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The Dubai Future Forum 2022:

Perspectives of the APF Emerging Fellows from Africa, Asia, and America

Written by: Seth Harrell, Steven Lichty, Asma Zainal & Ashish Manwar

The Museum of the Future
The Museum of the Future (Source: Steven Lichty)

The Dubai Future Foundation held the first annual Dubai Future Forum (DFF) at the newly completed Museum of the Future on October 11-12, 2022. It was the first global in-person futures gathering since the pandemic shutdown and advertised an attendance of 400 futurists from around the world. For the four APF Emerging Fellows who attended, this was not only our first DFF, but also the first world futures conference experience for us all. The following are the personal reflections of Seth Harrell, Steven Lichty, Asma Zainal, and Ashish Manwar. We know many readers will have also attended the Forum, so we look forward to readers contributing their thoughts and reflections as an ongoing dialogue.

Seth: The Spaces and Places

“The future is going to need a lot of bleach,” I thought while staring at a coffee stain on the white carpet in front of me in this futuristic-looking museum. Once inside, you immediately notice the stark whiteness of the space. For me, it evoked feelings of openness and calm, representing a clean slate or blank canvas just waiting to be colored by our collective imagination of what the future could be. However, the color added by this stain was the result of combining hundreds of morning coffees with entropy.

Museum of the Future Grand Entrance Hall
Museum entrance hall (Source: Seth Harrell)

The hospitality provided by DFF officials and staff made us all feel very welcome and at ease after a very long journey for many of us. Floating aerial robotic sea creatures, excellent catering, luminescent Arabic inscriptions within the ceiling and positive energy greeted us in the museum lobby which served as a wonderful space for introductions and conversations with other attendees.

The architecture of the museum is truly remarkable both inside and out. Its other-worldly appearance looks like a space shape dropped into the middle of the city, especially lit up at night. I was overtaken by the asymmetry of the museum and the fractured appearance created by the Arabic inscriptions across the exterior that functionally serve as windows allowing a tremendous amount of daylight to pass through while always partially filtering the sun much like the draped overlapping shades of an outdoor bazaar.

To those non-Arabic speakers like myself, the inscription edges create texture into the flowing arcs of the otherwise smooth exterior that has no actual edges and to me represent the smooth flowing long arc of time etched by the punctured equilibriums of human activity at small time scales.

Panel session at the DFF (Source: The National News)

The museum itself felt like a portal to future possibilities, which fit perfectly with many panel discussions that drifted towards the idea of liminal spaces, boundaries, borders, and the systems they represent. It is these places where cultures, values and technologies rub against each other, creating the nascent swirls of change which later become the vortex of the unexpected.

Steven: Analogue vs. Digital Experiences

During Covid-19, Zoom was the primary instrument of connection, where futurists adapted well and successfully leveraged the opportunities afforded by remote/online meetings. However, the chance to meet and greet in person during the DFF was one of my highlights. Due to the packed schedule, one of the best times to catch up with people was during the lunch break. Toward the second and third days of the Forum though, more attendees realized or reconnected with the value of human interaction (the analog type, not digital). After lunch, stragglers were found deep in conversation in the lobby and hallways. Many attendees realized after the first day of sessions, that the format would consist primarily of unidirectional presentations with limited opportunity for engagement with the speakers and panelists. This was unfortunate. Hopefully, when the Foundation designs the 2023 Forum they will incorporate more interactive opportunities.

One organization did take the opportunity to host a breakfast to showcase its work. Cat Tully, and her team at the School of International Futures, hosted a catered breakfast on Tuesday morning. The format was a fun, roundtable “musical chairs” of people mixing and mingling around different topics. Akin to group speed dating, it allowed many of us to engage with futurists from around the world who are working in various sectors.

SOIF session with introductory remarks by Cat Tully (Source: Steven Lichty)

It was in this setting that I got to meet two fascinating students—one only 11 years old and the other working on her PhD—thus representing a nice continuum of academic engagement with futures studies. Vrishank Sai Arnand presented his experience with the School of Humanity, an online school with an interdisciplinary curriculum and innovative learning model that is geared toward preparing future generations to be active stewards and engaged, caring global citizens. After the DFF, Vrishank and his mom reached out to me to see if I was interested in mentoring him with foresight and futures. How could I say no? Here was the perfect opportunity to invest in the next generations. Our initial conversations have revolved around his work and interest in writing a constitution for making AI more ethical. I think I can comfortably predict that Vrishank will be a rising star in the futures community in the coming years.

