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Why think about the future? The future is the time that is to come. We are experiencing visible changes in our lifetime and existential threats from climate change, pandemics, geopolitical instabilities, or technological paradigm shifts not always serving the public good. Long-term thinking can prepare us for a future that is rapidly changing in unpredictable ways; future thinking also offers us and future generations a way to mitigate these challenges and be more prepared for them and create opportunities for positive action. 

There are many notable organisations working on future studies – such as the UNFCCC Resilience Frontiers Initiative led by Dr Youssef Nassef, Director of the Adaptation Division.  Others, such as The University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, are dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisational collapse, such as biological and global environmental risks, or risks arising from artificial intelligence.

The Global Risks Report 2022 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) states that global risk perception highlights societal and environmental concerns and perceived societal risks – in the form of “social cohesion erosion”, “livelihood crises” and “mental health deterioration”- as those that have worsened the most since the pandemic began.  There is a role for cultural cohesion in these social dilemmas prompted by pandemics, when restoring a sense of balance in #BuildBackBetter recovery.

The Global Risks Report 2022 identifies the following as the most severe risks on a global scale over the next 10 years:

Climate action failureExtreme weatherBiodiversity loss Social cohesion erosionLivelihood crisesInfectious diseasesHuman environmental damageNatural resource crisesDebt crisesGeoeconomic confrontation

Future thinking also offers opportunities for re-directing our actions and engaging with a new technological paradigm shift, changes to lifestyle, and diets closer to nature and to self-sustainable models. 

UNESCO describes Futures Literacy as an essential competency for the 21st century. This is, in essence, a universally accessible skill that builds on the innate human capacity to imagine the future, and offers a clear, field-tested solution to poverty-of-the-imagination. Futures Literacy is the capability, and is always co-created, leading to the discovery of new ideas, innovation, choices, leadership, new strategies, and resilience. 

Climate Change Risks for the MENA Region

Climate change risks in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are naturally different to those in Alaska or in a temperate zone, or continental regions of Europe. In a desert climate zone, climate change is manifesting itself through desertification and reduced human ability to survive.  Drylands take up 41.3% of the land surface. The livelihoods of more than 1 billion people in some 100 countries are threatened by desertification. Nearly 1 billion of the poorest and most marginalized people, who live in the most vulnerable areas, may be the most severely affected by desertification. Desertification is also associated with water availability or scarcity. Today, water scarcity affects between 1-2 billion people, most of them in the drylands. Under the climate change scenario, nearly half of the world’s population in 2030 will be living in areas of high-water stress. In some arid and semi-arid areas, it will displace between 24 million and 700 million people. Currently, the MENA region is reported to be the most water scarce region in the world. Out of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, 11 are in the MENA region. Seeking innovative solutions for agriculture in the context of water scarcity is, and will be, a critical MENA region driver.

According to The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), humanity needs productive land. Yet desertification, and the mounting losses of productive land driven by human action and climate change have the potential to change the way billions of people will live, both now and later in this century.​ The warming global climate means desertification poses a challenge across the world, especially in existing drylands. 

People living in already degraded or desertified areas are increasingly negatively affected by climate change.​ Desertification aggravates existing economic, social, and environmental problems like poverty, poor health, lack of food security, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, forced migration, and lowered resilience to climate change or natural disasters.​

According to the World Bank, the United Arab Emirates has less than 1% of arable land, and the few ways we can restore it is through date palm oasis ecosystems.  These ecosystems are playing a pivotal role in the fight against climate change, offering microclimates, CO2 absorption, and historically abundant biodiversity, as up to 60 species have been cultivated within the oasis ecosystem, including fruit trees like banana and mango, citruses, as well as vegetables and wheat. One date palm tree can absorb around 200 kilogram of CO² per year. It is important to emphasise the pivotal role of date palm oasis ecosystems in climate change and desertification in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and in the MENA region. 

The IPCCC AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis Report states that the MENA region is prone to an 8ºC increase of temperatures in comparison to the Paris Agreement recommendations of: holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.

It means that without extensive restoration of oasis ecosystems and degraded land, liveability in the region might be nearly impossible. Oasis ecosystems also offer an unequivocal nature-based remedy for the multitude of environmental and socio-political challenges which the region is facing.

The technological dilemma We live in an era of rapid technological change, defined in 2016 by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Professor Schwab believes that this new technological revolution entails nothing less than a transformation of humankind. We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. We have yet to fully grasp the speed and breadth of this revolution, considering wide-ranging fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), etc. Many of these technologies have an impact across the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

Technological evolution in materials science is also unprecedented. In the mainstream construction sector, we can talk about the evolution of concrete, steel structures, and timber. However, one of the biggest challenges facing vernacular traditional technologies is their lack of adaptation and technological evolution, as some of these technologies did not evolve over time, which often led to their extinction. Research and development, and innovation play a pivotal role in their technology transfer process, including date palm technologies. 

It is a balancing act to find out where technology will not replace nature-based solutions to combat desertification, and where and how these could be applied wisely. 

