Expo 2020 Dubai and the quest to sow social capital
Never more so than today has the world required refreshed and optimistic social capital as a way of bridging the divides between us, celebrating our culture, and collectively tackling global issues. World Expos, by design, are incredible platforms for generating and demonstrating social capital — both locally and internationally. This capital can be harvested from like-minded but culturally and socially diverse groups — which contribute significantly to cities, nations, and regions, and broader socioeconomic, political, and environmental successes. At Expo 2020 Dubai, the stage is set to bring millions of people together from around the world to reaffirm our global commonalities and responsibilities, and to share with one another our national and cultural individualities with the goal of making the world a better place for future generations.
The unique challenges of 2020 have highlighted a collection of deeper-set global issues that this generation, and subsequent generations, must address to ensure a brighter and better future. There is a productive sense of urgency around the world that we must bind resources and come together in order to do this. Fortunately, we have a rising generation of impassioned youths ready and willing to realise that sense of optimism and hope that remains. Though Expos and other large-scale events cannot create and drive these groups alone, they can play a major role in facilitating them, reaffirming their sense of purpose, sense of identity, and sense of pride. They can also aid them in knowledge sharing, discovery, innovation, and philanthropy. Lastly, they can bring them closer to their governments and leaders, visionaries and academics, creating local and global communities that want to work together, grow together, and contribute together.
"It is in simultaneously setting this example and allowing our youth to be the example that we safeguard our future"
One of the reasons Dubai bid to host World Expo 2020 is because we believe that we are well positioned to build bonding social capital locally among millions of people from around the world, as well as build social bridges through citizens, visitors, businesses, and governments. Our nation sits at the centre of the world, within eight hours of flying time for 80 per cent of the globe, and with a long history as a connecting hub. Equal parts old and mysterious and new and innovative. With a deep-rooted culture and rich history of academia, exploration, science, and connectivity, and a modern society flourishing in STEM research, space exploration, and world-class aviation. By bringing these two ends of history together through Expo 2020, with our people at the heart, we have the chance to inspire millions to go on to help not only Dubai and the UAE, but every country around the world prosper in the most pressing areas. It is in simultaneously setting this example and allowing our youth to be the example that we safeguard our future.
In the year of the UAE’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating 50 years of growth, achievement, and social progress, we stand in good stead to look forward to the next 50 with a clear purpose, and the infrastructure, people, and vision to achieve it. We set our sights on solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, positioning ourselves as a global incubator for new and exciting ideas. At the heart of that proposal sit the people of the UAE alongside the best minds from around the world that we welcome each and every day to collaborate and create a future we are all proud of.
The important question is how. What role will Expo 2020 Dubai play, and how can we ensure that people are at the centre of that, driving social capital as the fuel for a blossoming future — one that is inclusive, equal, and innovative?
Achieving this doesn’t start with the Expo; the seeds were sown many years before. We are already home to nearly 200 nationalities, with citizens of the world contributing to and benefitting from our society at every layer. To demonstrate our commitment to this environment, and to boost our inclusivity across the board, we branded 2019 The Year of Tolerance. This marked our dedication to fostering relationships of all kinds, to build on the progress already made in our 50 years, and to demonstrate to the world that a truly global community can live and prosper together — that every voice counts and that every culture is valued.
This inclusion has been matched at every societal level. In 2016, a ministerial reshuffle saw the UAE appoint five new female ministers, including the world’s youngest female government minister, Her Excellency Shamma bint Suhail Faris Al Mazrui, the Minister of State for Youth Affairs, taking female representation close to 30 per cent. This has also helped us to better connect our citizens, and youth in particular, to our government and leaders, demonstrating a more balanced relationship, resulting in a larger contribution from the public as to the direction in which we want to move as a nation.
That direction has been spearheaded by a number of critical focus areas. However, I want to highlight three that are of particular importance in this instance. Firstly, the UAE transitioned to a knowledge-based economy in recent years, with an emphasis on investment and inclusion. This has helped it raise its global status as a future-focused, diverse nation. This move immediately placed an emphasis on the citizens, the youth, and those willing and eager to contribute to the future of the nation.
The second is Dubai’s rise as a smart and sustainable city, in line with its 2021 vision, which is one of the core pillars of Expo 2020. The goal is building fully connected and integrated infrastructure that ensures easy mobility for all residents and tourists and provides easy access to all economic centres and social services. An important component to this vision is the continued focus on the living experience of the people in Dubai —residents and visitors — and their interaction with this environment, to inspire further advancements and innovations to better people’s lives.
The third and final pillar, which in many respects underlines all the above, is to prioritise people’s happiness. The UAE’s Smart Dubai 2021 initiative has identified this as a crucial success indicator and has announced an ambitious roadmap to prepare Dubai to embrace the future and emerge as a world-leading city by 2021, by promoting technological advances that benefit the city’s people, economy, and resources. Similarly, Dubai and the UAE have made a concerted effort to create a welcoming and easily accessible planting ground for start-ups and established businesses over recent years.
