Since it was first held in 2013, the World Government Summit in Dubai has become a crucible for new ideas and out of the box thinking about making life better for everyone on our planet
World Government Summit: setting the stage for the future
It has attracted world leaders from former US president Barack Obama to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, as well as Nobel laureates and many of the most brilliant minds from industry, science and politics.
Since it was first held in 2013, the World Government Summit in Dubai has become a crucible for ideas and out of the box thinking about making life better for everyone on our planet.
That first event, held over two days, set the stage for the future. Among those attending was Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, but it will be remembered for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, answering questions put to him both by journalists and citizens through his website.
The theme of the 2013 summit was “Leading Government Services” with over 3,000 people taking part, from the UAE and neighbouring countries.
The aim was not just to improve governance in the UAE but to set an example for good practice across the region.
In his speech to the assembly, Sheikh Mohammed paid particular attention to the role of youth and the progress towards the country’s Vision 2021.
As he observed, “‘Impossible’ does not exist in our vocabulary. Such a word reflects indolence, weakness and fear of challenge and progress.
“When potentials and capabilities as well as confidence are doubted, the drive to achieve success, excellence and notability is lost. I call the youth to insist on Number One.”
Asked by a Kuwaiti delegate why he insisted that everything should be done now, Sheikh Mohammed said “We should not postpone today’s work till tomorrow. If we are able work today, we should strive to develop the state economically and politically.”
It is a dynamic approach to government that has defined every summit since.
In 2015, the World Government Summit saw the announcement of the Museum of the Future, described at its launch by Sheikh Mohammed as “An incubator for ideas, a driver for innovation, and a destination for inventors and entrepreneurs from around the world.”
It is a future that is almost upon us. The Museum of the Future is due to open in a permanent home next year.
At the 2014 summit, delegate numbers hit 4,700, from 50 counties. Even more impressive, half a million students followed the proceedings online.
The 60 speakers included Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur behind Virgin Atlantic Airlines and the Virgin Galactic commercial space flight programme. If there was an underlying theme, it was the duty of governments to work for the happiness of their citizens and to shape their future in a positive way.
In his address, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, observed that “exceptional leadership is to provide your fellow citizens with unconditional care and support”.
As the number of countries swelled to 90, among the speakers that year were Ban Ki Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Ibrahim Mahlab, who was prime minister of Egypt at the time.
From the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, attended along with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
It was inevitable that the potential of new technologies would play an increasingly prominent part of future summits.
Among the announcements were the winners of the Drones for Good competition, first proposed in 2014. The competition, which attracted 800 participants from 57 countries, awarded the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) international prize to a collision-resistant drone for use in search-and-rescue operations in urban environments. It was designed by a Swiss team.
It was followed by another competition, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for Good.
“Government exists for one reason – to serve our people, to help improve their lives.” The speaker was Barack Obama, President of the United States, addressing the 2016 World Government Summit.
“As we’ve seen in the tumult across the Middle East and North Africa, when governments do not lift up their citizens, it’s a recipe for instability and strife,” Mr Obama said. “When governments truly invest in their citizens, their education and health, and when universal human rights are upheld, countries are more peaceful, more prosperous and more successful.”
With the summit running over three days that year, there was a wide variety of topics and speakers to entertain and inform. The hyperloop ultra-fast travel system made its debut, as did the rise of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.
Would we live to 200 years old, one speaker asked? Another speculated about retiring from work at the age of 100. The singer Yusuf Islam, also known as Cat Stevens, spoke of a life in pursuit of world peace, while the computer expert and writer Kevin Mitnick was introduced as “the world’s most famous hacker”.
There was even the Zombie Task Force, a tongue-in-cheek initiative by the US Centre for Disease Control to get people thinking about disaster preparedness.
On a more serious note, Prof Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, looked to the future and to the fourth industrial revolution, which he described as “coming like a tsunami”.
“It will be overwhelming to see the changes,” he said. “The future will not consist of countries divided by developed and less-developed economies. They will be divided by innovative and non-innovative ones.”
The World’s Best Minister was also announced for the first time – Greg Hunt, Australia’s Minister for the Environment.
That year, 2016, was also when an annual membership scheme, establishing the forum as something more than a once-a-year gathering, was introduced. Members were able to communicate directly with the top speakers, gain advance viewing of reports and have access to training workshops.
By last year, the fifth summit had expanded to four days. The theme for the opening sessions was happiness, an idea that was being strongly promoted by the UAE, which the previous year had appointed the world’s first Minister of State for Happiness, Ohood Al Roumi, and made it an objective of every government organisation.
The number of prestigious international partners had also grown to include the United Nations, Unesco, the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
It was the largest event so far, with 138 international delegations and 150 speakers across 114 sessions, including Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla electric vehicles and SpaceX, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organisation.
A new buzzword was heard, “disruptor”, meaning something that rapidly overturns the way we think and behave, in ways that can be at once creative and destructive.
If there was a headline grabber it was the announcement on the sidelines that Dubai was to begin a testing programme for autonomous flying cars.
Mr Musk, a bona fide disruptor, also revealed he was opening the first Tesla showroom in the Middle East in the city – a pledge he fulfilled later last year. And, of course, there was Mars 2117, the bold idea that looks forward a century when the UAE would develop a colony on the planet.
As always, the summit was addressed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.
“When the country was first established we had only 40 graduates and now we have 77 universities,” he said.
And he reminded the gathering of the essential message of the World Government Summit, something that will be as relevant this year as it was five years ago.
“The problems of the world will never stop, but we must focus on giving and strive to serve our people,” he said.
“We don’t claim to be perfect, but we learn something new every day. We must not waste time, and we are ready to share our experiences.”