Hold fast to your dreams, believe in the power of hope, and connect your passion with the dots on the ground, says Saeed Al Gergawi when I meet him at Dubai’s coolest workplace. The Office of the Future is a small white rectangular unit at the foot of the iconic Emirates Towers on Shaikh Zayed Road. It is the world’s first 3D-printed commercial building and has a dedicated area for workshops, an office and a classroom. Saeed is the Head of the Dubai Future Academy, and is responsible for building the knowledge hub for Dubai’s futurists.

‘It’s an ever-changing world,’ he says. ‘But as His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has said, “the future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create”. We have to be futurists to be able to imagine the world we will live in a few years from now.’

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It’s a fitting thought for 2020, which has been declared as a year of preparation for the next 50 years of the UAE.

Not fearing the unknown

Saeed started out as a student of management and psychology in the US. But his interest in science grew as he attended programmes on space, astrophysics and astronomy while studying abroad. ‘I wanted to get into management consulting. But in the US, I found my passion in science and technology. And even though it was not what I started out with, I didn’t fear the unknown. I pursued my passion,’ he says.

The Academy has four key initiatives, including Insights of the Future and Summer Programmes for school students

It was Saeed’s love for science and space that finally saw him as the mission strategist for the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM). Aptly named Hope, the mission will send the Arab world’s first probe to Mars later this year. ‘In 2014, I got a call from the EMM’s project manager, Omran Sharaf, asking if I wished to be a part of the strategic planning team that set the groundwork for the Hope Probe.’

The rest as they say is history.

‘I grew up in Dubai and I didn’t have much of a different upbringing than most other kids, but the only thing that brought me to where I am today is my passion. I followed my passion… being able to plan as to how you can do that and not being afraid of the unknown got me here today.’ Saeed’s pursuit of science opened the doors for him at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. ‘It fuelled my appetite to know more about space exploration,’ he says.

Saeed credits the Emirates Mars Mission for being the catalyst behind the nation’s Astronaut Programme, and the establishment of the UAE Space Agency. ‘Thanks to the EMM we are seeing all the development in the space sector.’

Ahead of the Hope Probe’s launch in July, a confident Saeed says, ‘It should be a smooth launch from Japan and we should be getting a picture of Mars.’ The Hope Probe is expected to enter the Red Planet’s orbit in 2021, coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of the UAE. The mission currently includes 150 engineers and researchers. Women comprise 34 per cent of the project team, the highest in the world for such a project.

Graduates from the Strategic Foresight Training Course

As a next-generation youth leader who has been part of the impactful leader’s programme at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Leadership Development in 2018, he stresses ‘Being ambitious is good but at the same time you need to have an eye for all that’s happening on ground.’

Connecting the dots

Saeed was appointed the head of the Future Academy by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, in 2017. The objective of the Academy is to make sure students, government officials and private-sector professionals in the UAE are part of the academy’s future-oriented education and training programmes that aim to increase their awareness of strategic sectors of the future. ‘We make sure our next generation is future-ready so that they can make sound decisions, plan, and formulate strategies for the future.’

The Dubai Future Academy was launched under the directives of the Prime Minister as a capacity building arm of the Dubai Future Foundation. It aims to equip leaders with skills of the future. ‘We have an unofficial Key Performance Indicator (KPI) at the Dubai Future Foundation – it’s known as the Return on Dubai or ROD. When it comes to all of our projects within the foundation, we ask ourselves how we are giving back to Dubai.’

The Dubai Future Academy has four key initiatives, the Dubai Future Experts Programme, Flagship Courses, Pioneer Series, Insights of the Future and Summer Programmes for school students.

‘The Dubai Future Experts Programme builds verified futures in various strategic fields and focuses on government employees primarily. The Flagship courses and Pioneer series includes 10 new courses. The most recent one was on AI and Good Governance. We partnered with Oxford University and discussed key issues facing policy makers, business leaders and civil society in an increasingly digital world. We looked at the use of technology in governance and decision-making and how data can be harnessed.

‘Under our pioneer series we invite pioneers in various fields to come and speak at the academy. Recently we discussed the future of food security where Mariam Al Muhairi, UAE minister of state for food security, was able to discuss her ideas and her strategy with the public and they were able to meet her and learn from her.’

Students are challenged with questions such as how they can solve water, food and energy and security issues through tools such as 3D printing and robotics

The summer programme for school students at the academy is also exciting as children are encouraged to undertake challenge-based projects, says Saeed. ‘We often challenge students with questions such as how can they solve water, food and energy and security issues (those that are of importance to the global community) through tools such as 3D printing and robotics. This allows us to test our methodologies that we then apply elsewhere.’

Saeed makes it clear that the intention is to get people talking about new technologies, about more futuristic initiatives, such as 3D printing blockchain or space exploration. ‘When people start a dialogue, and meet like-minded people, it increases their knowledge in such areas.’

When it comes to technology, the head of the Future Academy says, ‘we have an interesting point of view in this part of the world. We don’t conform to what the West or what the Far East does. We have our own unique way to not just test a lot of new technology and to bring in talent, but also to be a proving ground for the rest of the developing world.’

He cites the example of data governance here. ‘We are constantly working on the kind of infrastructure we need in the UAE to deal with the ethics of data and how we can work within specific cultural norms.’

Value of data

So, how can data be used to create a positive impact? ‘Data is now a key raw material of business, government, and society, so it’s all the more important to understand the impact of the value of data on our daily life and our businesses. For governments, and even private citizens, data is cheap, widely available, and relatively easy to access, and its use influences almost all aspects of how our society works.’

Data, he explains, is now opening up new frontiers in science and the humanities, from extending our knowledge of how the universe is built, to creating new understanding around climate change. All this suggests that data has potentially enormous value.

Saeed Al Gergawi with Dr Victoria Nash from the Oxford Internet Institute and Huda Al Hashimi from the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs

‘Dealing with the impact of data is something like discovering oil in 1968,’ he says. ‘We now need to build the capabilities and infrastructure to deal with data. Since it is easily available to the world, it forces us to be more competitive and innovative in our approach. We are now a test bed for the rest of the world – that in itself is the best position the UAE can have.’

Declaration of Digital Rights

There are challenges of using data at the moment, says Saeed. ‘We look at data ethics. For example, in the financial sector we have regulations and compliances to deal with data. But in the technology sector, we don’t have that. We need some compliance from an ethics point of view. We need to look at creating a Declaration of Digital Rights.’

In his daily interactions with school and college students, government employees, business leaders and even stay-at-home mums, Saeed observes a natural curiosity from all sections towards new technologies. The ethos of Dubai has people asking how they can set up businesses based on new technologies. ‘It’s a huge challenge for the youth to remain focused today. There is so much out there that not everyone can join in on all the conversation. So remaining focused is really important.’

Speaking of Dubai being a trading hub, Saeed says Dubai is now ‘ready to be that bridge between Africa and the rest of the world. We have always bridged the gap between west and the east. But now we see a lot of growth coming from Africa. It’s the right time for us to look in that direction.’