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Museum of Poverty

This story was brought to life by Young UN with mentoring from SOIF.
It has been co-written by
Eleonora Gatti, Carla McKirdy, Helena Carvalho Schmidt.
Design by Gabriela Heermans, Pepa Majkic with support from YUN Branding Team.
Website support from People Activation and Break Creative Partners.

This is the story of the unveiling of the world’s first Museum of Poverty, at the 100th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Museum of Poverty is a ground-breaking holoplex building. Thanks to its empathy-enhancing technology, visitors’ brains can experience —in real time— the inhumanity of the many forms of historic poverty that have been eradicated by 2045 and the lurking dangers of new emerging forms of poverty. The aim of such an unparalleled emotional exposure is to nurture a completely transformative level of empathy, one that would play a crucial role in designing solutions to prevent all forms of future poverty.

It was a balmy summer day as Thein Aye paused to take a seat on her favourite bench under a tree in Unity Park. With a quick stroke of her index finger, she closed down her holographic call screen after speaking with the press, and pensively sunk into the backrest of the bench. Thein Aye breathed out, letting the tension of the call dissipate. The scent of jasmine carried by the gentle afternoon breeze, she crossed her legs and carefully observed her surroundings; the grass —a bright, emerald green reminiscent of her homeland— was dotted with wildflowers caressed by the busiest of bees. Now was the time Thein Aye would typically put her meditation headband on. But today she was far too excited for her regular dose of slowing down her heart beat and listening to her breathing. 

Ahead of today’s event, the press wanted to know exactly what a holoplex was. Thein Aye had explained that a holoplex  was an everywhere building that could be experienced in three ways: as a mind-capturing journey using a Virtual Reality headset; as a hologram which could be projected into any large space; or as a real physical building which could be 3D printed and erected anywhere in the world. “A holoplex building is designed to be a living entity being enriched daily with the contributions of its visitors,” she had confidently informed the last reporter, having practiced her media script so many times. 

A young architect from Myanmar Shan State, Thein Aye was a first-generation college graduate and a source of pride for her family of humble beginnings. Since obtaining her double degree in architecture and neuroscience, Thein Aye had been working with holoplex futures, an idealist international collective of architects with a mission to design buildings that rocked the world’s empathy — holoplexes.

In 2040, Thein Aye’s architect collective had received a fiercely exciting commission from the United Nations: a holoplex building envisioned to honour human empathy  — the Museum of Poverty.

Creating multifunctional digital spaces which were capable of addressing the aspirations of the most diverse and mobile generation in history, and also maintain some degree of familiarity and feeling of home, was nothing short of a challenge — one which Thein Aye had been more than ready to welcome when she joined her international collective.

The UN’s brief to holoplex futures had cited a very clear inspiration for this world monument, which had helped Thein Aye and her team prepare ground-breaking designs: a lecture by the 2006 Nobel laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus. Dr Yunus, a former economics lecturer and founder of Grameen Bank, had tirelessly worked to create a  ‘’poverty-free world where the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums2

The Museum of Poverty was to be unveiled at the 100th anniversary of the United Nations in 2045 to celebrate the landmark achievement of all nations working together to finally attain zero economic poverty

14:55 ET | 17 September, 2045 

Years of effort and hard work would culminate today, as Thein Aye and her colleagues from holoplex futures were only minutes shy from the official unveiling of the Museum of Poverty. 

Thein Aye let the pictures of the last five years flow through her mind: the initial excitement in the holoplex futures  office, the brainstorming of how to begin, how to honour the pain of hundreds of millions who had lived in such harsh circumstances, the countless crowdsourcing of ideas for how the holoplex should look, the many iterations of virtual and holographic reality experiences, the hundreds of collaborations to bring the best creative minds and technological resources together with the latest of enhanced-reality sciences. 

The holoplex Museum of Poverty, designed to house the history of poverty and deprivation.

The technical challenges at times had been overwhelming. Biologically, how could empathy be instantly induced in the mind and body of a museum visitor? Thein Aye had been tasked to equip the museum with the latest ground-breaking neural-cognitive augmented empathic technology, enabling visitors’ brains not just to simulate, but to replicate in real time the grinding reality of what poverty had been  down through the ages of history.

Poverty in this museum was not just something to understand, poverty was something that visitors would experience full on. Their minds and bodies would be transported into aching hunger, grief for family members lost,  powerful longings for justice and sympathy and even despair at  the sheer indifference from the world; new neural pathways formed. The aim of such unparalleled emotional exposure was to nurture a completely transformative level of empathy, one that would play a crucial role in designing solutions to prevent all forms of future poverty.

