Geopolitics

Governments must be futurists, says Mohammad Al Gergawi

Governments must be futurists, says Mohammad Al Gergawi.

Governments must be futurists, says Mohammad Al Gergawi. Image: World Economic Forum

Klaus Schwab
Founder, Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum
Thierry Malleret
Co-Founder, Monthly Barometer
Mohammad Abdullah Al Gergawi
Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Ministry of Cabinet Affairs of the United Arab Emirates
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  • Governments must be continuously planning for a 20-50 year horizon to address the complex problems of today, says Mohammed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs, UAE.
  • Governments must nurture the very best talent and adapt to change very quickly to achieve good governance.
  • This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, a new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret.

The UAE has always been forward thinking and Mohammed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs, UAE, says this futurist approach should feature more centrally within government policymaking instead of the usual four to five years cycle.

By adopting more agile approaches and attracting the best talent just as the private sector does, governments will be able to tackle the most critical issues of our time, he argues.

The below interview with Mohammed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs, UAE, served as one of 50 inputs from global thought leaders for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that describes how we can create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future post-COVID-19.

Have you read?

    You’re the only policymaker among this group of brilliant people. During the interviews I’ve conducted so far, I’ve realized that coming up with ideas is easy while setting policy is tough. Do you concur?

    The role of government, even before policymaking, is to design – design thinking in government is very important for the future.

    Today, we live in a different era in which companies have evolved faster than governments. Today’s companies are very future-oriented, whereas, 50 years ago, the thinking of government and the private sector were similar.

    Government leaders and policymakers must think of themselves as designers of the future. The shortfall for most governments is that their time horizon is often short term: four to five years. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we’re looking to the future, planning for the next 20 to 30, even 50 years. It is not possible to solve today’s problems with a short-term view. For instance, tackling global warming should be part of a government’s 50-year plan. Governments must have long-term foresight and planning, anticipating and simultaneously solving for potential challenges, even before they occur.

    We are only in the first minute, of the first day, of the first year when it comes to modern technology. Technological progress has just begun, and we haven’t seen anything yet. In a way, we’re moving humanity, the economy, society and education to a different level, but governments still lag, while they should be at the forefront of change.

    The UAE, for example, has defined 10 principles for the next 50 years, with our economy, above all, to be our backbone.

    To build and progress in the heart of the Middle East, one of the most conflict-prone regions with complexity on social and political levels, one must design a society that will fit the future, whose core will be coexistence. The aim of our roadmap and design for the next 50 years is to move society peacefully to the future because, in [that time], the world will experience many ups and downs – pandemics, nuclear and biological risks.

    We’re not running 100-metre race, we are running a whole marathon where we will face unprecedented obstacles and barriers. Today, a cyberattack can bring down an entire healthcare system; 30 years ago, that simply wasn’t conceivable.

    The most important pillar in government is, as the word implies, governance. Governing a country in the right way means using its talent in the right way. The government’s job is to nurture talent and bring it to the forefront. In the UAE, we aim to attract the brightest and the best people to work in government and priority sectors.

    Pace of the race

    Many people would argue that the very large countries face scaling effects and complexity issues, while the countries that are currently the best at adapting to technologies are small countries or city-states, such as Singapore, the UAE, Estonia, Israel and Taiwan. Would you agree that being small is a competitive advantage?

    Being a small country has its advantages it allows scope to experiment and shift gears quickly but it is not the only factor. The essence is not how big a nation is but how fast it adopts change.

    Speed and understanding the future is very important. Every ministry needs to have a futurist. It’s also important to create a whole-of-government design. We train everyone at the top to be a designer in government. Life is all about design. Sometimes, the government forgets this and, when it does, it becomes bureaucratic and out of touch.

    Innovation in government is also crucial; currently, the gap between government and society is significant. Many countries face social unrest because the government is not in tune with the language of society or business.

    While information moves fast, governments will face bigger challenges, with social media, determining which ideas win. That is why governments must prepare for and adapt to the future, being at the forefront, not lagging.

    The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
    The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret Image: Forum Publishing

    Having interviewed 45 people, the sense is that those from outside the Western world have an “enough” attitude – they’ve had enough of the West telling them what to do and the Western model is totally ill-suited to the challenges you’ve emphasized about how to adopt technologies and the short horizon dictated by the electoral cycle.

    Would you agree that to govern in tomorrow’s world and have the long-term vision you’ve stressed, you need new models of governance? And democracies are probably not best equipped to do that because the cycle of a democracy is four to six years maximum and then it changes?

    I don’t believe there’s just one model. What matters is having principles, not necessarily the system. Countries may have different systems [worldwide]. Other systems will fit societies in various ways during different periods but there are certain principles that any government should have: one is a long-term vision, not just a short-term vision synced to election cycles.

    The second principle is that the form of government itself needs to be agile. The structure of government with ministries has existed for almost 200 years. In the UAE, we understand that knowledge has changed. Today, knowledge and the way information is evolving are tremendous. Government has to pay heed and adapt.

    Another example is education, which will change in the future because we’re getting knowledge and education differently and instantaneously from our tablet, phone, or other devices. We’re getting a much greater variety of knowledge too. We know that universities will change in the next few years, and their business model will change due to new models such as virtual, open and lifelong learning.

