As the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend returns to the capital, we take a look at how the event’s festival is creating a homegrown culture for innovation
In 1997, tech company Apple was at a low ebb. To boost struggling sales, the brand launched a landmark new campaign that shot it into a new era.
Composed of just two words – ‘think different’ – the campaign was simple but entreated those who saw it to see the brand, and potentially life in general, in a new way.
It’s this ethos that’s behind the returning public festival at the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend, taking place on 2nd and 3rd March.
With discussions on diverse subjects from how technology can revolutionise farming to personalised cures for cancer using our DNA and research into halting the ageing process, the event unites experts and the community alike to consider the big questions facing our world.
International and local speakers are set to join the two-day event, plus there are interactive activities, talks, games, live music and more – and there never has been
a better time to open your mind and try to see things differently.
To infinity and beyond
With researchers, filmmakers, astronauts, lawyers and even music industry giants on the schedule, the line-up might seem a little left field, but seeing things differently – sometimes literally – is the one thing that connects them all.
For filmmaker Anthony Geffen, event speaker and recipient of the first ever British Academy of Film and Television Awards for a virtual reality movie, he should know exactly what that’s like.
“What I’m interested in as a filmmaker is how you can use technology as it grows to tell more engaging, immersive and interesting stories,” he tells us. “Imagine you’re in a submersible [watercraft] and you’re with David Attenborough. You’re seeing things
in a completely different way. That has been a major change for the way people
With virtual and augmented reality moving from computer games to more mainstream applications including education, sports and healthcare, Anthony says the benefits of the technology are more wide-ranging than they appear.
“Whether you’re dropping from space or exploring the Great Barrier Reef, it’s an educational game-changer because you can visit things that you couldn’t before,” he notes. “It’s not just for kids; it’s for people in later life and people in their old age. All ages, all genders, all groups – it transcends that. It’s what people crave.
“These experiences break down into story-telling – you have to captivate people,” he adds. “But there are offshoots to that, such as the medical or athletic worlds, which can also build very powerful tools.”
For former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, who will be taking to the stage to discuss his space exploration and the potential for colonising Mars, it took blasting off into the cosmos for his world-view to change.
Known for holding the record for the most photographs taken from space than any other person in history, Terry says his time behind the lens aboard the International Space Station helped him see a few home truths about the green planet.
“When I left Earth, I gained insights into life on Earth which frankly surprised me,” he tells us. “I could see some issues with the environment, I could see global wealth in a way I had never imagined – you can see that from space [such as] between wealth and political or military boundaries.
“From space I could see a very wide variance in how people live – some very well, and some very badly,” he reflects. “It really made me think about life on Earth, and that ultimately – more than all of the cool things we do in space and planets we will explore – it is people that matter most.
“Some nations have good infrastructure and systems that allow people to live a good life, and others do not. That’s something we need to work on.”
The power to change
If learning something new from the experts in their field is one aspect of the event, the spirit of it should by no means end when the event closes.
Rather, says lawyer Rabia Chaudry, another speaker on the public programme for the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend, what’s more important is that the drive to explore and challenge continues into every aspect of our daily lives – even if that means asking the hard questions.
Rabia rose to prominence when her quest for justice for her friend Adnan Syed caught the attention of podcast Serial. After writing bestseller Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice after Serial, she remains convinced that communities have a power for change that comes from within.
“Innovation, new ideas and creativity are key to keeping a community or movement relevant, responsive and efficient,” she notes. “Much of the problem at the grassroots is resistance to change; we see this in our religious and community organisations, in the structures of boards, in government and even in law.
“What ends up happening is the world around us changes, but our institutional response doesn’t, and you end up losing younger generations,” she continues. “Being self-critical, lovingly self-critical, requires challenging the issues in your own community and asking the question, ‘Why not?’ and the public acceptance that we are not perfect.
“Doing things that are controversial always pushes the limits of discussion and debate far beyond where it has existed, and that is necessary to continue to open our minds to possibilities we haven’t considered before.
“Einstein said that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In order to do something different, in order to make the changes we want to see in the world, we must embrace creativity and innovation through new, fresh ideas.”
Anthony agrees: “New technology and fresh ways of looking at it can take issues out to the world community, and that’s what everybody’s looking for all the time. By bringing people together from different disciplines and getting them to talk, we can produce some interesting results.
“Everybody has curiosity but this new form of delivering it can push people in an exciting way,” he pauses. “Understanding is the core to everybody getting on together.”
Need to know
What: The Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend Festival
When: 2nd and 3rd March, 3pm–10pm
Where: NYUAD, Saadiyat Island
Tickets: AED 30 for adults, AED 20 for students and youth aged 12 to 18, free for children under 12 years old
WORDS Camille Hogg