At its core, the Museum of Poverty was to be a place of learning and co-creation, tackling all emerging forms of poverty by inviting its audience to have their say. From addressing poverty of in-work personal fulfilment to digital poverty3; from securing reliable access to high speed web connections for all to granting access to digital freedom so all individuals can be protected from intrusive spyware; or even  advocating for machine-learning justice so as to eradicate bias built up through legacy algorithms; everyone who crossed the Museum’s doors was invited to contribute their ideas and experiences, effectively becoming a part of the solution.

The Museum of Poverty had built into its constitution a rich network of ethical fore-thinkers in the form of institutions and civil society organisations, from all corners of the world. These were its guardians, tasked with the lifelong mission of updating the museum on any newly detected forms of poverty to guide states’ policymaking and global multilateralist approaches towards poverty eradication. The Poverty Museum Board of Directors would be made up of two categories of beings: humans, hand-picked for their contribution to world progress who could serve for up to nine years in the form of three consecutive terms. The second type of beings who would sit as permanent board members, who were tasked never to die and whose terms were set to infinite, would be a body of machine learning robots charged to forever be the vanguard of poverty eradication ethics. A complex series of algorithms were written so that none of the seven machine learning robots could ever slip into unintentional bias. Each AI board member was forever tasked with keeping the others ethically and morally on track.

14:58 ET | 17 September, 2045 

Zrzrzssz. Thein Aye’s call screen projected itself before her eyes snapping her back into the moment. It was time to concentrate, she had work to do. Smiling to herself as she verified the caller, she accepted the call link.

“Are you reds? How’re you feeling?”, Tamara, her closest friend and colleague at holoplex futures, asked — even though given the years of friendship she knew the answer very well.

“Hey! Yeah, you know, I’m just a tad nervous about presenting half a decade’s worth of work!’, Thein joked. “But super ready and more than excited!”, she added.  

“Yes, same here, I’ve got goosebumps but I’m reds to smash it!” Tamara replied in her smooth Kenyan drawl. 

The friends giggled in giddy excitement but not a second later, Thein Aye’s habitual composure was quickly regained.

 “OK, let’s go ahead and connect into the meeting, better to be a bit early to set things up in the VR presentation space.” 

All final broadcast checks were completed within minutes. The holoplex futures team finally gave the go-ahead for the global launch event to start. 

Millions of participants flooded in connecting to the VR space, Thein Aye’s team ignited with excitement. Each minute that passed, more and more avatars streamed into the virtual meeting room. 

Her nervous excitement magnified as the announcer introduced “Madam Secretary-General of the United Nations”. 

15:00 ET | 17 September, 2045 

Thein Aye observed that the proprietary United Nations Secretary-General’s avatar was absolutely run-of-the-mill: a humanoid with UN-blue skin, the white UN logo placed on its chest and no other discerning features. It had been adopted by the current Secretary-General and criticised by many as “too generic”. 

But she reflected that it was expensive to invest in avatar looks, and seeing how the new Secretary-General pledged to make optimal use of current technologies, prioritising both action and results, Thein Aye suddenly found value in its simple aesthetic. In her view, an avatar that allowed audiences to properly focus on the words and commitments uttered by the person behind the VR helmet was far more important than a flamboyant avatar display. 

Today we are here together, tuning in from all corners of the globe to officially open the world’s first Museum of Poverty,” the Madam Secretary- General’s blue humanoid avatar announced.

“The Museum of Poverty will enshrine poverty as an outdated, fascinating oddity of antiquity. It explains poverty not only as having no means to earn the money to live, but as an ultimately unjust subjection to the human condition. Thanks to decades of hard work rooted in multilateralism, I am proud to say that we have never been this close to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” 

“Yet, today’s inauguration of the Museum of Poverty is the result of your hard work: five years of international crowd-ideation and collaboration,” the Madam Secretary emphasised as she pointed toward Thein Aye’s and her colleagues’ avatars, seated on the front row of this VR assembly. 

“We are also extremely grateful for all of your contributions — the millions of you, who have contributed ideas, sketches, audio messages and your unique visions, contributing towards the creation of the Museum of Poverty. We are particularly thankful to the holoplex futures  architect collective who have played a key part in bringing to life this project — a building like no other! That’s right — like no other! The Museum of Poverty is, after all, alive: it is a unique and ever-changing holoplex building that continuously grows and transforms itself with the contributions of all its visitors

In particular, it is a pleasure to congratulate Thein Aye, the Museum of Poverty’s lead architect, who is present with us today.  Please give her and her outstanding holoplex colleagues a round of applause.” 

