Six years ago in a soul-stirring, impassioned speech in Paris in November 2013, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy gave a rousing call to more than 200 delegates from 168 member nations of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) to share the dream of an entire nation in hosting the World Expo 2020. Speaking about "the spirit of a young country that looks to the future with enthusiasm and hope", her compelling words – representing the voice of millions in the UAE – struck a chord with the delegates as she outlined Dubai’s strengths of diversity, strong infrastructure and stability and the grandness of its ambitious vision to deliver one of the most successful expos.

Within the course of the voting day as Dubai beat fellow contenders Izmir, Turkey, Ekaterinburg, Russia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, in a landslide record win of 116 votes out of a total of 165, it also marked the first time in the Expo’s 168-year history that the winning bid for staging this prestigious event was being handed to a city in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region.

Spurred by the vision of its leaders, the UAE had promised to give the world "an exquisite and memorable Expo with a meaningful and far-reaching legacy". With just over 400 days before this magnificent dream unfolds into reality on October 20 next year, the Expo 2020 organisers have given the residents of the UAE an opportunity to enjoy a sneak preview into the progress of the Arab world’s most anticipated event ever.

It is therefore with great earnestness that we hop aboard a double-decker coach to witness first-hand the construction of some of the most impressive landmarks and groundbreaking architecture currently underway at the site in Dubai South. The tour, aptly named ‘The World’s Greatest Show in the Making’, commences at the Mall of the Emirates and we are greeted on board by Roxanne, our guide, who informs us that the road we are heading out into – formerly known as the Jebel Ali Lehbab Road – has been renamed as Expo Road in honour of the region’s first World Expo. On our 30-minute drive, Roxanne proceeds to enthral us with a fascinating insight into the history of World Expos, bringing to our attention some of the most ingenious inventions unveiled at these events over the years.

Although the word ‘Expo 2020’ had turned into a buzzword in the UAE ever since the nation decided to bid for and then won the right to stage it, many residents believe it to be just a business exhibition that lasts six months long. That is not the case, explains Roxanne, as she reveals that "the expos, previously called World’s Fairs, were originally linked to the Industrial Revolution and served as a platform for countries across the globe to display their architectural and technological prowess.

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‘An expo served as a springboard for positive changes brought on by industrial innovation as it promoted economic growth and left lasting legacies in the form of urban transformation in their host cities,’ she adds.

The first World Expo or Great Exhibition of 1851 in London attracted more than six million people or one third of the entire population of Britain, she tells us. ‘It displayed about 100,000 objects showcasing the inventions from the industrial revolution. The event was one of the defining moments of the 19th century and its profits funded three of London’s most popular museums – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.’

The Visitor’s Centre has many exhibits so you can explore and engage with the Expo 2020 theme and sub-themes
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The expo’s unrivalled ability to attract millions of visitors continues to this day, and it is one of the three largest global events alongside the Olympics and Fifa World Cup, says Roxanne.

Yet another great impact, she adds, has been the legacy of enduring architectural landmarks. ‘Prominent amongst these is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, designed to serve as a grand entrance for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which, at the time, was the tallest building on earth. More than a century later, it is still one of the most iconic structures on our planet.’

In 1958, the expo at Brussels, Belgium, drew inspiration from the Atomic Age to create the Atomium, a design based on an iron molecule enlarged 165 billion times, and is today an integral part of the city’s landscape. As the world entered the Space Age, an architectural symbol resembling a flying saucer was built as the centrepiece of World Expo 1962 in Seattle, she tells us. "This iconic Space Needle recently underwent a facelift and now features a revamped observation deck and the world’s first revolving glass floor."

It is not only architectural masterpieces that have become the mainstay or survived as the legacy of the expos, adds Roxanne. ‘These global events were also marked by the introduction of significant inventions including exotic products from distant lands. Homemakers, particularly, have the expos to thank for the introduction of lawn mowers and washing machines. It was here that people first witnessed the Ferris wheel and talking movies that projected both image and sound to create movies as we know them today.’

The typewriter, telegraph, telephone, X-ray, mechanical calculator and even the TV was first introduced to the world at an expo. The 1970 Osaka Expo in Japan introduced Imax film and also displayed moon rock brought home by Apollo 12 US astronauts the previous year.