On the other end of the education spectrum is Clarice Garcia, a Brazilian by nationality, and now a PhD candidate in the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, where she investigates alternative futures for and through fashion. Her work aims to solve the contradiction between sustainability and fashion in a way that integrates consumers’ voices and cultural aspects into fashion futures initiatives.

Hopefully, future DFF panels can facilitate similar events and give participants a more intimate opportunity to meet amazing young futurists like Vrishank and Clarice.

Asma: A Gathering of Leading Minds
Amy Webb's keynote address of the DFF
Amy Webb's keynote address (Source: YouTube)

The Forum was indeed one of the largest futurists gatherings and one of its kind. To me, it was a chance to meet and network with great futurists along with many colleagues that I only met online. Although there were not many interactive workshops, generally the sessions were enlightening and opened new horizons of thinking. I really enjoyed Amy Webb's keynote speech about the evolution of foresight.

As an Emirati, I am always inspired to work and learn in a city that evolved into a hub for collaboration in innovation and futures thinking. The leadership of UAE has put foresight in the vines of decision making in all its government and federal organizations. Looking at the first edition of the Dubai Future Forum, I trust it will be the start of a series of successful global collaborations to foresee challenges and further understand the future of humanity.

His Excellency Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Forum concluded the event with a very

inspiring statement “This is not only the first edition of the Dubai Future Forum, it is the first significant step towards galvanizing the global community to carve out a collective and shared future. There is still so much more to be done. This forum is our way of building a legacy and creating a collaborative future together. Dubai is a new epicenter of intellectual development, and it is eager to create real change in the world.”

Ashish: Shared and Enduring Value

The DFF 2022, was reminiscent of another notable exercise in actionable imagination; a much, much smaller convening in 1959 to help shape Dubai and its future - a nine-day scan ‘and sensemaking’ exercise. Sheikh Rashid had invited a ‘young architect’ John Harris to blend the old settlement and a city to be. It is these city plans that served as Dubai’s foundation for both 'built and imagined landscapes'.

As the DFF was situated within dynamic post-covid global complexities, many of us discussed its outcomes and experimental milestones. I saw it as beyond survival and future-proofing investments, but rather collaborative aspirations to uncover enduring value, including Dubai’s renewal and its place on the table, shaping global-cosmic futures.

For me some of the Forum’s most compelling threads were redefining value and wealth, the nurturing role and scope of regulation, stewarding governance on earth and in space, imaginative collaboration and inclusion, and leading-edge examples of what really works.

Of course, new conference best practices may have emerged, particularly when you get so many futurists together. A few questions lingered such as, are we ‘futurists’, what makes us a ‘we’, the intersections of our disciplines, who and how we serve, and the evidence and ROI of our efforts. All of those meant there was shared value to be explored. An example of another privilege was the surprising and welcoming conversations between sessions. A few that stood out for me were with Sophie Howe and then John Sweeney about finding hope, preserving sanity and 'banter-ability'.

Dubai's emerging skyline 2022 (Source: Ashish Manwar)

As a quite meaningful bookend to the week, I found myself in a roomful of people –participants, not just spectators – singing along to moving songs of grief, home, and hope. These songs were mega-hits, for Iyad Rimawi is one of the most famous Arab musicians. I was intrigued by how my neighbor kept interpreting the significance of a few songs between ovations and crescendos, and made a passing comment about why we must invite others into our future. I saw this too as another thread, an exercise in practical and participatory imagination, in building momentum for shared futures.

Collective Conclusions
The museum at night (Source: Steven Lichty)

Our personal reflections show the diversity of what we imagine other attendees possibly took from the Forum. We all agree that the venue was inspirational. The level of importance the DFF gave to making this an important global futures forum was remarkable.

For the 2023 Forum, we would like to see:

more debate around provocative answers to the leading question posed in each session, more attention on impact across domains,

and curating smaller sessions where more organic networking can happen would also be ideal. Semantics matter as well, so focusing on 'futures' and not just a single 'future' would make the Forum more inclusive.

APF workshop group at the DFF (Source: APF)

Some of the Emerging Fellows 2022 with Program Director Patricia Lustig
Asma, Seth, Patricia Lustig, Steven, and Ashish (Source: Ashish Manwar)

Overall, the Forum was an important experience of validation, empowerment, and encouragement. We, as the APF Emerging Fellows, were honored to attend and meet peers from around the world–many of who have influenced our journeys. We want to thank the Dubai Future Foundation for making this a reality.

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