The roaring sound of a standing ovation reverberated through Thin Aye’s headset. Clapping avatars and augmented reality emojis suddenly populated every single attendee’s field of vision, rhythmically dancing above and round other avatars, projected across the entire room. 

The end of the applause marked Thein Aye’s turn to walk up to the virtual podium bearing the emblematic UN seal and deliver the presentation she had been preparing for weeks; which included the very first virtual tour of the museum.

“I hope you are all as excited as I am to embark on this inaugural visit of our —all of ours— Museum of Poverty,” Thein Aye  said, all  hint of her previous jitters being overshadowed by the glowing pride she felt for her team’s achievement. “If you follow me, I’ll be leading all of you, present in this meeting today, on the inaugural tour of the Museum of Poverty!”

“To the right of your holo-VR-graphic headset you will find the zero poverty nations room, where you may listen to accounts from policy makers and members of citizens’ assemblies on how zero economic poverty was achieved and maintained in their nations. All our content is available in 322 languages and more should be available soon.”

“Now, in this next room,” she paused, tears coming to her eyes with the memories from the first time she tested the room in question. “This room… is among the most difficult ones to experience. Holoplex buildings use the most advanced form of neural-cognitive technology to stimulate the neural development of empathy,” Thein Aye said, pointing towards a brain-shaped avatar in the middle of the room. 

“Try for yourself and touch the avatar — but first, let me warn you that  it will feel unpleasant or uncomfortable! An overwhelming feeling of hunger will suddenly hit you,” she paused as audible gasps erupted through the virtual space. 

“A crushing feeling of desperation from having lost a loved one to inadequate living conditions should grab a hold of you. It is the most painful sense of loss, is it not? Keep in mind that these feelings you are experiencing now in today’s times are all human rights violations. These levels of despair are feelings that would frequently assault people all over the world in the past, in many millions of cases, for the existence of a person’s entire life. Let’s not forget that this past is still a very real, very recent part of our history.” 

“Uncomfortable as it is,” Thein Aye continued, “to feel the pain and hunger of those who came before us, it is our duty to always be reminded of what others have had to endure, so as to never repeat our past mistakes.”  

“Every one of you — every one of us — has a duty to remain vigilant to all forms of poverty, past and new.” 

“That is why we have established, as part of the Museum of Poverty, the digital poverty room. There we tackle today’s forms of poverty; where those exposed to digital exploitation, digital manipulation or deprivation can share their stories. Our call to action is to share equal digital access, uphold and improve digital security systems for all, and to put into law agreed levels of digital education for all citizens globally. In this very room you can make your commitment to this future — sign up to be a friend of the museum! Join the fight to eradicate future poverty!”

Thunderous applause rang out. Thein Aye’s avatar returned to her place in the front row.

The room was once more filled with thunderous applause, as the Madam Secretary-General laid out the museum’s charter and listed the engagement opportunities for citizens. Thein Aye knew people were inspired by the Secretary-General’s words — she was too. But more than that, Thein Aye felt that these generations were inspired by dedicated spaces for action, by plans, by actionable commitments. The museum had been made to be such a source of inspiration; one that today she was very proud of. 

Holoplex buildings can be easily accessed by putting on a VR headset anywhere in the world,” the Secretary-General proclaimed. “Holoplex buildings can be digitally projected into any town and any megacity in the world. Holoplex buildings can even be 3D printed and erected in any country across the globe. The UN wants you to make this yours — to see Museums of Poverty in every nation across the globe, celebrating the global triumph of ending economic suffering and sourcing solutions from every single visitor to prevent future forms of poverty.” 

“Join us today and make a decision of your own: what will you do to ensure we end all forms of poverty everywhere for good?”

This time, Thein Aye made sure her avatar stood up for the ovation, in its frenzy of 3D gifs and emojis being projected all over the room.  

1. The generic term of “economic poverty” refers to all forms of poverty caused by economic determinants.
2. Muhammad Yunus – Nobel Lecture, 2006
3. United Nations Secretary General Roadmap for Digital Cooperation

This story is part of the Young UN Futures Stories collection. They should not be utilized in real-world analytic products as they are merely fictional pieces. The views, assumptions and opinions expressed in this story are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Young UN, the United Nations, and neither of any of its institutions.