The climate change movement recognises Technology Development and Transfer in Article 10 of the Paris Agreement, and there is also a role for adaptation (Article 7) of traditional knowledge:  

Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate. (Article 7.5 of the Paris Agreement) 

Frontier technologies, on the one hand raise concerns and even pose an existential threat, for example, the uncontrolled use of artificial intelligence. On the other hand, it is only through engagement with some of these technologies that we will be able to get a full understanding of how they can best be used for the benefit of humanity. Therefore, the future, and the evolution of endogenous and indigenous technologies will also depend on their engagement with frontier technologies.

Creating healthier habitats

Since making its entry onto the world stage, COVID-19 has dramatically torn up the script of how we govern countries, live with each other, and take part in the global economy. It is still difficult to comprehend how the novel coronavirus caused so much disruption and suffering, and what changes are needed to create a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable world.

Almost 90% of COVID-19 cases were reported in cities and at the neighbourhood, community, and individual levels, indicating that we need to revisit our relationship with nature and become more self-sustainable in preparation for future pandemics, and care more about our mental health. One could argue that the historic synergy that people and cities had with date palm oasis ecosystems, the existence of more green places in cities or around cities, and crafts practised jointly by the communities show us possible examples of how to build local resilience for future pandemics.We are now at a crossroads. One path will take us to a better world: more inclusive, more equitable, and more respectful of Mother Nature. The other will take us to a world that resembles the one we just left behind – but worse and constantly dogged by nasty surprises. We must therefore get it right. Our capacity to reset could also be greater than we had previously dared to hope. Adaptation of traditional desert cities, whereby oasis ecosystems co-existed with urban ecosystems could offer a healing and protective environment for human health and well-being.  

Cultural evolution

Regional futures concept relates not only to recognition of different geography, but also cultures. There are no ready answers on why and how cultures disappear.  Maybe it’s because the human race is so diverse, and the mechanisms of economics vary so considerably within each culture. It may also be that if a culture is uprooted from its context, then the process of disappearing begins. The first context of any culture is formed by the climate and the land, and the second is by basic human needs such as shelter and food. According to 21st-century theories on cultural definitions, human intelligence is equal within all societies whether indigenous or urbanised.

Culture  From the Latin cultura meaning ‘to cultivate’.

Definitions of culture:

Culture – the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

Oxford English Dictionary

Culture – Set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs. 

UNESCO

Culture – is more than what is inherited from the past. Culture is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality. It therefore must be included as we reimagine the relationship between humans and the environment. 

Laudato Si’ 

Anthropologists recognized that there are:

Cultural boundaries – such as they are, are typically porous, permeable, and plural. Cultures are externally affected via contact between societies, which may also produce—or inhibit—social shifts and changes in cultural practices.

We see different cultural influences across the Gulf region and North Africa, which often coexist. 

The dominions of globalization and westernisation has been damaging overall for indigenous cultures, and a dialogue needs to take place on how indigenous culture can evolve. 

Cultural evolution and knowledge transfer

Cultural evolution – is an evolutionary theory of social change. It follows from the definition of culture as “information capable of affecting individuals’ behaviour that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation and other forms of social transmission”. Cultural evolution is the change of this information over time.

In the context of adaptation of traditional knowledge, or crafts requiring contemporary actualisation, the concept of stylistic evolution is pivotal. We can observe this stylistic evolution in dress codes, car designs, or mobile phone designs. It has not transpired in the built environment yet and transformations are taking place in a fragmented way. Cultural evolution of ‘one ecosystem’ thinking, connecting territories across desert, agricultural and urban typologies could indeed bring transformative changes at scale. 

Knowledge transfer – The development of culture depends upon humans’ capacity to learn and transmit knowledge to succeeding generations

In the MENA region, societies still live with tribal values. Knowledge transfer whether within a tribal society or from western scientists to the local people and other way around can only succeed if indigenous values are put into practice. 

At the Global Sustainable Technology & Innovation Community (G-STIC) Dubai Expo 2020 ‘Democratisation of Technology and Indigenous Values’ sessions convened by co-organised with the UNFCCC Resilience Frontiers Initiative, G-STIC, 3 ideas B.V., Zayed University and 4CF, the following indigenous values were identified for a more sustainable future: 

Intergenerational Equity – The principle of intergenerational equity states that every generation holds the Earth in common with members of the present generation, and with other generations past, and future. This principle articulates a concept of fairness among generations in the use and conservation of the environment and its natural resources. Indigenous people manage natural resources with a future seven generations in mind. 

• Value of Nature – The value of nature is seen in the life-supporting services it provides, including many basic human needs such as water, clean air, food, and shelter. 

• Connectivity – People and nature are part of one ecosystem, an individual is connected to a family, a tribe, the social fabric of society, and its natural habitat.

• Family Values – Intergenerational family values teach ideas, moral standards, cultural belonging, and identity. Loyalty to a family unit and tribal belonging is unquestionable. 

• Inclusivity – The democratic process of decision with the inclusion of people with different abilities and the acceptance of different opinions. 

The discourse about the future requires a mindset change. As with our natural environment and cultural development, there are no uniform responses. The MENA region has its own socio-ecological identity, this is why a dialogue about the future’s regenerative paradigm needs to be regional and tailored to its regional characteristics. There is time and motivation to develop this dialogue further for the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conferences COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022 and COP28 in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates in 2023.

With a special thanks to Dr Youssef Nassef, Director of the Adaptation Programme at the UNFCCC, the UNFCCC Resilience Frontiers Initiative.

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