In Baghdad (then known as Madinat As Salam or city of peace) during the heydays of the Islamic era, the Caliph Al-Manum commissioned three brothers, known as Banu Musa, to write a book describing classical engineering designs inherited from the Greeks.
What emerged was a book that was almost a prophecy about future inventions. Titled “The Book of Ingenious Devices”, what makes this stand out was that much of it was not considered “useful” at all.
Much of it in fact was meant as amusement; in other words, it was about experimentation for its own sake. Even though the engineering tactics used were to be deployed for more than a 1,000 years, foreshadowing even the Industrial Revolution as some would argue, the initial application of these designs were for nothing more than generate mirth.
Any reading of history typically downplays the role of experimentation for its own sake. Yet any serious historian cannot downplay the role of experimentation in any field of discipline. Societies that thrived were the ones that favoured such experimentation throughout society, allowing history to be written by chance encounters as much as it appears to have been guided by experts.
From architecture to the arts, what we observe in the ancient books is the bubbling of a “grounds up” approach, where the underlying principle is almost a childlike delight to discover new things and approaches. For this to be effective, the world of play and amusement has to interact with the more serious disciplines of art and philosophy. Societies that tend to encourage such a criss-cross approach are the ones that tend to benefit the most in terms of all measures of progress, from affluence to literacy.
In Dubai, the concept of the community and the work-play balance has manifested itself in the form of a reimagining of neighbourhoods that would have been considered revolutionary a few decades ago. From parks to community centres, skyscrapers and coffee shops, modern life that has become accessible to most of the population.
It has been totally transformed in ways that are breathtaking. Yet in the spirit of experimentation, what remains a constant is the undebatable factor of shrinking living spaces, as architects and developers think up increasingly imaginative ways to condense interiors and make it more efficient.
Behind this trend has been a confluence of factors such as rising price of land, income dynamics, and even traffic flows.
However, even as this trend has gathered pace, history suggests that the arc of the pendulum may well change. As much of modernity has its roots embedded in seemingly idle pastimes, from toys and games to other forms of experimentation widely heralded as a waste of time.
In such activities, the principal role of society (and government) is to create the organic conditions for such activities to flourish and then largely step aside. Everyone knows what necessity means for invention, but what history shows is that the most progress has been achieved by societies that are having the most fun.
The government of Dubai has taken giant strides in recent years towards actively creating such conditions, from the encouragement of initiatives such as 3D printing to the pursuit of extreme sports and the culture of the arts.
From coding to computer games, the society that is now being shaped and shared is one where genius stems from activities that are considered almost trifle. As we look to the past for inspiration of how to govern and how to create society, there is a recognition in Dubai that if you want to know what is coming next, you’re better off looking at corners of society that pursue hobbies, arts and crafts to exploring ways to create happiness.
This variable is as important a bedrock of society as any, and Dubai’s efforts to tap into this vibe is yet another indicator of the growth in store.
The writer is Managing Director of Global Capital Partners.