The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region, however, has never been afraid of challenging established thinking – least of all the UAE. I see its new ministry as typical of the forward, dynamic thinking that has helped these desert states undergo such incredible development during the past 40 years.
Having been so successful in delivering the physical infrastructure to support its vision for economic and social growth and prosperity, the UAE is operating at a level in which it can now prioritise the wellbeing and satisfaction of its people.
HH Sheikh Mohammed’s announcement called for “a government with its purpose to build a virtuous society, a forgiving environment, close families, educated generations and equal economic opportunities for all”.
That's inspirational thinking, as was His Highness's statement about government flexibility: "We don't need more ministries, but more ministers capable of dealing with change."
Government bodies are seldom known for being agile and flexible, but these are exactly the attributes needed by modern states as they grapple with the global challenges of today, among the foremost of which are population growth and urbanisation.
This region has already been subjected to these twin issues far more than most parts of the world. Between 1950-2010, the population of the GCC grew by more than 10 times (1053%), compared global population growth of 174%.
Between now and 2050, the population of the MENA region is expected to more than double, while by 2015 88% of the region's population is forecast to be living in cities – it’s absolutely right that this is driving lateral thinking from government, while also demanding creativity and innovation from industry.
This includes, of course, the construction sector. We have an outstanding opportunity to make a positive difference for the region, while helping to build its competitive advantage. The nature of our work means we're among the true custodians of the built environment, and we're better placed than anyone to support the region's governments in the management and delivery of social, economic and environmental change (the goal being societal "happiness").
In order to do this, it’s essential that we’re creating environments which are fit for the future, and which take into account the scale of change which is being forecast. If we fail in this, today’s infrastructure will quickly become redundant.
It was with this in mind that we at Atkins adopted our Future Proofing Cities approach five years ago to help clients (first in the developing world, and more recently the UK) to identify the opportunities and risks – and from there the potential solutions – to ensure their projects have fully considered long term needs.
We're now adapting this thinking in response to the very particular needs of GCC cities. While a common thread in most parts of the world is the need to increase infrastructure funding at the city level, in this region funding itself is less of a problem. Even now, with oil prices at their lowest level in over a decade, there's a fundamental understanding that investment is essential in order to support long term economic diversification and growth.
That's a great starting position, and it means that the core challenge is about focus and prioritisation in order to ensure that the right portfolio of solutions are assembled to address the individual needs of each city.
Coming back to the UAE, what's so impressive about its new Ministry of Happiness is the fact that it shows how the leadership really "get it" when it comes to the number one priority. They know that to create a city which really works, and which embraces new ideas and technology in the right way, they need to put PEOPLE first. And a by-product of that will be happy people – productive, successful residents and an environment which attracts tourists and other visitors time and time again.