These strategies have been years in the making and will continue to flourish following our engagements at Expo 2020. A few standout initiatives, en route to achieving the Smart Dubai 2021 vision, include areas such as a paperless government — abolishing more than one billion pieces of paper used for government transactions by 2021; our blockchain strategy; start-up support strategy; happiness agenda — making happiness the primary goal for nationals, residents, businesses, and students; and our AI Principles and Ethics strategy — utilising Artificial Intelligence to provide practical assistance across the entire city, whether as a user or a developer.
A large-scale event like Expo has the opportunity to bring these initiatives to life and pioneer new initiatives and ideas that will go on to inform and drive future strategies, powered by networks of people, as like-minded as they are diverse. We can equally take this opportunity to learn from other nations participating in the event, as well as sharing our knowledge, too. And lastly, we are able to use the operation of the event as a way to demonstrate and showcase these initiatives in practice.
When Expo 2020 opens its doors officially on 1 October 2021, we are confident we will be able to proudly showcase the progress we have made with such initiatives. For many, representing Dubai and the UAE at the Expo, in front of millions of people from across the globe, may be the highlight of their young lives. The skills acquired through volunteering and working with such a diverse mix of tourists will stay with them long into the future and we can see some of those skills materialise in a number of the initiatives and plans I have mentioned already. The expectations, requirements, ideas, and insights from working with people from around the world could easily inform future ideas within the UAE, driven by those that have found a new or renewed sense of purpose for the UAE and its people off the back of Expo 2020.
"If the source of social capital is happy and inspired people, those people need to be seen as equal, to be heard, and to be given opportunities"
Of course, there is intense focus on issues close to all of us that Expo 2020 will seek to address, too. It isn’t simply the experience that grows social capital. If we can grow social capital while simultaneously inspiring that very same network to tunnel that energy towards these issues, we can win. These areas include water scarcity, climate erosion, gender equality, and urban development — among others. What Expo 2020 will help to do, beyond research and innovation, is bring our youth in touching distance of academics, businesses, families, advocates, activists, and scientists that are dedicating their professional and personal lives to these issues. Increasing the density of that fabric opens doors for us, individuals, and the world.
If the source of social capital is happy and inspired people, those people need to be seen as equal, to be heard, and to be given opportunities. We seek to address this under the banner of Opportunity, one of the Expo’s three subthemes. This is a key focus of the event and will be exemplified through various programmes and events. Although this is certainly deserving of its own theme, it will, too, be part of the fabric of all other initiatives and areas of focus, including the remaining two Expo 2020 subthemes: Sustainability and Mobility.
Inspiring the youth in their millions
One initiative I am particularly excited by is also one that will benefit hugely from the narrative of equal opportunity for all, and that is the Schools Programme. More than one million students will visit Expo 2020. This engagement is crucial for us locally, nationally, and globally. These are the bright minds that must feel connected not only to global issues but all the global population they must work with to achieve our goals in the future. Exposing these minds to the Expo is only the first step — integrating them with others, be it youths, academics, businesses, tourists, or other — is equally as important. This is where large-scale events prove their value — combining the information and inspiration our future generations need, while doing so in tandem with millions of others from around the world. These human-to-human interactions have the ability to set the course for the next 50 years and beyond.
Along with primary school students, all high school and university students will be invited to experience specially curated tours under the Expo Education Programme. Many of these students are already innovating and feeding their curiosity about the world through global experiences and interactions with industry leaders, experts and their peers, like those Expo 2020 will provide.
Leveraging local pride, realising local talent
The Arab world is rightly famous for its unique brand of hospitality, and the UAE reflects this, every day, as it welcomes visitors from around the world and invites them to experience its culture. As we look to the future, it is our hope that a young generation of Emiratis, supported by the apprenticeship Expo Generation Programme and the Internship Programme, will be inspired – as a result of hosting Expo 2020 Dubai - to push forward with our goals and ambitions, and will learn valuable knowledge and skills that will earn them opportunities in the professional world.
We will also be supported on site by graduate Event Makers who will play roles ranging from Hosts to Thematic and School Group Tour Guides, representing the UAE on the very front line of the event and showcasing the nations pride in a world class mega-event on their home soil.
"It is our hope that a young generation of Emiratis will be inspired to push forward with our goals and ambitions"
We have learned much from previous Expos about the long-term benefits of these types of engagements and roles within Expo — some fairly obvious and others less so. For example, we look forward to being able to integrate more languages into our culture, to share our local dialect with others, also. To learn how to communicate with foreign cultures and share culturalisms that make each and every country so unique and special. It can be simple interactions like these that set people up for global collaborations in the future. Skills like this have helped pioneering Emiratis in the past, such as Hazza Al Mansouri, who became the first Emirati to reach space on 25 September 2019, as he travelled to the International Space Station as part of a diverse and multicultural crew. It is the strength of the global population that allows us to complete such incredible feats. The experiences relished by our Emirati youths during Expo will lay the foundations for future global collaborations of this nature.
