Expo 2020: The Absolute Guide

Every five years, nations gather in one location for a six-month event. The host city invites these nations to build "pavilions" – physical structures that house exhibitions showcasing their unique selling points. This gathering is massive. To give you an idea of its magnitude, the previous two events drew nearly 100 million visitors combined. Among the many names it is given, "World's Fair" and "International Exhibition" stand out, as does its official name "Expo"(an abbreviation for "exposition").

“Expo” is an occasion for entrepreneurs to travel and meet with one another. The prefix "World" (“World Expo”) is sometimes used to distinguish between the main event, which occurs every 5 years and lasts 6 months, and "Specialized Expos," which last 3 months and occur more frequently. There has never been a single event where global firms, individuals and countries have been more present than the Expo. It is where inventors get a sneak peek of what may become the latest technology affecting the world. For example, Expos were the first to debut technological innovations such as fax machines, telephones and mobile phones, X-Ray machines, and flatscreen televisions to name a few. Food entrepreneurs look back on Expos where the hamburger, ice cream, hot dogs, peanut butter, iced tea, and ketchup were first introduced to the world. For architects, Expo is a “Mecca of new ideas.” Many inventive architectural ideas, e.g., the Eiffel Tower, the Atomium, the Space Needle, capsule hotels, and the geodesic dome, used the Expos to gauge the interest of the public.

This year's Expo takes place at the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Though the global pandemic pushed the event back a year to 2021, organizers ' stuck to its original name, “Expo 2020 Dubai.” It represents the first time that the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia have held a major event of this scale (the second will be next year when Doha, Qatar, will host soccer’s World Cup).

Back in November 2013, Dubai won the bidding with the theme "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future." Nations compete to host the Expo, just like the Olympic Games and other important conferences. Apart from the prestige of hosting the world’s most important gathering, Expo is a great opportunity to create “stories” about an emerging city and economy. Looking at an overhead picture of this massive 4.3 square kilometer Expo site in Dubai, the design represents three characteristics of modern UAE: speed, scale, and seriousness. The site could easily be mistaken for a vast artificial city built on vision, wealth, and power – and a conscious desire to loudly and boldly proclaim these qualities to the rest of the world.

Expo During the Pandemic

Traveling to Dubai was our first experience traveling outside of Thailand since the pandemic has restricted international travel. We were expecting some serious health protocols. Apart from the on-site PCR test upon arrival at the airport, however, Dubai did not look like a city in the middle of a pandemic. There was no quarantine requirement, and the medical staff who performed the PCR test only asked for our contact information – just in case the result came out positive. Otherwise, we simply picked up our luggage from the belt and headed to the airport’s exit just like the tens of thousands of other business and leisure travelers entering Dubai daily.

Not only were businesses operating as usual, but restrictions were also comparatively more relaxed than in many other places. Dubai’s Expo had received more than three million visitors two months after its October 1 opening, which is an unexpectedly high number given that most targeted global visitors could not travel. Dubai made sure that preventative measures were strict and effective. Even with a ticket, every visitor was required to present a vaccination certificate. Expo staff from any nation receive free vaccinations and tests any time throughout the length of the event if they think they might have contracted the virus.

During our six weeks in Dubai, we met hundreds of people, some formally but many casually, such as while eating at a food truck or drinking from a public tap across from the site. Most of Expo’s visitors were locals, or more precisely, expats living in Dubai for business. Although Dubai already boasts many artificial theme-park-like attractions, such as the Global Village or the Palm Jumeirah, local visitors, and tourists with whom we spoke were nevertheless thrilled about the Expo. It appears as though we all miss the opportunity for a worldwide meeting of minds.

Based on our conversations with Expo’s organizers, staff, and visitors, there are three reasons why nations participate in these Expos. For starters, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting, especially for investors and entrepreneurs looking for opportunities to measure themselves against their rivals. This so-called "Expo Magic” always draws a large crowd. Even after 170 years, Expo still serves as both a platform – and an excuse – for a physical encounter.

Second, Expo is both a private membership club and a public gathering. That is, a country must qualify to be invited to participate, yet once there, it speaks to the entire world. Like athletes who compete to qualify for the Olympics, all eyes are on them. A country’s absence from the Expo, like that from the Olympics, sends a strong message about its competence. Not only does representation at the Expo convey that they are “doing something,” but it also signals that they are “doing it well.” Historically, Expo has played an important role in boosting both investment and tourism especially for nations whose appearances at major events, be it sports, cultural, or business, is rare.

“Soft power,” too, is another term frequently used by both supporters and critics of the expo. Unlike “hard” or military power, soft power is a persuasive approach to international relations. As countries choose the face they want to present, Expo is the world’s largest arena in which they can project economic or cultural influence. For example, the sheer size and number of visitors to Expo 2010 undeniably put Shanghai back on the map as a global city.

