new sources of water and energy, and to design high-tech food, vehicles, and homes, they also ask questions that encourage visitors to reflect on each of the decisions they make as they progress through the show. Decisions such as, do you want to grow the food for your community on a farm, in a factory, or in a laboratory? Will you use fossil fuels, hydrogen cells or nuclear energy? Will your home be high-rise, subterranean, floating or stand-alone?

The outcomes of these decisions are then recorded on an 'Eco Tag Card' that is swiped at the beginning and end of every game, decisions that directly affect the eventual 'virtual neighbourhood' each visitor creates. If some of these questions sound banal, simplistic even, it is important to remember that Eco Future is aimed primarily at children aged seven to 12. Most of the games use buttons and touch screens but they vary in terms of their complexity, with some being little more than driving games while others require the visitor to make a whole series of logical decisions, particularly when growing food or designing future transport.

In the 'drinking' zone, younger visitors learn about the rapidly decreasing stock of water held in Abu Dhabi's underground aquifers and the threat to local fish species, while chasing digital fish projected on the floor. The fish respond to bouncing feet and grasping hands by darting quickly away.

Elsewhere, on a digital table-top game, players have to synchronise their movements with a virtual dripping tap to catch falling drops of water.

There are about 15 interactive games in the exhibition. At the end of the exhibit, visitors go into a tunnel to swipe their Eco Tag Card and view their very own neighbourhood on a flatscreen TV.

The character who most wants to live in the world you have created introduces you to its features, while another gives you a critique of its shortfalls

The atmosphere as you move through each of the exhibition's six zones is a cross between a nightclub and a games arcade, with exploding pools of light, strips of neon, projections and competing audio-visual effects.

This cacophony is exacerbated by the sound of interviews with experts from the many agencies that contributed to the show, and it is impressive that so many individuals and government bodies have collaborated and been coordinated in this way.

In designing Eco Future, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority spent 10 months working with representatives from Masdar, Abu Dhabi Education Council, the Urban Planning Council, Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, the Emirates Wildlife Society, Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, and the Tourism and Investment Company to provide the exhibition content. As such, the show is as much of a snapshot of Abu Dhabi's current generation of young Emirati professionals as it is of any projected future.

In addition to the games and the talking heads, each of the six sections in Eco Future contains a selection of commercially available products and inventions, such as indoor chicken coups, solar stoves, home composting kits and clothes made from recycled materials that have no doubt been chosen to show how technology can be used to solve environmental problems in innovative ways.

If this is the case, then it's a pity that in an exhibition so closely tied to Abu Dhabi's future that so many of these items seem designed to solve problems more commonly encountered elsewhere.

Of all the temporary exhibitions to have been held at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Eco Future is the one that sits most comfortably with the gallery's permanent show, the Saadiyat Story. However, whereas the architectural models next door present the visitor with a rather glamorously imagined fait accompli, the virtual communities produced by the visitors to Eco Future are perhaps more realistic; they show how the future is always a work in progress.

Eco Future introduces the problems that Abu Dhabi faces in the broadest terms without any attempt to convey their immediacy and grave seriousness.

But this exhibition is probably not the appropriate forum - nor the audience - in which to entertain such prophecies of doom.

The harsh and complex business of adapting behaviour and the city as it exists today - rather than having the luxury of starting again with the wisdom of hindsight - is something that Abu Dhabi's current crop of grown-ups have to confront.

If events such as Eco Future are to succeed in their efforts to foster a change in behaviours then perhaps it is more appropriate to leave the last word to the next generation, the one to whom Eco Future is actually speaking.

As Ali, the exhibition's "argumentative" guide says: "Remember the future is not set. We can all do things to shape it and make it better. What are you going to do today to make the tomorrow you want? Remember, you have the power to shape tomorrow. Yallah!"

Eco Future: our planet, your choice opens tomorrow and runs until September 2013.

The exhibit is open daily from 10am to 8pm. Adult tickets cost Dh30, with Dh25 entry for children under 15.

For more details, click here.