Alongside our valued Emirati Event Makers, we are pleased to be able to create a ‘face of Expo 2020’ that truly represents the diverse, multicultural makeup of the UAE today. During the event, a total of 30,000 volunteers from all walks of life, backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures will help us deliver a truly world class event.
To date, 130,000 people have applied to be volunteers at the event — a true indicator of the excitement and anticipation shared by UAE citizens and residents alike.
The final and important layer that completes this unique Emirati identity is our People of Determination. Expo 2020 is proud to reflect the inclusivity that is evident across the UAE — and this stretches beyond boundaries of nationality, background and culture, to differing abilities also. Under the Expo Inclusion Programme, we will offer access to development opportunities in roles across different functions at Expo 2020, resulting in full-time employment either at Expo 2020 or externally. There are also opportunities for People of Determination to learn craftsmanship skills that could serve as a future career base for them. We also aspire to be fully inclusive for our guests, and the most accessible site in the history of World Expos. Entry will be free of charge for People of Determination, with a 50 per cent discount for their carers.
"The magic is what happens between these interactions when they’re made seamlessly available and accessible"
In addition, we have developed an App named PODium, designed specifically to aid People of Determination in navigating and moving about the site in the most comfortable way. This will be available alongside other careful steps we have taken to ensure that Expo 2020 is a wonderful experience for all, including staff equipped with communication cards for those who are non-verbal, lanyards for those with a hidden impairment, dedicated quiet rooms for those with sensitivity to stimulation, audio descriptions of exhibits, sign language interpretation for talks, events and ceremonies, and facilities accessible for wheelchair users.
All these efforts, for us, are just another part of the puzzle in facilitating communication and togetherness across cultures, nationalities, and abilities. The magic is what happens between these interactions when they’re made seamlessly available and accessible.
We know that achieving a lasting impact is a vital success indicator for Expos, as well as other large-scale, short-term events, such as the World Cups and Olympic Games. Although a number of these events have given us iconic pieces of infrastructure that have become the beating hearts of a number of cities, such as the Eiffel Tower (Expo 1889 Paris) and the Space Needle (Expo 1962 Seattle), it is of course the message and lesson that must endure. Expo 2020 is expected to attract millions of visitors representing millions of opportunities for Dubai to create ambassadors for the emirate and the UAE. We have a chance here to open dialogues that visitors carry back home with them, reaffirming the UAE’s reputation on the global stage as a nation of bold ideas and fervent ambition, and inspiring the next generation of innovators to seek the means to explore their dreams.
For the UAE and wider region to feel the long-term benefits of Expo 2020, we have created District 2020. On the exact site of Expo, it will carry forward the vision of Expo 2020 as Dubai’s innovation ecosystem, mandated to drive cross-industry collaboration in sectors crucial to the city’s future and spur progress through ground-breaking ideas. It will repurpose 80 per cent of the assets and infrastructure built for Expo, evolving into an integrated and modern urban living and working environment, and ensuring the event remains true to its focus on sustainability. It will also, we hope, become a blueprint for future smart and sustainable communities that are engineered to preserve and promote the wellbeing of everyone that steps inside. For us, beyond the impressive aesthetic and functionality of the city, the wellbeing of its residents, guests, and staffers is the most important thing — particularly in today’s rapidly digitalising world, where maintaining peace of mind, harmony, and a relationship with nature grows harder by the day. If we can create sustainable, smart, and connected communities that exist to make life calmer, easier, and more natural for its settlers, we will be on the right track. I cannot imagine a better blueprint for this than the legacy of Expo 2020 Dubai and all it stands for.
"We want each nation to extract the social capital gained from participation at Expo 2020 and direct it towards solving the greatest issues and challenges of our time"
We have seen this success in past Expos, where the people have been put first, and continue to benefit today. Expo 1962 Seattle, which called itself the 21st Century Exposition, specifically designed its site to gentrify the city, ensuring the legacy of the Expo was felt by its citizens and everyone that visited — something it maintains even today. The momentum built for the Expo have seen Seattle thrive in the modern age with a blossoming tech scene and a strong academic offering.
Ten years ago, Shanghai shared a message of sustainable urban living that Expo 2020 is carrying into the next decade and beyond. Centered on the theme “Better City, Better Life”, the Expo 2010 Shanghai was timely, acknowledging the growth of urbanisation and its impact on how we live our lives and the environment.
Both these examples are testament to the leadership of those cities and their desire and ambition to create a social legacy that binds those that reside and work there and easily integrates those that visit.
When all is said and done, we want each nation to extract the social capital gained from participation at Expo 2020 and direct it towards solving the greatest issues and challenges of our time as a global collective, creating a better and brighter tomorrow.
This article is adapted from a text that was published in the 2020 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled “Expos, citizens and social capital” and is illustrated with pictures from before the Covid-19 pandemic.