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It is a universal fact that change constitutes the natural order of life. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535–475 BC) once said, “There is nothing permanent except change.” In recent years, however, the world has witnessed rapid and radical changes greater than any previous stage of history. These changes include everything ranging from politics, economics, transport, and medicine to technology, culture, thought, and even the climate—which is changing in an alarming manner that threatens the future of our planet. In this context, the concept of the future itself has also changed. Any attempt to predict the future will fall short in foreseeing what will happen in one or two decades’ time and will cover a period of only two or three years. These changes have happened so remarkably fast that within two or three years the world has witnessed transformations greater than anything that had taken place over the previous decades.

Interestingly, despite all discourse about this unprecedented rate of change, current indicators and data suggest that the next stage of change will exceed all of our perceptions and imaginations. At the level of technology, the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has opened up new unexplored horizons of technological advancement for humanity. Developments such as robotic applications and 3D printing have had sweeping effects on every aspect of life on our planet. These cutting-edge scientific developments open up new opportunities revealing several mysterious secrets of the universe. The achievements of science are capable of working miracles and making discoveries that not only affect the present and the future, but also the past. For example, because of advances in DNA technology, a deceased person convicted of committing a crime in 1958 was proven innocent in 2017.

At the political level, the world is rapidly departing from many of the beliefs that have been taken for granted over the past decades. This is especially evident in terms of balances of power, mechanisms of conflict, tools of warfare, systems of governance, roles of societies, as well as how states view, define, and defend their interests. In fact, the very existence of some countries is even under threat. The nature of threats and sources of danger have changed in the context of the Fourth Generation Warfare, which we are currently experiencing, and the Fifth Generation Warfare, for which the world is preparing. Change is also accelerating in the field of economics. The concepts of wealth, resources, and production tools are changing, especially regarding technological innovation in financial services, including cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. This also includes the move towards knowledge-based economies and the transformation in the world’s energy mix, particularly oil and renewable energy.

At the cultural level, values, customs, and belief systems are undergoing radical transformation. Moreover, issues such as human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech, thought and religion have become, in the context of this global village, common universal values. All countries have to deal with the implied complexities created by the historical, political, cultural, and religious specifications of these issues.

As for information and communications, everyone can see the tremendous revolution in these fields, which has created virtual parallel universes that are hard to grasp, control, or define. It has also enhanced communication between people of different cultures, civilisations, sects, and religions. It is a revolution that has not yet reached its full potential, and so no one can predict its end. This is an issue that I discussed in my book From Tribe to Facebook: The Transformational Role of Social Networks, published in 2013.

At the same time, volcanoes of knowledge — positive and negative, good and bad — have erupted before mankind due to information technology, which allows people to improve their knowledge, awareness, and capability to rapidly access information at any time or place. This has brought about significant implications at the political, cultural, and social levels.

The education sector has also witnessed radical transformations in terms of curricula, tools, and goals, making it a key area of change and innovation throughout the world. It is the most important sector for any country that seeks progress and active participation in the process of change that the world is going through.

At the intellectual level, there are new theories and visions about politics, economics, and sociology that refute, reconsider, or revise some aspects of the world’s long-established theories, thoughts, and ideologies. At the demographic level, there has been a steady rise in the rate of population growth across the globe, especially with the availability of health care services that increase life expectancy.

These are just a few examples of the vast changes affecting our present-day world, which are expected to increase at an unimaginable rate in years to come. These changes will be so vast that they would require thousands of pages to list them all.

It is commonly agreed that the world is in a state of constant change. However, the changes that mankind has recently witnessed and is expected to experience in the coming years exceed the normal rates of change in previous centuries. These changes are radical and real, and are neither imagined nor assumed. They are comprehensive changes that nothing on earth – whether it is technological, political, or cultural in nature – will be immune from. Moreover, it is a change that sometimes reaches beyond the powers of imagination or perception. When hearing about the features and future of this change, especially at the technological level, one could easily think they are from a sci-fi novel or movie.