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The young children on the coach are astonished to hear that even food products that have now become household names once marked their debut at expos. We hear from Roxanne how in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, Henry John Heinz, whose stand was far away from the major attractions, wooed in visitors with the offer of a free taste of ketchup to anyone who visited his stand, leading to the eventual successful launch of the Heinz Tomato Ketchup.

We also learn how at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, a Syrian-born waffle maker helped the ice cream vendor next to him when he ran out of glass serving dishes by rolling up one of his thin waffles to scoop in some ice cream and voila, the ice cream cone came into being!

As the bus cruises along to the Expo site, Roxanne describes how over the course of decades, the very notion of an expo as being an event to showcase the best of industrial manufacturing gradually metamorphosed into a global discussion platform aimed at finding solutions to the biggest challenges of humanity.

‘Expo 2020 held under the theme "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" will therefore look to build partnerships and inspire ideas shaping the world of tomorrow,’ she explains. ‘Organised around ideas of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability, visitors will be ushered into a world of excitement and discovery that encompasses space odysseys, deep-sea adventures and operatic firsts to exercise gaming, kaleidoscopic fantasy gardens and the future of travel. You will find groundbreaking architecture at every turn, get the opportunity to taste dishes from every corner of the world at more than 200 food and beverage outlets, and enjoy around 60 live performances every single day.’

As Dubai gears up to deliver an exceptional expo, Roxanne informs us that the UAE’s experience with the World Expo began even before the country came into being. ‘In 1970, a single individual represented Abu Dhabi for the first time at the international exposition in Japan – although it was not yet an independent country. Since then, the UAE has participated in every single edition of World Expo, even winning awards for its pavilions in recent years.’

Cutting-edge venue

As our bus enters the 4.38 sq km expo site that resembles a mega city under construction, Roxanne informs us that this cutting-edge venue is where the most forward-thinking minds and ideas on the planet will converge for six months from October 20, 2020 until April 10, 2021. ‘The site was specifically chosen because of its location between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and its proximity to the Al Maktoum International Airport,’ she says. ‘With 192 country pavilions and 25 million people – the size of the population of Australia – expected to visit Expo 2020 over a 173-day period, more than 900 team members are working round the clock to ensure that it elevates the country’s status on the world stage.’

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We disembark at the Expo 2020 Visitor’s Centre, where we are welcomed with the traditional Emirati greeting of ‘hayyakum,’ and served refreshments, dates and coffee. A team of volunteers are on hand to explain the different exhibits and answer any queries we may have on the Expo. It is here through a video installation that we learn about Al Wasl Plaza, the pulsating heart of the Expo site, which is also the central event hub where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held. Al Wasl (meaning "the connection") connects to three thematic districts, each one dedicated to a sub-theme – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.

Its intricate domed roof boasts a diameter of 150 metres and has a height of 65 metres, making it taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Filled with fountains, waterfalls, parks and palm-lined courtyards, the translucent trellis dome resembling the Expo2020 logo will double up as a 360-degree screen at night, projecting images to thousands of visitors both inside and outside.

The Visitor’s Centre has many exhibits that allow us to explore and engage with the Expo 2020 theme and sub-themes. We thus learn that the Opportunity Pavilion, created from organic materials including timber, 2,500 tonnes of stone and 111km of woven rope, is a fully recyclable structure that aims to challenge the visitors’ thinking on issues related to basic needs of water, food, and energy. It seeks to inspire visitors on the important role they can play in human development through their actions.

Complementing the Expo’s sub-theme of connections and movement is the Mobility Pavilion, a flowing trefoil-shaped structure, which aims to bring the idea of mobility to life with the world’s largest elevating platform and a high-speed track. This pavilion, explains a volunteer, opens up a world of possibilities that can be attained through both physical and digital realms as we enable movement of knowledge, ideas and goods.

