Making the impossible possible
The UAE's agile policymaking allows it to do the impossible
This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the UAE's Minister of State for Government Development and The Future, Ohood Khalfan Al Roumi, announced the launch of a new Future Possibilities Index, in collaboration with Newsweek Vantage (Newsweek's research partnership with New York-based Vantage Research) and Geneva-based Horizon Group. The United Arab Emirates government hopes that the new index will help to identify future economic opportunities, studying market value, country readiness, policy envrionments, available talent and business readiness.
It is an undeniably good public relations stunt, which elegantly highlights the UAE's play to become a global hub for industries of the future. The UAE is exhibiting at Davos under the slogan of 'Impossible is Possible' and has been involved in various forum sessions over the past week.
However, there is much more to the UAE's future economy strategy than the slick positioning and good PR, or even daring ambition. In recent years the government has changed the way it creates new policy, embracing agile policymaking and accelerating the process to better align policy with emerging industries.
Government economic and regulatory policy have come under intense pressure over the past decade, as the speed of technology innovation has accelerated. In the words of the former director of the UK Space Agency Alice Bunn, speaking at a WEF Global Future Council meeting in Dubai a few years ago, "the pace of innovation absolutely outstrips government's ability to move forwards with guidelines that are appropriate for the technology of the day". The rise of 'artificial intelligence' ensures that this pace is unlikely to slowdown. In fact, it's difficult to predict just how fast it will get.
Among other things, the AI-powered chat bot threatens to disrupt the world's education system almost overnight. High school, college and university grading is heavily dependent on essays, reports and theses. Hours or even weeks of work can now, arguably, be completed in a matter of minutes with the help of ChatGPT (and sometimes with very little knowledge of the subject being required by the user). The full ramifications of this are still being debated by academics, insitutions and ministries of education, but one thing is for sure: there's no turning back the clock.
The UAE leadership, and the leaders of its different emirates, have earned reputations for taking bold decisions and accepting higher levels of risk than counterparts in other countries. Being proven more often right than wrong, has made the country's economy what it is today. Now, the UAE has turned its knack for spotting new opportunities and leapfrogging the competition into its long term strategy.
However, as the lag between announcing strategic economic initiatives and implementation has narrowed, the full scale of the policymaking challenge ahead has come into view. Embracing the uncertainty of new industries is one thing, but if those industries require government policies and regulations to operate, then very little can happen until the detail is developed and becomes law.
To meet the challenge, the government has turned to 'design-thinking', attempted to make each government department a centre for innovation and shared best practices created by niche innovation programmes with other arms of government. New technology policy initiatives have served the UAE well over the years and helped prepare it to become a leader in agile policymaking. Here are a few recent examples:
Having already identified blockchain technology as a huge opportunity, but lacking the use cases and examples to develop a clear strategy, Dubai gathered industry leaders and policymakers to create the Global Blockchain Council in 2016 (under the Dubai Future Foundation). The initiative helped shape the Dubai Blockchain Strategy (2017) and the first Emirates Blockchain Strategy announced in 2021.
Meanwhile, the UAE became one of the first countries to commit to a national artificial intelligence strategy in 2017 and the first to create a dedicated cabinet position for AI, when it appointed Omar Sultan Al Olama as Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence. What followed was an intense effort to build support among government stakeholders, implement the AI strategy, research future needs and create new programs and define new policy. Today, the UAE has a broad range of programs to support its AI strategy, that work both from the ground up and from the top down.
In 2019, in recognition of the critical importance of new digital and technology policy, the UAE created RegLab in partnership with Dubai Future Foundation. RegLab works closely with regulators, government and industry to co-create and align legislation with the speed of innovation. The lab not only looks at frameworks to make regulation more agile, but also how to leverage technologies in the process.
Over the past 18 months the UAE has not only brought about widespread change across a wide range of government policy, but at a speed that is simply unimaginable for most countries. Highlights include the UAE Net Zero 2050 strategy, the biggest reform of UAE law since the country was founded, new labour laws, new visa regulation, a new virtual asset law, and a national change to the Western working week.
However, even with the most agile policymaking of our day, choosing where to focus and what will create the biggest economic, environmental or social impact with more certainty is obviously critical to national success. Governments must not only create robust and future-proofed policy in a flash, but must also have a crystal ball to spot which future opportunities will be the biggest or fastest growing.
This week's launch of the Future Possibilities Index follows the work done on the joint UAE-United Nations Future Possibilities Report of 2020. Inspired by the UAE leadership's drive to identify and embrace future industries and the shortcomings of economic models laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 report identified the core national capabilities that are required to navigate future development.
The new Future Possibilities Index provides the global community with a clear sign showing where the Emirates is headed. The UAE aims to be the first to identify and assess the upcoming opportunities that will make the biggest economic impact, and then develop proactive policy and regulation at speed, in order to seize these new opportunities in advance of its competitors. And that's how it's making the impossible, possible.
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