When the first World Expo took place in London in 1851, it displayed the achievements of the industrial revolution during an exhibition lasting 140 days.

The industrial prowess of the UK and more than 10 other Western nations was showcased in a purpose-built iron and glass hall, named the Crystal Palace. More than 6.3 million people admired exhibits such as a locomotive, a 630-tonne steam engine, a high-speed steamship, a crane and steel-making techniques, as well as tunnel and bridge models.

Expo 2020Since then, World Expos have helped humanity understand technological and societal change, with participating nations showing great enthusiasm for the event due to its potential for promoting the exchange of technology, trade and culture. More recently, however, the concept of highlighting more simplistic indicators of progress has given way to efforts to highlight themes that tie in with ‘sustainable development’ goals.

World Expos are now an opportunity for governments, international organisations and companies to iron out global challenges. No longer are they just about revealing the next best thing – although that is a considerable bonus – today’s expos serve as a springboard to drive critical change in the mindsets of the masses.

Expo 2020 will be the first ever expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (Measa) region. There are 192 participating nations and nearly 25 million visitors are expected, with 70 per cent set to come from outside the UAE – a diversity that will be a record for a World Expo, according to Bureau International des Expositions secretary general Vicente Loscertales.

“Many factors lie behind the success of the UAE’s bid to host World Expo 2020 in Dubai,” he explains. “By playing to the UAE’s strength as a growing economic and cultural power in the Measa region, and to Dubai’s position as a city of connections that is open to the world, the campaign successfully conveyed the idea that the expo will be a unique opportunity for the emerging economies of the Measa region to demonstrate the role they play in the world.”

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Expo impact

The universal nature of the expo will help the UAE improve and establish new bilateral ties with participating nations, paving the way for partnerships between local and international firms. The event is also expected to result in more business-friendly legislation and drive investment in the UAE’s local sectors.

An April 2019 report by professional services firm Ernst & Young revealed that between 2013-2031, the event and its legacy is set to add some AED122.6bn in gross value to the UAE economy. Key sectors that will be impacted by the expo include events organisation and business services; construction; transport storage and communication; retail; and restaurants and hotels.

Most of the pre-expo impact is being felt in the construction and infrastructure sectors. Dubai is already being transformed in the run up to Expo 2020, particularly with the expansion of the Dubai Metro Red Line. Seven metro stations, including the dedicated Expo station, will serve the 15 kilometre-long extension. This will be pivotal in ferrying people to and from the site, as well as establishing Dubai South and Al-Maktoum International airport as a new hub.

Expo 2020During the expo, from October 2020 to April 2021, visitor and operational activity will drive the event’s impact, with the restaurant and hotels sector benefitting the most. After the expo culminates, the legacy period (May 2021-December 2031) will see the creation of District 2020, a new community and business hub that will retain nearly 80 per cent of the expo’s built structure. Multinational firms such as Siemens and Accenture are already confirmed tenants in the district.

Thematic districts

Expo 2020’s central theme ‘connecting minds, creating future’ is underpinned by three subthemes – opportunity, mobility and sustainability (see overleaf). Preparations are geared towards applying these themes to both the event and the legacy phase to impact generations to come. Each subtheme is represented by a physical district, anchored by a thematic pavilion. Participating nations can align themselves to one of the sub-themes while presenting their own solutions for the future.

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Unlocking potential within individuals and communities

The event is granting opportunities through grants for impactful projects as well as incentivised programmes for startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Expo 2020’s global innovation and partnership programme, Expo Live, has been allocated $100m to support projects with innovative, creative solutions to pressing challenges around the world.

Comprised of the Innovation Impact Grant Programme and the University Innovation Programme, Expo Live supports social entrepreneurs across the world with funding, guidance and exposure.

The Innovation Impact Grant Programme has supported 120 grantees from 65 countries so far. To date, 31 per cent (37 out of 120) of all grantees under this programme are led by women.

Meanwhile, the University Innovation Programme has supported 46 teams of students from across the UAE with grants of AED50,000 each – alongside exposure, mentorship and guidance.

“Expo Live is a huge success and its impact is too significant for us to stop after Expo 2020 closes its doors,” says Yousuf Caires, senior vice-president of the programme. “With Expo Live, we are looking at the legacy of Expo Live. How it will transition from a fund created by and for Expo 2020 to a wider project that will continue to support innovative solutions from across the globe, sparking further benefit and positioning Dubai as a hub for social entrepreneurs.”

SME spending

A central mission of Expo 2020 is the stimulation of entrepreneurship that will drive economic diversification and sustainable development. The encouragement of SMEs has consequently emerged as a natural evolution of the exposition’s tenets.

Spending has been diverted to dozens of SMEs that are official Expo 2020 licensees and through financial benefits provided to SMEs registered with the event’s online marketplace (OMP), a custom-built, end-to-end procurement system. As of October 2019, Expo 2020 had awarded AED3.81bn to SMEs.

Scrutinising the opportunities that Expo 2020 is providing – not just within the UAE, but across the globe – is a tangible way to analyse its impact.

“We believe that humanity has made some tremendous strides, and that the state of the world is not as bad as we might think,” says Marjan Faraidooni, chief pavilions and exhibitions officer at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“These successes should not only be celebrated, but should drive us forward to seek creative solutions in areas where we need to do better.”

Facilitating the movement of people, goods and ideas

Thanks to its location on the crossroads between East and West, the UAE’s growth has always been driven by mobility – from its origins as a port for merchants to a major trade hub in the era of globalisation and now, as a nation even pushing at the boundaries of space travel.

“When we ponder the future of mobility, our imaginations often fill with fantastical images of flying cars and groceries that somehow deliver themselves,” says Erik van der Schaft, director for the mobility pavilion. “But this year, with the official opening of Expo 2020, we’ll be taking a closer look at the topic through a lens that’s a bit more accessible.

“Driven by the latest technology, as well as social trends, the seamless mobility system of the future will include the movement of people, goods, data, capital, ideas and culture. How we will reach this better-connected, more mobile future will be our focus.”

Many of the country and partner pavilions are also pursuing the concept of mobility. Emirates, for example, will display aerodynamically advanced materials and futuristic flight technologies. DP World, meanwhile, will use augmented and virtual reality to showcase the real-time movement of cargo. Its pavilion will introduce DP World Cargospeed, a transportation system powered by hyperloop technology, as well as Box Bay, an automated high-rise stacking system.

Safeguarding the world for future generations

As part of the UAE’s efforts to tackle energy and climate issues, all expo stakeholders and suppliers must adhere to rigorous sustainability standards. There is also a strong focus on preservation and reducing the impact on the immediate environment where possible.

Across the expo site, clean energy will be produced via renewable sources, while initiatives such as green canopies, smart metering for water and use of sustainable building materials will provide examples for the development of an eco-friendly economy. The event aims to divert 85 per cent of all waste from landfill by reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing – turning waste into everything from fertiliser to t-shirts.

All Expo 2020-built structures, meanwhile, are designed to achieve at least Leed Gold certification.

Expo 2020’s sustainability theme ties in with the UAE’s green interests and environmental strategies, which include increasing the contribution of clean energy to the total energy mix from 25 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050. The UAE Energy Strategy 2050 also seeks to improve energy efficiency by 40 per cent and reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent, with a targeted saving of AED700bn by 2050.