Fueled by my many positive memories of Expo Milan in 2015, with its theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, last week I traveled to the UAE to experience Expo 2020 Dubai  – and I was not disappointed.  To the contrary, I was blown away – as I’m sure most visitors would agree.

Beyond my desire to explore many of Expo Dubai’s innovative themed structures and country pavilions, I intentionally traveled last week in order to take part in Global Goals Week.  Fittingly, the week kicked off with a session entitled Global Goals for All, at which UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed pointed to Expo’s 10 million visits to date as “a clear sign that people, governments, businesses, and organizations from across the world are eager for change, yearning for hope and ready to come together.”  She added that it is up to each of us to “turn this engagement into partnerships and investments that tangibly improve people’s lives everywhere” – which is of course a central premise of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

That theme of individual action to drive change for global good is at the heart of Expo Dubai.

I was fortunate to attend the Global Goals Business Forum (a series of sessions covering topics such as gender equality, financing, leadership, plastics, energy, and child labor) exploring actions that organizations must take together today to achieve a better world in 2030) and the Water-Food-Energy Summit.  Both sessions provided many ideas on the need for urgent change toward sustainable solutions amid the Decade of Action, and the Business Forum was highlighted by excellent closing remarks from Paul Polman drawing on his recent book, Net Positive.

Expo Dubai scores big on multiple fronts, but I think all of its success ultimately emanates from its core theme – Connecting Minds, Creating the Future – along with the underlying belief that “innovation and progress are the result of people and ideas coming together in inspiring new ways.” 

As the organizers effectively note, Expo Dubai conveys the feeling of “the world in one place – a global experience dedicated to bringing together people, communities and nations to build bridges, inspire action and deliver real-life solutions to real-life challenges.”

Expo Dubai truly is an experience, and while exploring all of its venues one very quickly gets the feeling that it is a launch pad for positive change on the many critical social and environmental challenges behind the SDGs.    

Reflection and Inspiration

Reflection on my Expo experience has brought to mind several key terms, but if I had to choose one word to wrap everything in a single packet, that word would be inspiration – and I’ve been thinking about that in five ways.

The first involves the overall framing of the event – both intellectually and physically.  The overarching theme of Connecting Minds, Creating the Future is both simple and powerful – it reminds us of the need for all nations of the world to come together, working collaboratively and harnessing our best ideas and innovative capacity to create a safe, sustainable future for all people and our singular planet.  We know that there is no Planet B, so it’s hard to imagine a more galvanizing purpose to bring the world together. 

Physically, the nearly 4.4 square kilometer site is incredibly impressive; it essentially screams innovation from every direction while effectively communicating Expo Dubai’s three key subthemes – Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability. 

And Expo’s Programme for People and Planet drives focus on humanity’s most pressing challenges through a series of “theme weeks” and conference sessions with an eye toward spurring transformational change.

Second, a major point of inspiration stems from myriad design elements.  There is seemingly no end to captivating views within Expo, at the base level aided by a smart layout, the use of native plants and trees, long shaded walkways, and much more.  Innovative structures line the walking routes, including huge solar “e-trees” that rotate for maximum energy exposure, a massive water feature, and a plethora of brilliant country pavilions with stunning architectural features.  The site has the makings for the smart city that it will shortly become.

The Saudi Arabia pavilion, for example, surges out of the ground like a wedge without supports, seemingly defying gravity, and featuring the world’s largest interactive mirror screen.  The UK pavilion, as CNN has noted, resembles the frayed end of an optical cable covered with words and phrases (and while that sounds awful, it works!), while the UAE’s pavilion resembles the wings of a giant falcon.  Switzerland’s pavilion is a giant cube with a mirrored façade, allowing groups of visitors (presented with large umbrellas for twirling) to see their reflections on the upper level of the structure in a dazzling mix of red, white, and silver.  Directly alongside, Austria’s pavilion resembles a series of huge white bowling pins linked together – a modern design drawing on local materials where the varying heights of the cones allow air to circulate for natural temperature control (a sustainable approach to the heat of Dubai).

Beyond the innovative architectural features of many of the country pavilions, Expo is spatially anchored by three stunning thematic pavilions – Mission Possible (the Opportunity pavilion), Alif (the Mobility pavilion), and Terra (the Sustainability pavilion).  The Opportunity pavilion draws on the historical concept of the plaza as a meeting place and is covered by a series of seemingly floating canopy-like structures representing clouds.  The Mobility pavilion is comprised of three sleek, constantly curving sections which rise upward and outward – giving the clear impression of movement.  The Sustainability pavilion is covered by a massive, tilted circular canopy with roughly 9,000 square meters of photovoltaic panels, capturing substantial energy from the sun while providing cooling shade for those below.  Like the other two themed pavilions, it is an eye-popping structure with great functionality. 

And as beautiful as the enormous Expo site is in daylight, it is transformed to an even higher level each night – coming alive with vivid lighting. 

