The Importance of Global Connections: An Inside Look at Expo 2020 Dubai

Jul 6, 2022 | Human Connections, RoundTable Connections

From London in 1851 to Dubai in 2022, the World Expo has been going strong for over 170 years. In this simple, but profound way, our society has united to put the best innovations in art, culture, science, and technology on display to highlight the importance of global connections. 

We applaud this incredible effort. We need to approach our shared challenges more frequently in this way. 

Expo 2020 Dubai (scheduled for 2020 but delayed until 2021 and 2022 because of COVID) was the first Expo held in the Middle East and boasted the largest number ever of participating countries. 192 countries from across the globe gathered to highlight achievements in sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. The Expo, which ran from October 1, 2021 until March 31, 2022, centered on the theme of “Connecting Minds and Creating the Future” and inspired over 24 million visits to experience the potential of global collaboration in technology, sustainability, and architecture.  

Featured showcases in Dubai included a giant sculpture of the brain, the recreation of a tropical rainforest, friendly robots, driverless cars, space technology displays, a moon rock, and more. This Expo also saw the most significant disruption, due to COVID-19, but demonstrated what is possible even in the face of daunting obstacles. 

At our June Heart+Mind Connections roundtable, we spoke with Giovanni Criscione, Senior Protocol Director for the Expo, and Bob Clark, U.S. Commissioner General and Founder of engineering and construction firm Clayco. They each offered an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s biggest events. 

Related: Human Connections in 2022 

The Importance of Resilience Amidst Uncertainty 

When Dubai won the Expo bid in 2013, no one knew it might get derailed by a global pandemic seven years later. But when the first cases of COVID-19 quickly started spreading in early 2020, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) voted to postpone the Expo, which was originally slated to open in October 2020. 

Criscione is no stranger to working on a World Expo. He spent almost ten years working on the Milan Expo, from 2006 – 2015, in his home country of Italy before becoming involved with the Expo 2020 Dubai. He remembers how united the Dubai Expo team felt in the early days of the pandemic, and how they never let the worry and uncertainty of those days threaten the success of the Expo. 

“That was the moment, on the 30th of March, where the Expo released a video that it was going to be postponed,” Criscione said. “The world was falling apart. Everybody was suffering and the country’s priorities were other than the Expo. I will never forget how united we were, all the team working from home, with all the difficulties, with all the problems…resilience was the key word.” 

Keeping the vision of the Expo alive was crucial, as they realized the foundational purpose of the Expo presents the perfect opportunity to connect to the hearts and minds of people around the world. 

Clark, on the other hand, was not even originally involved in the Expo. The role of the U.S. Commissioner General at the Expo is considered part of the US State Department and is appointed by the White House. In 2020, the Trump Administration originally appointed John Rakolta as the Commissioner General, but when the Expo was postponed and the Biden Administration took office, they needed to appoint someone new. Clark immediately hopped on a plane to Dubai after he was sworn in as the new Commissioner General, a week before the Expo started in 2021. Because there was no U.S. ambassador during his time there, Clark was considered the top U.S. White House appointed official in the UAE. 

Clark encouraged any business leader to learn from this experience – watching the Expo handle significant global disruption with resilience – and apply it to their own work. Communication is key in any industry. 

“The expos are a great opportunity for what I would call hand-to-hand communication, instead of hand-to-hand combat,” Clark said. “It’s a place where you can really, really energize the communication cycle, where you can really bring people together, both from a government, a business, and just the people of the world to educate and to spark future interest in some eight-year-old kid who may be the scientist that cracks the code in climate change. It’s just all about that high level of communication, and that’s true in business as well.” 

Expo Passport to Connections

Sustainability, Mobility, and Opportunity  

The three districts at the Expo focused on sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. The United States, which participated as part of the Opportunity pavilion, showcased Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran, a Moon rock sample collected by American astronaut Jack Schmitt during the Apollo 17 mission, a 43-meter-tall replica of the Falcon 9 booster, and a replica of the Mars Opportunity Rover. 

“When I first got there…I thought some of these things were a little gimmicky, but I have to tell you, I touched the moon rock almost every day,” Clark said. “It’s not a gimmick. It gives you a superpower and seeing the people’s faces – some seven-year-old kid or some 70-year-old man from India, touching the moon and getting the spark of ingenuity – really is the theme…about connecting people and creating the future.” 

Criscione and Clark both highlighted the human connections above everything – how powerful interactions with different people, countries, and cultures made the biggest impact on their time at the Expo and created the perfect opportunity to connect. 

“It was like embracing entire world,” Criscione said. “We had the opportunity to enter in one pavilion and to be fully embraced by their culture, their food, their people – connecting minds, connecting hearts, connecting souls. We were there every single day. We were there surrounded by people from all over the world. Every single day was an opportunity for us to learn from each other.” 

Criscione said one of the most popular experiences was in Mobility district, a video that showed what a future sustainable city could look like, the challenge of climate change and the technology needed to accurately address it.  

Clark was impressed by the number of women involved from all of the world and the issues they highlighted across cultures. 

“Women’s rights that are being addressed around the world,” Clark said. “Some giant countries who you wouldn’t necessarily think might be best practices in these areas are really stepping forward. The UAE is making great strides. Saudi Arabia is making great strides, and in America we’re kind of going backwards. I think this there’s going to be this constant challenge, but I thought the Expo did a great job of focusing on…some of these critical issues that are impacting women around the world and how intertwined they are with so many other issues.” 

Related: Forging Human Connections 

What comes next? 

The Dubai Expo site, set between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, will be transformed into the UAE’s newest urban development: Expo City Dubai, an integrated mixed-use community and global neighborhood, fulfilling the Expo’s founding vision to be an ecosystem to connect, create, and innovate. It will include commercial and residential spaces with buildings like the Al Wasl Dome retained in the district’s design, as well as a children and science center, office buildings, an Expo 2020 Museum and cultural center. Some of the most popular pavilions will remain as they were during the Expo.  

Criscione said that six months was not nearly enough time to see everything in the Expo, so it’s good that they’re preserving it in Expo City Dubai so the world can continue to connect and learn from all the Expo had to offer. 

“Patience is the companion of wisdom,” Criscione said. “Without patience, we were not able to do the Expo, so patience and wisdom – they are great companions. This is not only for the Expo. I think this is a lesson that we learn…in every field. Without wisdom and patience together, we don’t go anywhere.” 

Apply the Five Guiding Principles 

One of the most compelling ideas shared in our session is what Criscione referred to as the five foundational values at the core of the Expo organizing team: 

  1. Integrity 
  2. Humility 
  3. Respect 
  4. Cooperation 
  5. Excellence 

While these may sound simple, their application is powerful. Consider the magnitude of impact and scale the Expo team accomplished amid a global pandemic — we believe these can effectively strengthen connections and realize shared vision when applied to any organization.

“We didn’t want to lose the Expo, we didn’t want to lose all these years,” Criscione said. “We continued no matter what was happening, we continued to try to be resilient. I think what really saved the Expo…were those five values: integrity, humility, respect, cooperation, and excellence.” 

Leaders around the world should apply these values to their own work — to learn, grow, and forger stronger connections with the stakeholder audiences that matter most to their success. 

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