Expo: Success Beyond 2020

Raghunath Thottikamath


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    When global expos started in 1851, they were the only major international fairs in the world, and some of the world’s most famous and successful inventions were launched at these events. Look back as far as 1876, and the telephone was launched in Philadelphia. The x-ray machine was debuted in Buffalo in 1901, the broadcast TV in New York in 1939 and the world’s first touchscreen at Knoxville in 1982. The world’s finest creations haven’t just been confined to US launches, with Maglev – magnetic levitation-based rail travel – launched in Aichi, Japan in 2005. Fast forward to the present day, and now we are spoiled for choice with exhibition options, and Dubai finds itself with a huge opportunity – to truly make its mark with Expo 2020. The city faces huge competition to impress, but if it does, Expo 2020 could be remembered as a landmark event of its kind.

    There are a whole host of benefits that hosting a successful Expo can bring, chief among them increased tourism, both during and after the event. Expo will gain significantly more international attention for the UAE. The period chosen to host the Expo – October 2020 until April 2021 – represents Dubai’s most hospitable weather, and that is ideal for impressing tourists. Equally, those already visiting Dubai in that period may be inclined to visit the Expo site.

    In the same way that the Expo will serve as a platform to entice tourists, it’s also an excellent shop window and catalyst for increasing foreign investment into the country during and after the event. The world’s most innovative companies are keen to be seen at the cutting-edge, and if Expo lives up to its name then it is undoubtedly an attractive platform for large companies to be a part of.

    The third major benefit is one that arises only if the situation is well managed by the government, and that is the long-term legacy of the Expo site itself. Whoever is able to inherit the space will get a new facility at the centre of Dubai South – effectively a city within a city. Progress has already been made in that regard – half of the Expo site has already been leased to Siemens to make it their worldwide logistics hub, which represents an early coup. However, if the right decisions aren’t made about what to do with the rest of the Expo site after the event, that’s a risk. South China Mall in Dongguan should be a cautionary tale – the site had the largest amount of leasable shopping space in the world, but signed almost no merchants for 10 years.

    The 2000 Expo in Hannover, Germany, is an example that should also serve as a warning to Dubai, the event selling less than half of the anticipated 40 million tickets on offer. Ticket pricing was seen as a significant reason for many people not attending the event, with it being much more expensive than many other family days out. It also moved away from the traditional Expo focus on new technology, to one more based on developing sustainable ways of living for the future with the theme “Man, nature and technology”.

    Arguably the biggest challenge that Dubai faces is making sure that the right content is on display at Expo 2020. The event has to show significant technological breakthroughs that will be used by people in the future. The last five world Expos haven’t really offered anything which has caught the world’s attention. Dubai needs to deliver something of serious magnitude that will live on for decades.

    The technology industry is now abuzz with talk of artificial intelligence, and I believe this is something that Dubai could exploit. We all know that the UAE has appointed the world’s first minister of AI, and this could serve as a great platform for the country to promote itself as a global AI hub. If Dubai can indeed promote itself as becoming an AI hub, why couldn’t it hold mega-events around AI in the future? This could serve as a platform to position Dubai as something that it isn’t yet. Dubai already hosts some of the world’s biggest exhibitions – Arab Health, GITEX and The Big 5 chief among them – and Expo could serve as an opportunity to launch other niche exhibitions that aren’t already there worldwide.

    Ultimately, Dubai can make a real success out of Expo 2020 because the city’s government has a can-do attitude, and is determined to build the biggest and best of everything. I genuinely believe Expo 2020 can allow Dubai to carve out a global niche. The government now has the opportunity to position Dubai however they want, and that’s a such a big advantage. The government has already given its strong backing to Expo, and that has already put Dubai off to a good start in making the necessary infrastructure changes for the show.

    All teams involved in planning Expo now need to investigate the risks the project will face, including operational, financial and business interruption risks, and actively mitigate and manage them. Public-private partnerships tend to offset financial risks facing host governments, and this is something Dubai has already been keen to embrace. Early deadlines need to be set for testing all technologies related to the Expo. Tech providers should test crowd management, security, ticketing, and all other systems way before construction begins, to avoid delays in building and implementation.

    Tourists still flock to Montreal 51 years after its 1967 Expo because they had such a positive, enduring memories of the event. Now, Dubai has to finish laying the foundations and install long-term plans to make sure Expo 2020 is truly unforgettable and leaves a legacy that the city can be proud of.

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