If World Expos are notable for their stunning architecture, immersive experiences, and dazzling performances, they are also unique venues for meaningful dialogue and deep discussion. By gathering people with diverse backgrounds from across the world, World Expos provide a platform for the exchange of ideas and the formation of new relationships. At Expo 2020 Dubai, this dialogue is taking place in a myriad of ways, with the World Majlis standing out as a unique approach – innovative yet inspired by tradition – for fostering and shaping conversations about the future. With nine of the Expo’s ten theme weeks now completed, Dr. Federica Busa, Expo 2020 Dubai’s Senior Vice President, Visitor Experience, explains the role and contribution of the Majlis to the Expo’s thematic discussions.

What is the concept of Majlis and how does it fit into Expo 2020 Dubai’s values and its programming?

Federica Busa: In English the word majlis means a “place of sitting” and refers to both a social gathering space and a formal legislative assembly for government. It is a space where community members gather to discuss local events and issues, and engage in respectful but vibrant conversation, solving problems and connecting with one another.

This concept of a Majlis, as a place for open, informed and measured conversations has formed the basis for the World Majlis programme at Expo 2020 Dubai. Conversations can be a powerful force in creating the future, yet in our digital age we may have lost the art of conversation.

Embodying the “Connecting Minds” part of our theme to generate new connections and ideas for the future, the World Majlis convenes conversations between diverse thought leaders, visionaries and change-makers on topics that will define the next 50 years.

"Conversations can be a powerful force in creating the future, yet in our digital age we may have lost the art of conversation"

Thematic forums and seminars are a key feature of World Expos. In what ways does the World Majlis series embody the inclusive spirit of Expos?

Federica Busa: As part of the Programme for People and Planet at Expo 2020, the World Majlis’ approach to thematic forums has been to take a ground-up approach to understanding global perspectives on the three key sub-themes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.

Organised in the lead up to Expo 2020 Dubai, 30 conversations held across the world, in the UAE and online, informed the themes and programming of the 50+ conversations taking place during the Expo.

With its particular emphasis on inclusivity and respecting diverse points of view, the World Majlis programme during Expo 2020 has thus far heard over 350 thought leaders from 48 countries and a range of voices representing different geographies, generations and sectoral expertise.

"The informal, conversational style of the World Majlis encourages participants to step out of the comfort zone of formal speeches and presentations"

To further enhance the diversity of viewpoints, the World Majlis, in collaboration with the Expo School Programme, has also had in place, since 2018, a programme called the Next Gen World Majlis Programme that fosters conversations with and amongst youth on a variety of topics linked to the Expo themes.

We have also collaborated with the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai to curate a series of Women’s World Majlis conversations – 10 discussions that focus on vital women’s issues at the heart of each Expo theme week.

Holding space for these often lesser-heard voices we find has greatly enriched the content of the World Majlis discussions and is pivotal to our goal of inspiring new perspectives.

How does the format of World Majlis impact the style of exchange in these conversations? Have you seen progress or breakthroughs that may not have been possible in other contexts?

Federica Busa: Just like in the traditional majlis where the host of the majlis and the guests sit facing one another and engage in discussions, the informal, conversational style of the World Majlis encourages participants to step out of the comfort zone of formal speeches and presentations, and engage with each other as equals.

Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of this format is how the openness and lack of defined boundaries for the conversation allow ideas to flow freely, and allow unexpected connections between different ideas to emerge. In fact, the most important outcome of the World Majlis is a series of new insights on a challenge, the breakthroughs are in how it leads us to view the problems by asking new and different questions.

"The World Majlis series has challenged traditional ways of thinking"

What are the trends that Expo 2020 Dubai’s World Majlis conversations have foreseen?

Federica Busa: Across theme weeks covering Climate and Biodiversity, Space, Urban and Rural Development, Tolerance and Inclusivity, Knowledge and Learning, Travel and Connectivity, and Global Goals, the World Majlis series has challenged traditional ways of thinking.

In 2022 we expect to see:

  • Nature and cities working together: With net-zero targets in the spotlight for climate solutions, nature is taking centre stage as critical infrastructure for urban wellbeing. New urban concepts will increasingly place nature at the core of physical and mental health.
  • The growth of space tech diplomacy: With around 70 nations now able to launch space technology, the challenge is how to do this effectively, responsibly and collaboratively. With engineers collaborating on new solutions to reduce the volume of space junk and avoiding risky collisions, the development of new international mechanisms for sustainable space will be a priority.
  • Indigenous concepts finding a voice: We will see increasing evidence of how local knowledge can successfully enrich scientific research, inform sustainable urban planning, and lead the way to novel legislation. Inspired by the early moves of countries like New Zealand, working with indigenous communities to grant legal personhood status to an ecosystem surrounding a river, more regions will look into new social contracts to respect their environments.
  • Success measured by what matters locally: The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted significant challenges, such as inflexible buildings that fail to reconcile home, work and school, and the importance of green spaces and outdoor areas. In 2022, the notion of ‘tactical urbanism’ – how to engage communities to conserve, enhance or try to reimagine certain areas, will gain importance.
  • Health and well-being becoming more personalised: New innovations will mean individualised solutions for both our physical and mental health - from medicines that can be targeted to your body through genomics, to built environments that serve the needs of people and planet at an individual or community level.

We look forward to future theme weeks and the insights they will bring.

How are the conclusions of World Majlis conversations being leveraged to shape a better future?

Federica Busa: The ideas and insights emerging from the World Majlis taking place across 10 theme weeks have been distilled into 10 Theme Insight Reports. These are available to view online at virtualexpodubai.com and will be part of the legacy of Expo 2020 Dubai. We have also published four illustrated volumes of essays from past participants of the programme that are available at bookstores in the UAE and can also be viewed on the World Majlis dedicated website.

We would also hope that the format of the Majlis itself becomes something that the various participants, and indeed World Expos themselves, might leverage in the future as a tool for engagement and public diplomacy.

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