    Private-sector universities are working on these developments but governments are lagging behind, partly because there is a natural resistance to altering the status quo to maintain the legacy of institutions. We have to look at new ways of approaching education and I believe public opinion will accelerate the pace of change globally.

    So, the form of government is changing, as is the average age of government officials. People running multi-trillion-dollar companies, the Metas and Googles of the world, were young – in their 20s – when they started these companies. That is not the case in government.

    Government has to be younger in age and spirit.

    We tried that in the UAE – our minister of youth was 22 years old when she was appointed [because] you can’t bring in someone old to represent youth. That’s a shift in government.

    We know artificial intelligence is the future and that it will become a utility, a part of everyday life. [Unfortunately], governments are late in the game. In the UAE, we appointed the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence three years ago because it will affect every single aspect of our lives – that’s evident now.

    To build and progress in the heart of the Middle East, one of the most conflict-prone regions with complexity on social and political levels, one must design a society that will fit the future, whose core will be coexistence.

    Mohammed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs, UAE

    They know where the world is going and yet the response is slow and reactive.

    When I was in Silicon Valley, I asked my colleagues why they had accelerators in these companies. They responded that it is to generate ideas and for policy to move fast.

    Governments usually don’t have accelerators, but we created one in the Prime Minister’s Office. We give people 24 to 48 hours for certain challenges and it’s working, which shows that government needs to operate a bit differently than it has in the past. We’ve started to share our model with the world: there are government accelerators in Uzbekistan and Jordan, which means ideas from one government to another are being shared, which is what government needs more of.

    Another example is high unemployment. How do you solve it in the Middle East? One way is to teach kids coding because coding can be done from anywhere. In Chennai, India, a person can provide coding services to someone in Ontario, Canada. We teach coding to young people in the region, where we have the One Million Arab Coders initiative. Governments must now think differently and focus on future skills.

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    Government needs a futurist

    What gives you the most optimism today about the challenges we face and how they’ll be resolved?

    We’re in a new frontier for the human race. We went from discovering fire millions of years ago to the wheel that connected cities and villages a couple of thousand years ago.

    Today, we are in a new frontier with all that is happening with new technologies and that gives me hope, but that also makes me worry: how will we use these new tools as a human race? I believe that goodness will prevail and thrive and that humanity will use them in the right way. As a government, I think we’ll solve a lot of our issues through technology. An example is COVID-19: it has been challenging, without a doubt but it’s possible to use a challenging situation in a good way.

    As a government, we leapfrogged: we’ve implemented a lot of ideas we intended to apply in five years’ time because the technology evolved. We achieved it in education, for instance. We didn’t close anything down and schooling became hybrid – a combination of in-person and remote learning. We used telemedicine, which worked seamlessly and we moved 50% of our service centres online.

    We also found there were many things we didn’t do online that we could have. Currently, 80% of all our courses are online, as are over 80% of our court cases, where we’re approaching 90%. That’s money and energy saved. We saw that even during adverse conditions and difficult situations, we must adapt and be agile and use technology to serve humanity in the best possible way.

    Today a huge movement in economic literature suggests that governments must take the lead because global problems won’t be solved otherwise. Some would argue that a government’s success in terms of adopting technology is largely a function of the share of GDP allocated to research and development.

    I would assume you’d agree with that. Leaving aside issues of agility and mindset in terms of adopting technologies, would you concur that governments are in the lead in terms of R&D and need to help private companies to blossom?

    Government is in the business of unleashing potential. Our role is to unleash human potential in society. That’s what we did in the UAE. Our job is to create an environment that provides the potential for business, philanthropy and people to thrive. As far as correlating GDP to technology adoption, Estonia may be used as an example. It’s not really a rich country, but it has a particular mindset and leadership. You need someone at the top who will push the limits, open the door and design where the country is going. Not many leaders are doing that. Estonia is an excellent example. It had a vision and worked very hard to implement it. The government leadership changed, but its efforts became part of the country's DNA.

    What’s your core big idea as a person, policymaker and government official?

    Our big idea as a government is to create hope. People without hope are a major obstacle to society. Our probe to Mars was named “Hope” because we want to give hope to young people in the Middle East, that people like them can make it to Mars.

    Our job as a government is to create heaven on earth and create a better society. To design a beautiful city where people can live together requires having a vocation in life. Young people in this part of the world must believe that life is good, that they have equal opportunity to make a positive impact and leave a great legacy.

    That’s my job, that’s my motivation and where I feel most rewarded. One must have a strong calling in life. We live in the Middle East, where we must build a better future for the generations to come and develop the right model.

    At the end of the day, our job is to build the right conditions for society, design the best city and neighborhoods, be proud of what our citizens are doing and have hope for the future. A person without hope is a person without life. The youth should wake up every day with the hope that the sky is the limit, that they’ll meet great people, that they’ll work hard and achieve what they want. That is the environment government must create.

    This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that encapsulates the Davos Vision, and explores how we can shape a constructive, common narrative for the future.

    The book is on sale now on Amazon. You can order a Kindle or paperback copy in the Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au and any Amazon store around the world. It is the second instalment in The Great Reset series.What gives you the most optimism today about the challenges we face and how they’ll be resolved?

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