And while there are innumerable brilliant design points to cover, the most amazing element is the heartbeat of Expo – the Al Wasl Plaza.  Fittingly, all pathways lead to and from this domed structure, which is the largest 360 degree projection surface in the world.  Alive with music and light shows that can be seen from both inside and outside, this massive dome is like a modern day Pantheon on steroids.

Third, the feeling of connectedness and collaboration.  There are 191 country pavilions at Expo, representative of the smallest countries in the world (ex. San Marino, Marshall Islands) and those on the front lines of the climate crisis (ex. Maldives, Madagascar) to the largest countries with huge environmental footprints (such as China, India, Russa, and the U.S.). 

Viewed differently, there are pavilions from developing countries and developed countries, agricultural nations and industrial powerhouses, democracies and autocracies, allies and adversaries.  I managed to tour 42 of them over 2 days – some were small and low-tech, others were majestic and high-tech.  But every one of them revealed some unique element(s) emanating from each country’s cultural heritage (Indonesia’s pavilion instantly bombards visitors with the aroma of spices, for example), along with some desired theme or message to be conveyed. 

And that’s the power of what this gathering of national pavilions allows.  Expo provides a contained space for all nations of the world to share elements of their cultural heritage – to learn from one another while demonstrating innovative ideas on how to contribute to a better world and a more sustainable planet. 

It’s hard not to view such connectedness as a plus for global security.

Fourth, the educational element of Expo – especially in the three anchoring pavilions (Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability) – is extremely powerful.  The Opportunity pavilion, for example, is also known as Mission Possible – with a deep focus on what can be achieved to improve conditions for humanity through pursuit of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  It’s an immersive educational experience, beginning with upright stands in the entry plaza containing imagery and digital messaging related to each of the SDGs, such as “overfishing is endangering our marine biodiversity” and “one third of all food in the world is lost or wasted.”  Other messages focus on behavior change, such as “small changes make a big impact” and “be an agent of change.” 

Inside, a message from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres encourages visitors, noting that we all have a crucial role to play in leading change for sustainability and expressing his hope that the Mission Possible experience will inspire individuals to act.  Visitors engage in an exercise to track the sun to maximize the capture of solar energy, and then hear stories of how individual changemakers have harnessed the benefits of solar energy for expanding education in Africa. 

One room contains a huge, brilliant circular display of the SDGs, with the walls displaying inspirational stories of change, while another – with a display of ice-capped mountains and forests – encourages visitors to make a pledge toward more sustainable behavior at home, school, or work. 

The overriding message:  as individuals we can be change agents, and we can have big impact.

Similarly, the Sustainability pavilion (Terra), provides powerful messaging to help individuals understand the impact of their consumption practices on the planet, inspiring them to adopt more sustainable behavior with urgency.  Upon entry to this LEED Platinum facility, visitors choose from one of two journeys – one focused on ocean health, and another on forests and biodiversity. 

On the ocean side, individuals explore a powerful display on plastic pollution which forces us to rethink our reliance on single use plastics.  The Forest side contains a powerful section on our “factory-like” consumption, depicting mounds of discarded cartons, plastics, and e-waste.  Both interactive journeys end in the Laboratory of Future Values, which contains numerous educational models coupled with a stream of continuous, inspirational change messages, such as this:  “We already grow enough food for the expected increase in population; we need to produce, transform, and consume it smarter.”

And as noted, the individual Country pavilions all contribute their own educational elements to the overall Expo experience.  The water-focused New Zealand pavilion, for example, draws on the country’s indigenous roots with its theme of caring for people and place, citing the essential connection between people and Nature (with inspirational messaging such as “I AM Nature, we thrive together, “I AM a solution, and “Together we can make a difference, when we return to our origins, we find or strength”).

Last, Expo Dubai exudes energy and motivation.  Attendees are energized from the second they set foot on the site.  There’s a palpable feeling of excitement; a true sense of “we can.” The site conveys a global call to action.   And it makes sense – Expo is a mega-platform for the countries of the world to showcase their achievements and capabilities under the larger SDG frame to which all of these capabilities should (and indeed must) be directed.

From Inspiration to Global Action

Expo Dubai is an epic gathering space to reflect on the many urgent global social and environmental challenges wrapped up in the Sustainable Development Goals.

It gives us the vision for what a healthy, sustainable planet can be, and it gives us hope and inspiration that we can achieve a sustainable world if we act quickly on the imperatives facing us:  if we demonstrate the needed will to properly care for people and planet, if we set ambitious targets for change, and if we bring the world’s innovative capacity to bear in collaborative fashion.   

Expo inspires all of us to become agents of change, and to believe that we truly can change the world.

In other words, as the Opportunity pavilion conveys, Mission Possible

And with the decisive Decade of Action now well underway, the world must quickly come together to make this Mission Accomplished.

Are you feeling in need of inspiration?

If at all possible, don’t miss Expo Dubai, and become a change agent for the Goals.