Several causes

These rapid and radical changes, which sometimes transcend all imagination and comprehension, have not come out of the blue. There are several causes that have instigated the changes and will drive them in the future. First is the limitless explosion of knowledge, particularly at the technological level. The accumulated scientific knowledge has become so rich and immense that it can completely change all aspects of life on earth in very short spans of time. All this takes place in the context of increasing investment in scientific research alongside the change in the concept of wealth, whereby knowledge has become one of the most important and prominent manifestations and sources of wealth. The second cause is the unleashing of unrestricted freedom of thought in both experimental and human sciences.

The constraints of religion, myths, and legends impeded science for centuries, until thought was liberated in the European Renaissance, which broke the chains of restrictions and drove the world towards radical development and transformation in all fields.

Third is the intensity of competition in the international arena for influence, prestige, and power. This, combined with the desire of several states and communities to strive to join the ranks of developed countries, has contributed to the permanent state of limitless innovation, creativity, and change. This in turn has divided the world into two parties: one of which stands for, engages in, and contributes to change; while the other is against change and exists at its margins.

The fourth cause is that modern science, especially technology, is no longer confined to the West or to a limited number of countries. Many other countries are now competing in the arena of scientific advancement, which has enriched science and increased innovation.

Fifth is the serious imbalance in the relationship between resources and demand, which is expected to increase in the upcoming period. This will mean science must be utilised to overcome this deficit, such as the scientific endeavours to ensure limited resources meet humanity’s needs in the face of increasing population growth. This has paved the way for many significant inventions, particularly genetic engineering in the fields of agriculture and livestock production.

The sixth cause is the vast surge in future sciences, which has opened up new horizons for the imagination to bring about unprecedented advancements across all sciences.

The seventh is that globalisation has fuelled interaction between people, generating new ideas, values, and theories, especially in the context of the information and communications revolution. This has in turn evoked huge cultural and social transformations in the nature of how to view the self and the other.

The eighth and final cause is the growing threats and risks emanating from several sources in the world. Since we live in perilous times, the human intellect is compelled to find new formulas, theories, and visions to control these threats and mitigate these risks.

Change, especially at the technological level, aims to improve the standard of living on earth and address the planet’s problems and challenges. However, serious challenges to mankind could arise, such as mechanisation, whereby machines replace the human being. Robots will eventually compete against humans in the labour market, which will lead to widespread unemployment followed by social and political unrest, strife, and conflict. The Fourth Industrial Revolution — also referred to as “the robot revolution” — will render millions of jobs obsolete. This raises important questions: what will happen to these unemployed people? How will they behave after losing their jobs? How will governments find uses for them and reduce the threats they may pose to peace, cohesion, and security?

Furthermore, scientific advancements have given rise to several ethical and human issues that require careful approaches so that science is not on a collision course with religion, ethics, or humanity. Hence, the challenge that we in the Arab world face is not just our position on the map of change in the world, but rather our ability to offer satisfactory answers to the social, human, religious, and ethical issues evoked by this change. Unfortunately, while the world is preoccupied with change and how to deal with it, we, in some Arab countries, are still concerned with myths, legends, and religious perspectives, such as debating shortening of robes, whether it is right in Islam to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions, and many other trivialities.

Existential issue

The radical change the world is experiencing now and in the future has become, without exaggeration, an existential issue. Arab and Muslim countries must deal with change in this context and within thoughtful and effective institutional frameworks. In this context, through this year-long series of articles in Gulf News, I will focus on change as an existential issue — or a matter of life or death — for Arab countries. This series of articles will cover the various aspects of change at different levels including political, economic, military, security, cultural, social, and technological. The UAE position concerning each aspect or level will be given special focus.

Sigmund Freud, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist, said that people who resist change and do not participate in changing the world or themselves “were all born like this, lived like this, and will die like this”. Even this quote, however, falls short in describing the current world situation. Those who do not contribute towards change cannot avoid its influences and implications, as they did in the past. The only options are to either adapt or perish. I can surely say that the change taking place in the world today is comparable to Noah’s Ark: to respond to change means survival and to ignore it means drowning. This is in no way an exaggeration.

Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.