By Marcus George on May 17, 2019
A few decades ago it was mostly desert. Now, from the observation deck on the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, on a clear night you can see the glittering neighbourhoods of Dubai stretching far into the distance.
Few countries have developed as quickly as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Skyscrapers, supercars, shopping malls and luxury hotels: the symbols of success are clearly visible.
But such rapid development and the steep population rise that has gone with it have brought serious environmental and social challenges. The demand for energy, water and food has soared.
Across this hot and arid region, agricultural producers, desalination plants, oil and gas projects and other industrial and domestic consumers must share these precious essentials of life.
Bright young people keen to build a sustainable future want to understand such complex challenges – and how to tackle them. An innovative programme called NXplorers, which Shell and its partners have launched in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, is designed to help them.
The NXplorers course uses an analytical approach that focuses on the way components of a system relate: change one component, and the others change too. Energy, water and food all depend on one another.
Theresa Forbes, an NXplorer facilitator and director of Shaping Learning, an educational organisation which worked with Shell to develop the course, coaches students in how to develop scenarios using simple tools and techniques.
"When we developed the course, we saw that what is known as systems thinking needed to be at the heart of it," says Theresa. "Understanding and applying systems thinking leads to a better understanding of complex issues."
In a lecture room at Khalifa University in downtown Abu Dhabi students examine the challenges facing the UAE. They must then develop practical ideas to address the specific challenge they have been set.
Huddled round one table, some students focus on the oil industry. Among them is Moza Salim Alnaimi, a PHD student at the city's Khalifa University.
Moza's group set themselves an ambitious challenge - how could the UAE generate a more sustainable energy mix to meet rapidly growing demand, while not exacerbating competition for water in the region?
Their solution was to create a nationwide programme to address three key areas. These were cutting emissions and optimising water use in UAE energy production, expanding the use of solar energy in industry and in homes through state funding and creating a campaign to encourage energy efficiency, through an energy literacy curriculum in schools and a comprehensive programme of public events.
Collaboration would be at the heart of the plan. An advisory agency would bring together government representatives, energy producers, utility companies, industrial users, including food producers, water desalination companies and domestic users.
The agency would form working groups with the expertise to address each of the three key areas. A technical working group would explore digital technologies to make the most of energy resources and minimise waste.
"Our idea was to get all the interested parties around one table so they understand issues from each other's perspective. Working together like this would make our knowledge much greater," says Moza.
Importantly, the group says its plan would be aligned with the UAE National Energy Strategy 2050 that aims to meet half of the nation's energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.
"A key part is to motivate the public and students too," adds Moza. "Clearly, people are part of the problem but in this way, they can be part of the solution too."
NXplorers is now active in 16 countries, including Brazil, Nigeria and Kazakhstan. In India, the programme worked in nearly 200 schools between September 2018 and March 2019.
One is a rural girls' school on the outskirts of Bangalore. Here, the 14 to 15-year-old girls worked in teams to examine the most pressing challenge they faced.
They chose water supply for the local community. Using NXplorers techniques, they drew up diagrams to understand the challenge more clearly and identify solutions.
One group chose a combination of government policy, raising awareness and opening a local purification plant.
The whole class was so inspired that they did not stop there. They took action. Soon, the school was recycling water from the kitchen to use in the school grounds and using vegetable waste to make biogas.
"Given the right support and guidance, young people will be crucial to creating sustainable solutions," says Harry Brekelmans, Shell's Projects and Technology director, who came up with the original idea for the NXplorers programme.
"That's why we need to mobilise younger generations and give them the tools and equipment to be able to address the complexities of sustainability in the long run."
Additional reporting by Kathleen Wyatt
For more information, see www.nxplorers.com