Designing Dubai’s Futures

Fusing design and foresight to prototype new national futures.

A new citywide wireless energy system. Nanoscale health maintenance devices in the bloodstream. A connected transnational network of Hyperloops. Remote implant monitoring for early warning of distress. Intelligent desks that guide and respond to personalized learning.

These were just some of the concepts that came to life at the end of the inaugural Future Design Diploma program which kicked off the Dubai Future Academy, a new educational and capacity-building venture from the Dubai Future Foundation that’s being built in the heart of the United Arab Emirates—conceptually, as well as geographically.

The Office of the Future in the heart of Dubai, home base for our first session.

Changeist is one of a handful of partners designing, and delivering one-of-a-kind educational experiences intended to equip new generations of Emirati professionals from the government and government entities, to envision, design, equip, and deliver preferred futures for the UAE, its citizens, and the broader Gulf region. With programs developed by our Amsterdam neighbors THNK, as well as MIT and Emeritus, the Academy platform will eventually extend to broader executive education and Master’s programs.

These preferred futures are not only technological, but social, economic, and environmental. This scope was illustrated by the most recent Museum of the Future which featured at the 2017 World Government Summit, itself a vision of reimagined climate change, which looks at new ways to manage cities, green the desert, and grapple with diminishing water resources.

Participants build initial scenarios from a collaborative timeline.

Like the groundwork laid by the previous years’ experiences within the Museum, rather than looking at technological innovation in a vacuum, the Future Design curriculum embeds innovation within wider human and environmental contexts, and explores potential future impacts and implications through broader systems perspectives.

Working with the Foundation and Academy team for more than a year, Changeist conceived the Future Design program to give participants an essential, coherent, applied set of foresight tools and approaches, which participants can leverage both day-to-day and in wider strategic work. It is also structured to help them find new lenses through which to see these futures in relation to their work, and the means to communicate them through provocative experiential prototypes.

Members of the Education Team imagine ways to visualize personalized learning pathways.

Consisting of both a one-day introductory course and a two-week studio-based intensive, we set up the Future Design module in a way that allows participants to get a taste of what’s possible in a single session, or use the studio setting to go deeper. In the longer session participants experiment with design-centric uses of futures tools and methods, learn and apply research techniques for trends and signals, structure compelling scenarios, and create and deliver their own tangible concepts for Dubai’s possible futures. They also get to hear from experts in applied foresight and experiential futures from government, design, and policy research, (thanks to John Sweeney, Jaakko Kuosmanen, and Richard Sandford for sharing knowledge through their guest talks in the first session) offering a chance to learn from experts already using these approaches in their own practices around the world.

Participants are able to combine their own knowledge and experience gained in their sector—such as education, space, health, built environment, security, transport, or communications, for example—with grounded horizon scanning, as well as their own sense-making, informed speculation and observational research as future design teams. The last three days of the two-week program—what we call the Development Lab—put them in a creation and delivery role, working with skilled designers and producers who support their creation of a final project. For our first session, these ranged from short videos to scale models to a walk-up clinic experience.

A participant preps his team’s experience for the final project day

From an instructional as well as personal perspective, we were made to feel extremely welcome by both our hosts, students and support staff, with attention to detail in a customized classroom and outdoor studio space (thanks to mild winter weather), and in materials for the participants. My guest instructor for this first session, futurist and science fiction writer Madeline Ashby and I had a memorable launch session, from prep meetings to official visits to a final “family” meal with the full team.

From many angles, the experience of working with the first cohort of the Future Design program has been as much about learning as about teaching. Since arriving back in Amsterdam and Toronto respectively, we have been compiling and comparing notes to plan the follow up classes. It‘s been valuable to reflect on where the two-week session stretched our own practices and comfort zones, as well as those of our students, and look at where we can have a greater impact going forward.

The security team meets to design their experience presentation.

Every society sees plausible, preferable and possible differently, and defines preferable based on different values—deeply cultural as well as contemporary. There are unique challenges to discussing and framing futures in a setting where massive new building projects emerge from the desert almost overnight, infrastructure and services seen elsewhere as aspirational, get tested and deployed in reality, yet existential risks of climate change and global instability loom. Future timelines are compressed, distant horizons come rushing at you, and the givens one can assume are different when clear markers of progress are frequently placed ahead in major market sectors. The task then, is to balance what’s planned with substantial external uncertainties in a turbulent world, as well as the implications of internal change in a country that has gone from a trading outpost to global hub in less than one adult lifetime.

The Health Team prep scenario storyboards.

Being housed for our initial course in the first 3D printed office building in the world, the Office of the Future, helped create a future-facing atmosphere for us. We were keenly aware though, that the challenges we strive to equip the students to face are not just structural, but societal as well. The building itself is a prototype—an in situ proof-of-concept of how to change accepted practices around urban development, one that you can walk up to, experience, and improve on, an iterative future. We looked at it as a way to consider desirable futures—do the prototypes we create project a vision, provide a measurable improvement, or simply manifest an aesthetic?

Demonstrating future nanomedicine tools at a speculative public clinic.

Unlike many public sector settings where, if it exists at all, foresight often is embedded deep within obscured departmental structures, unseen by the public, or isolated as islands within a sea of reactive “nowism,” Dubai is putting applied futures in a front-line role, with the expectation that what is envisioned can be stress-tested, built, and assessed for value for individual citizens, nation, region, and, increasingly, the wider world. Fortunately, our work is made easier by the impact made by the community of future design practitioners invited to Dubai to help spread these skills and experiences, including great folks like Superflux, and Tellart, the latter supporting project development in our first session just finished.

The Transport Team clears safety scans to board Timelapse, a fictional Hyperloop network.

The challenge for us, and for the participants we work with, is to mix both vision and realism, to recognize what’s desired but also what’s actual, and find a way to use both—not to design a display of utopias—but to lay groundwork that delivers on the desire to improve wellbeing and envision improved futures for all in the region, whether through energy transition, better education, more valuable public services, greater safety, clean water, or in other critical aspects of life in the UAE and beyond.

We’re looking forward to kicking off the next session of the Future Design program in just a few weeks, inviting new collaborators to join us with the next group of students. Watch this space for updates from the field, and follow the experience via Twitter or Instagram, or find out more about what we do at changeist.com or howtofuture.com.


If you are an Emirati citizen working in government or for a government entity (the program is currently only open to these groups) and are interested in this course or others offered by the Dubai Future Academy, check here for information on joining one of the next sessions. Follow them on Twitter.


Deep thanks to the staff of the Dubai Future Academy and Dubai Future Foundation, including Dr. Noah Raford, Jessica Bland, and Maha Al Mezaina, for gracious support pre-arrival and on the ground, and in making this program a reality. Thanks to Susan Cox-Smith and Madeline Ashby for their contributions on this piece.