The Sustainability Pavilion, we are told, not only pushes the boundaries of eco-conscious design but also delves on mankind’s relationship with nature and the magnitude of our impact on it. A series of satellite dish-shaped structures will collect solar energy during the day while at night, specially treated surfaces collect water from the air. Here, we can learn how humankind and nature can thrive in harmony and also meet Gnasher, a sharp-toothed machine of endless consumption that ingests vast amounts of natural resources to churn out single-use consumer products, demonstrating the need to make better consumer choices in daily life.

A rendering of the Mobility pavilion, a flowing trefoil-shaped structure that has the world’s largest elevating platform and a high-speed track

A visual display reveals the renderings of the various country pavilions that will be housed within these three thematic districts.

We board the bus once again and as we reach our destination, we see how the Al Wasl Plaza dome is all set to be topped out soon. Roxanne then draws our attention to the UAE Pavilion, designed in the shape of a falcon which, she says, will introduce the world to the nation’s rich culture and its pioneering spirit that has transformed a host of small, desert communities, into a global connection point.

Sustainability is a key element of Expo 2020, she adds, as it aims to minimise carbon emissions and raise the bar for sustainable development. ‘At the event, renewable resources will power clean energy, smart controls for metering and irrigation will reduce water usage, 85 per cent of all waste will be diverted from landfills by reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing, and post Expo, 80 per cent of permanent construction will live on as part of a vibrant commercial and residential development called District 2020.’

We drive onward and notice that the Dubai Metro Route 2020 designed to take 46,000 passengers per hour to and from the Expo site in under 16 minutes from Dubai Marina is also making headway.

Roxanne informs us that country pavilions will feature interactive exhibits and offer immersive experiences. Some of these include the UK Pavilion that highlights British expertise in Artificial Intelligence and will display an ever-changing poem created by the millions of Expo visitors; the Netherlands Pavilion that will harvest water, energy and food through innovations including a cone-shaped vertical farm; the Czech Republic Pavilion that will create fertile land in the barren conditions of the desert by extracting water vapour from the air; and many more.

As we leave the massive, dust-blown site peppered with construction equipment, UK-based Humzha Dar, a postgraduate in Global Supply Chain Management & Logistics, says it is the massive challenges in providing end-to-end logistics solutions at Expo 2020 that inspired him to visit the site. ‘The scale of the project is unbelievable; some of the architecture is so futuristic and the technology incorporated is cutting-edge. This tour is certainly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,’ says Dar, who plans to open a logistics company in Dubai soon.‘The tour guide did a fantastic job in enhancing our knowledge of the Expo,’ adds his sister, Rabiah. ‘We have been visiting Dubai annually for six years now and each time, we are astonished at how much the city has changed; but nothing can quite surpass the scale of development at the Expo.’

A rendering of Al Wasl Plaza, the pulsating heart of the Expo site and the central event hub, has an intricate domed roof with a height of 65 metres, making it taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Ravindran, another visitor to the site, finds it difficult to contain his excitement at what he has just witnessed. ‘I arrived in the UAE 50 years ago when only one full-fledged building existed in Deira, Dubai. I have watched in amazement the phenomenal growth of the city in such a short span of time but the staggering pace of development that we saw at the Expo site is nothing short of incredible. It tops everything the city has witnessed so far and is a fitting tribute to the nation that will celebrate its Golden Jubilee during the period of the Expo.

‘The spectacular architecture is breathtakingly beautiful but as a person in the construction business, I am equally eager to discover more about the innovation and ingenuity in technology that has gone into its making,’ he adds.

Expo 2020 in numbers

25 million: The number of visits expected at Expo 2020 – equivalent to welcoming the population of Australia.

900,000: Sustainability Pavilion technology can generate enough energy to charge more than 900,000 mobile phones.

94,000: The number of people who can use the Dubai Metro Route 2020 link each weekend – twice the number of people who live in Deira.

35,000: The number of people currently building the Expo 2020 site.

30,000: Number of volunteers – that is more than the population of Jumeirah.

600: 4.38 sq km is the size of the Expo 2020 site, equal to more than 600 football pitches.

250: The Mobility Pavilion has a large moving platform, like a big lift with no walls. The platform can lift up to 250 people at a time.

111: The Opportunity Pavilion has a canopy that will be made from approximately 111 kilometres of woven rope.

2: Airbus A380s can fit across the centre of Al Wasl Plaza.