Third, Expo 2020 Dubai is especially valuable to humanity because it provides a message of optimism. We have been living in the shadow of the pandemic for the past two years, and many people cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, the UAE and more than 190 other countries have declared that they will not be defeated. It takes a lot of planning and organization to pull off an event of this magnitude, yet they did it with only a year's notice.

Products, Progress, Preparation, and Post-Event

According to the World Expo historian Charles Pappas, the Expo’s nearly two centuries of history can be summarized as the “3Ps”: Products, Progress, and Preparation. The idea of a “great exhibition” was first conceived in the mid-nineteenth century when entrepreneurs held a large event in London to display their competitive products. The some thirty subsequent “large-scale exhibitions” that followed were all about showcasing new products. However, two catastrophic world wars prompted participating countries and the official organizing body of the Expo – known as the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) – to shift the focus from products to the promotion of “mutual progress.” In other words, the focus shifted from international competition to comprehension.

Since the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, "Expo" has shifted its emphasis once again, this time to fostering human readiness to live in a world in which the effects of our actions will define how we live and thrive as a species. The message here is the significance of teamwork in preserving the earth and preventing calamities, as the main topic – "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" – implies. Without a doubt, this Expo sends a strong message that we, as humans, will triumph if we are prepared.

Another thing that makes Expo 2020 Dubai interesting from the perspective of planning and design is a “Fourth P”: Post-Event. Expos have created compelling stories for host cities. Many cities in recent memory have made their mark on the global landscape after having hosted the Expo such as Seattle (1962), Montreal (1967), Osaka (1970), Seville (1992), and Shanghai (2010). Unlike previous Expos, where pavilions and most buildings were erected only for the duration of the proceedings, Expo 2020 plans to keep at least two-thirds of the buildings to use after the event. The site of Expo 2020 will be transformed into "District 2020," a world-class innovation hub for startups and worldwide players in advanced technology. The Expo 2020 Metro Station is the last station on the Dubai Metro. "District 2020” will almost certainly breathe life into what may, on the surface, appear to be a large venue “in the middle of nowhere” that might otherwise have been abandoned after the event.

Several influential corporations such as Siemens, Terminus, and DP World have already agreed to be long-term tenants of District 2020. With an ambitious objective and strong advantages like tax and rent-free business setup, it is easy to see how the project will attract the “best and brightest” of the global startups. Expo 2020 Dubai has cooperated with world-class technology companies to design cutting-edge infrastructure that will easily transition to use in research and development for digital innovation. In other words, District 2020 is a model “smart city” for innovation.

Architecture of the Pavilions

The expansive site of Expo 2020 Dubai is divided into three main districts named after the event's sub-themes: Mobility, Opportunity, and Sustainability. These three districts fan out like fingers from a central “palm”: the world’s largest single-span dome, dubbed "Al Wasl Plaza." “Al Wasl” is an intentional pun, as it means “connecting” and is also the historical name for Dubai, thus alluding to both the Expo’s theme and the host city. Once the masterplan was completed in 2017, participating nations were asked to choose one of the three sub-themes, which would determine the location of their pavilion. Nations could either build their own standalone pavilions or convert pre-built rectangular cubes.

Although the former was frequently favored as a better way to attract visitors, the construction cost for a standalone pavilion was high. As a result, for many countries, the pre-built boxes made far more economic sense. That said, many countries still strive to showcase their prowess through standalone pavilions. Among the largest pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai belong to the UAE, France, Italy, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Korea, Russia, and Kuwait. While the host provides the basic infrastructure, participating nations pay for the design, construction, and maintenance of the building. As one can imagine, this Expo generates massive revenue for local construction companies, contractors, and architects.

Each of the three districts has a “signature” pavilion designed by world-famous architects and uses expressive architectural language to deliver cutting-edge ideas. For example, Grimshaw Architects from the United Kingdom designed the "Terra" pavilion for the Sustainability District. As a topic, sustainability never goes out of style. The environmental epoch in which we now live requires our complete effort to alter its course before it is too late. "Terra's" canopy is a stunning 130-meter-wide structure covered in 1,055 solar panels. The structure, dubbed "Contact" due to its resemblance to the massive radio frequency receiver from the popular film of the same name, is an example of sustainable design that aims for net zero water and energy use.

The characteristic stainless-steel fins that wrap around the Mobility Pavilion "Alif" clearly reflect the style of the hyper-futuristic architectural firm “Foster + Partners” who designed it. Alif is home to a large exhibition that traces the evolution of “mobility” in Arab culture from the development of mathematics and astrology to the modern world of metaverse, in which the physical and digital may merge. AGi Architects created the Opportunity Pavilion "Mission Possible," which embraces the "plaza" and its global relevance as a space for people to meet across generations, language, and culture, as well as to celebrate our shared human experiences.

