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Dubai Expo 2020: Experience Principals from the best Country Pavilions

Having worked on various concept phases for Dubai Expo 2020 between 2014 & 2019 I was excited to see it IRL. World Expos like to deal in big ideas; they are a cultural Olympics of the world showcasing the latest and greatest in Architecture, Culture, Curated experiences, Storytelling, Content and Technology to showcase their ideas for solving global problems. The idea dates back to The Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in 1851 when the UK wanted to boast of its cultural and industrial prowess, alongside 44 other countries. These days the events are held on a grander scale, but the underlying narrative is not so different.

Dubai Expo 2020, which has been delayed by a year due to the pandemic, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ felt more relevant than ever. After two years of being locked away it was a cacophony of sensory overload with 192 country pavilions within the 4.38 km2 Expo site.

The best country pavilions prioritised storytelling and felt like an immersive trailer of that country with a clear beginning, middle and end and created an experience centred around the theme ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’.

I’m not sure how each country measures their ROI (Expo Dubai 2020 is said to have cost around $6.8 billion) but I now want to travel to Japan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia! A lot of countries made the most of large projection surfaces enhanced with mirrors (a global trend being popularised by art experiences), water screens, 4D experiences and immersive sound design.

Having seen over 30 pavilions over three days here are my experience principals for creating the best World Expo pavilions.

1. Storytelling with a beginning, middle and end

The Australian Pavilion had three distinctive chapters starting with the entrance which welcomed visitors to the space through a futuristic mirrored tunnel with 1:1 Australians welcoming visitors and highlighting 60,000 years of Aussie culture. The Australians were diverse and whilst I’m sure it was rehearsed, the content felt authentic and due the design of the space it felt like a personal conversation.

The next chapter was an immersive dome with ceiling projection and a space to sit (always welcome!). Aboriginal storytelling was at the heart of the narrative with the importance of dreaming and astrology to indigenous culture. The content was amazing and gave just the right feeling of movement as if we were floating through space; kids exclaimed “Wow – it’s like we’re in a spaceship”!

The final chapter was one of many immersive cube projection rooms with a central mirror installation with a synchronised projection show revealing Australia of today and their innovations in healthcare, technology, and environmental conservation.

2. Personalisation

Japan was the only pavilion I experienced that used personalisation to contextualise the experience, and it worked, I left feeling I had a personal responsibility to combat climate change and had to power to do something!

On arrival everyone was issued with their own smartphone and headset in which to choose their language alongside basic data exchange to give each visitor their own Japanese flower avatar to guide them through the experience. The first black box told the story of Japan through the centuries projected onto string curtains that revealed four seasonal doors for you to choose from. The smartphone meant my choice of Spring registered which my personalised audio experience reacted to. This also meant within the exhibition zone audio content was delivered to you based on proximity before being given a personalised CTA for the next zone.

An immersive mirrored tunnel with provocative climate change content (every 20 mins Every 20 mins 4,38km of forest (Dubai expo) is being lost) made visitors confront themselves over their role in climate change when visitors were reflected into the Climate change content and its CTAs.

The experience culminated in a final projection room with a giant globe that through an ultimately whacky Japanese experience with avatars left visitors feeling empowered to ‘Connect Minds and Create the Future’.

3. Aligning with the World Expo theme

The UK’s hotly anticipated pavilion designed by Es Devlin was a big idea that embraced the theme of ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the future’ with the exterior of the pavilion being designed to house the world’s first AI poetry.

The concept of a universal message was inspired by the late scientist Stephen Hawking, whose final projects included the pursuit of a “breakthrough message” from the world that could be sent to space to find or communicate with extra-terrestrial intelligence. A brave big idea and concept that embraced the theme but unfortunately underdelivered on the full experience which I mistook as just a queue experience when it was indeed the full experience.

4. Content is King

The Saudi Arabian pavilion challenged expectations by positioning Saudi Arabia as a travel destination with a wealth of culture and heritage. The impressive structure hosts the world’s largest LED screen on the exterior which formed the backdrop to a show about the 13 regions whilst queuing.

The experience had a mix of physical set pieces and immersive projection spaces with escalators to take visitors through the large experience.

The first projection space used a mix of 360° and dome projection to show immersive scenery (360°) mixed with drone footage (dome projection) from the 13 regions in Saudi Arabia which acted as an impressive trailer to the country.

A section a globe was made whole through strategically placed mirrors with beautiful abstract content which made for an impressive and Instagrammable space even if the narrative felt lost. However, the pavilion certainly changed perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination with ambitious plans for the future.

However, the most moving pavilion that showcased the true meaning of an expo was Ukraine. Their screen content has been replaced with the Ukrainian flag and a call to action #StandWithUkraine and hundreds of post-it notes from all around the world in many languages showing unified support for Ukraine. Interestingly, no technology was required to tell the most powerful and impactful story of Expo.

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