As at previous Expos, countries often commission their top architects to design their national pavilions. Even the largest of these structures are referred to as "pavilions" – a relic of the first Expos. A few pavilions were dreamed up by world-renowned architects, such as Santiago Calatrava, who designed both the largest standalone pavilion for the host UAE and the smallest for Qatar. The decision as to how these spaces are used is left up to the individual countries. While most pavilions focus on exhibitions, many devote the majority of their area to business meetings, product showcases, and performances. There are a few pavilions that embrace the experimental, such as those from the Netherlands and Singapore, which function as “experimental typologies” for future urbanism. Known as the “Biotope,” the Netherlands’ pavilion is a complete ecosystem that uses solar power to harvest water from the air and energy to produce plant-based food. Like an artificial oasis, the Biotope shows us a glimpse into the future of living in critical climatic conditions. Designed by the renowned WOHA, Singapore’s “City in Nature” Pavilion represents an effort to create a net-zero building architecture packed with plants and fans powered by clean energy.

The most successful pavilions, however, are those whose architectural designs fit the exhibition and vice versa, rather than those with the most visually spectacular architecture. The exterior of the UK Pavilion, designed by Es Devlin Studio, is among the most photographed pavilions; yet, the exhibitions it houses leave little impression, because the building's focus is entirely on its facade, leaving everything else comparatively sterile and deserted. Although interesting architecture has always been one of the Expos' centerpieces, most attendees are not architects and are thus more interested in other features such as exhibitions, events, and performances.

Popular Attractions:

Those of Germany, Japan, and Saudi Arabia were among Expo visitors’s favorite pavilions.

The Germany Pavilion is a playground and a “living lab” for experiments in sustainability. Visitors can easily lose any sense of time as they move through seamlessly interactive hands-on exhibitions. During our hour-and-a-half stay in the pavilion, we learned about new technologies and their use by rotating wheels, pulling levers, pushing buttons, moving objects, playing games, and more.

Forty-five minutes in the Japan Pavilion is like a walk in a life-size diorama where visitors are free to choose their own paths toward better understanding of Japan. Upon entering, visitors are handed a small personal device to wear around their neck. At first glance this appears to be a simple (even vintage) audio guide. It is not until later that they find out that this personal device had meticulously collected information about how each visitor had interacted with objects and the choices each had made as they moved through a series of immersive spaces designed to showcase Japan’s past, present, and future as a responsible member of the global community. The information collected from each visitor was then turned into an interactive anime-style “avatar” and projected on a large wall. The rendering of some forty artistically unique avatars that represent each visitor’s interests makes for a stunning finale. No two avatars are alike, each being computer-generated based on their corresponding visitor’s distinctive footsteps. The Japan Pavilion leads visitors’ imaginations toward the next Expo in Osaka in 2025.

The strange-looking architecture of the Saudi Arabia Pavilion only makes sense once visitors enter the building to experience the world’s most sophisticated projection technology. The building looks as though it is protruding diagonally up from the ground with the goal of reaching the sky. The building’s position reflects visitors’ diagonal ascent from the basement level where the orientation begins to the space at the top. Here, they experience views of “modern Saudi Arabia” through synchronized vertical-horizontal projections on one side and the great aerial view of Expo 2020 on the other. The stunning side-by-side comparison represents the synergy of diversity and unity. Upon returning to the lower level, visitors step into a boundless space created by deep, sophisticated projections to experience what it is like to be in a limitless “metaverse,” which may soon be the context in which we humans live, learn, work, and play. Arguably, these three pavilions are successful because they were created from the inside out, with exterior designs subservient to their internal layouts and chronology.

Although common sense dictates that pavilions should be co-designed by architects and exhibition designers, many countries did not have that luxury. Some held national design competitions, in which the architecture was predetermined, forcing exhibition designers to shape their creative ideas to fit into a pre-existing mold. This often-caused mismatches and incompatibilities. For instance, despite Korea Pavilion’s being one of the largest in the entire Expo, it seems to have left little impression on exhibitiongoers. "I wish I'd had the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the exhibition designers from the start," Korea Pavilion’s architect Moon Hoon told us in an exclusive interview. However, some pavilions were successful despite having been birthed through a similar design sequence. The Luxembourg, Serbia, and Kazakhstan Pavilions are all exciting (despite their small scale) s and are not to be missed.

Thailand in Dubai

Let’s turn to the Thailand Pavilion, which, at the time of this writing, is among the top five most visited of the entire Expo. The high number of visitors is a surprise given that it is not even among the top ten largest pavilions. Based on our 6-week-long, 18-hour-a-day observation, there are several design elements that contribute to its popularity.

First, visitors appreciate the pavilion's vista and open space. While most pavilions take up their entire site, Thailand’s is set back from the edge of the space, allowing the facade of the building to appear more vividly to the visitors moving along the main spine of the Mobility District. This design strategy not only makes the building visually distinguishable from the other pavilions competing for visitors’ attention, it also creates a large public space in which they can congregate. The careful placement of this so-called "Welcome Plaza” also serves as a large, shaded terrace for the Mobility District. "The Welcome Plaza provides an escape from the heat and a place to relax, an architectural reflection of the spirit of Thai hospitality," stated Chaiwat Limwattananon, the Pavilion's chief architect from Design 103 International.

Second, the lighting system behind the ornate facade of the building lights up at night with synchronized music, attracting tourists from as far as a half kilometer away to enjoy the daily performances. With three rotating shows that take place five times a day, thousands of visitors gather at the welcome plaza, which turns into an immersive performance plaza where visitors have an up-close-and-personal experience with the performers. “In the era of ubiquitous digital technology in which we are living, it’s like a breath of fresh air to experience something physical such as daily performances at Thailand Pavilion,'' said a famous YouTuber who regularly posts videos about pavilions at Dubai’s Expo.

As discussed earlier, another element contributing to the Thailand Pavilion’s success is the compatibility of the exterior architecture and interior exhibition designs. “The architects and our exhibition designers work in tandem from day one; the relation between the building and what’s in it has to be symbiotic,” said Kriangkrai Kanjanapokin, founder and CEO of Index Creative Village, the firm responsible for Thailand Pavilion’s design and execution. The four consecutive rooms in the Thailand Pavilion provide visitors with a straightforward narrative about the country, beginning with the mythological stories that underpin her culture and moving to a historical narrative about the mobilizing power of water. From there, it recounts how digital technology redefines the notion of mobility in all of Thailand's major and emerging industries, and finally culminates in the humanistic conclusion that what "moves" people to love and come to Thailand is the country's natural beauty. The exhibition's full sequence lasts approximately 18 minutes.


After six weeks in Dubai, our perception of the city has been shaped by our interactions with both the city and the Expo. Contrary to common naive preconceptions of Middle Eastern cities, Dubai is envisioning a future in which the global community agrees to phase out fossil fuels. This Expo showcases Dubai's grand attempt to become an innovation hub for the service economy, renewable energy, and digital transformation. Industries other than oil already generate the majority of Dubai's GDP. Oil now accounts for less than 1% of Dubai's GDP, with tourism accounting for 20%, and the remainder coming from service industries such as finance and information technology.

Expo 2020 Dubai has rewritten the city's history. Dubai was able to pull off this important event despite being in the midst of the most difficult economic crisis of our generation thanks to strict preventative protocols, coordinated efforts, proactive public relations and, not least, the long history of the Expo as a means of raising awareness about new cities. Travel restrictions and the lingering pandemic have made international travel difficult. Most of the visitors to this Expo, hence, were locals. That said, Dubai has done a remarkable job of maintaining excitement through its digital reach. Many of its official digital channels share more information about the event by the day. Although it has already been a month since I returned from Dubai, I have continuously followed the Expo from the comfort of my couch. It is certainly nothing like actually being there, but it is a high-quality substitute given the remarkable quality of the online content. Some online viewers even said that “Expo from your couch is as good, as you don’t have to fight the heat or the crowds – and it’s free!” The millions of photos and videos shared daily across social media platforms and delivered through computer and smartphone screens have helped to raise awareness of this global showcase.

On the plane back to Thailand, our onboard personal entertainment device informed us about a new phenomenon known as the “Metaverse.” Large tech firms are investing in the fusion of the physical and digital worlds to create a new space for people to live, learn, work, and play. The goal of this project, like in the movies Ready Player One (and possibly even The Matrix), is to create for us another world parallel to the physical one we currently inhabit. With automation and robots taking care of the laborious tasks in the physical world, humans can live in a digital realm, exercising their cognitive ability in novel ways and creating new tasks for machines to achieve.

Although the idea of some kind of Metaverse is not new, these large tech companies see an opportunity to bring it to market faster than ever before, especially after witnessing what we as humans can achieve in the digital space under COVID-19. Numerous issues would make inhabiting "Metaverse 1.0" full time infeasible, but growth of and competition within this space will undoubtedly make it easier and faster for many to collaborate and contribute to its development. Who knows, maybe an Expo in the next decade will be held in that environment, making it accessible not just to 100 million people, but to something on the order of 8 billion.

Are you ready for “Expo 2035 Metaverse?”

Text: Non Arkaraprasertkul

Photographs: Passakon Prathombutr