Earlier this year, the first cranes started operating at the 1,000-acre Dubai South site where the emirate plans to host 25 million visitors at World Expo 2020.
But large-scale construction is far from the only work underway, as the team leading Expo 2020 Dubai prepares for the biggest event ever staged in the Gulf.
Expo 2020 director-general Reem Al Hashimy, who is also Dubai’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, has said of the Expo vision: “From our earliest days conceiving Expo, we were determined to put our youth at the heart of our plans.”
So in UAE schools, students are already receiving their first taste of the event, learning what it takes to stage an expo, how they can get involved, and putting forward their own ideas for how Dubai can showcase its past, present and future up to, and during, the six-month event.
In an interview with Arabian Business at the site office, Alya Al Ali, the director of Expo 2020’s youth engagement programme Youth Connect, says her mission is to ensure that young people are “excited, inspired, and feel a sense of ownership over Expo 2020”.
“Young people have always been at the heart of our Expo. That has been the vision even when we were bidding to host the event. They are a major part of the population; they have a lot of energy and passion, and a lot to say about different things, including Expo 2020,” she says.
Al Ali joined the Expo team three years ago, after graduating from the American University of Sharjah with a degree in business management. She started out as an analyst in the Expo 2020 legacy team and was appointed youth director last October, having conducted research on physical spaces for young people at world expos.
The 24-year-old Emirati has a gentle manner and clear affection for her role, which is to engage with schoolchildren of all ages – from primary to high school level – and devise awareness raising schemes to involve them in the event.
YouthConnect comprises initiatives to empower young people to feel closer to the event and the bright minds behind it. It is intended that their ideas will be incorporated into the plans, in line with the Dubai government’s vision to place young people at the forefront of the national agenda. The emirate was the first in the world to appoint a dedicated youth minister – 23-year-old Shamma Al Mazroui – last year.
YouthConnect initiatives include: school roadshows, where teams visit government and private schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates and teach students and principals what the Expo is; topic-based platforms called ‘Youth Labs’ that encourage young people to shape and define elements of Expo 2020 with businesses and other stakeholders; and apprenticeship programmes, in which young people undertake nine-month training courses within Expo departments.
Al Ali says YouthConnect reached 12,000 students from 54 schools between November and June, and staged Youth Labs on topics including entrepreneurship, mobility and sustainability – the latter with exhibition firm Thinc, which is working alongside Grimshaw Architects to design the UAE’s flagship Sustainability Pavilion.
YouthConnect will also launch a volunteer programme comprising people of all ages who will act as Expo ambassadors, and a package of other events to engage youth from the UAE and overseas. This work has yet to commence.
“Our first step is to raise awareness of the expo through roadshows,” Al Ali says. “We explain to students what Expo 2020 is in a fun way and tailor the content and language to different age groups.
“They have a lot of questions and we try to understand what their expectations are. We say to them, in 2020, you will be visiting Expo, Insha'Allah, what are the things you would like to see?”
High school students are more career driven, she notes. “They want to know about the jobs of the future, the post-Expo legacy plans and how they can volunteer. They are looking for things that will help them in their choice of majors, universities and careers, and even ask us how we came to work at Expo.”
High school students have also been connected with the workplace through field trips to the Expo construction site, guided by project managers from Expo-affiliated businesses.
With primary school students, the questions are more focussed on practical details of the event. “One of the most common questions is, ‘Are we going to keep all of the Expo buildings beyond the six months of the event?’” The answer? Under the legacy plans, 80 percent of Expo buildings will be retained in some form or another.
Middle school students are the most challenging, Al Ali says. “They are at that age where they are a little bit rebellious, they ask you challenging questions and while we were devising the programme we had to go into schools a couple of times and change our questions, depending on what approach students were most responsive to.”
Young people’s thoughts on Expo 2020 have been enlightening, she adds. “For example, with the Sustainability Pavilion [intended to provide an international blueprint for sustainable living], the students suggested we look at sustainability from a cultural perspective.
“They said the UAE has always tried to make best use of what little resources it has, such as sand, sea, palm trees – look, it even built an island in the shape of a palm tree – so why don’t we go back and look at our Emirati culture and get inspiration from it?”
Some students have suggested Expo is an “opportunity to do something new”, while others have said it is to celebrate innovation and progress. One even quoted Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, saying the event is “because [Dubai] must always be Number One”. “So they have quite high expectations of it,” Al Ali laughs.
YouthConnect is an opportunity for young people to express themselves and carve out future goals and objectives. And, while Al Ali insists Expo’s job is not to lobby government about challenges facing the UAE’s youth population, her close proximity to young people and the nature of the forums mean she can listen to their concerns.
She says Expo’s booth at the Think Science Fair in Dubai in April invited young people to suggest what could be improved in their communities. The answers ranged from “wishing the school system took into account talent rather than intelligence [of the sort acquired by studying], to calling for faster transport to and from school.”
They also had questions about the job market. “They ask us: ‘How do we make sure we study the subjects we like, but also make sure we have a career in future?’”
Her insight will be of interest to teachers and policy makers given that more than 70 percent of Middle East and North African (MENA) populations are aged under 30. Asda’a Burson Marsteller’s latest Arab Youth Survey, published in May, highlighted higher optimism among GCC-based respondents than their North African and Levant counterparts, with 78 percent agreeing with the statement, “Our best days are ahead of us”.
YouthConnect has tapped into this optimism and willingness to engage in the national agenda, with one student telling the Expo team: “I feel empowered to be part of such an important event. An expo has never been done in any Arab country before and it’s really something to be proud of”.
Al Ali says: “It’s important to note that our work is a two-way dialogue. We are listening, not advising, and we’re doing things with young people, not for them. We are learning from them and they are learning from us at the same time.
“Our vision is to ensure we have a positive impact on young people and that they are part of the journey.”
Schools have been supportive of the Expo roadshows, with some incorporating aspects of Expo learning, such as sustainability, into their teaching.
Nargish Khambatta, principal of GEMS Modern Academy in Dubai, tells Arabian Business: “The Sustainability Youth Lab was an awe-inspiring experience for our students, where they felt an integral part of the think tank for Expo 2020. Our students have a heightened awareness of sustainability concerns and solutions.”
GEMS Modern Academy has created a “new dimension” within the school curriculum following interaction with the Expo team, Khambatta adds. The project is called Occam’s Razor, and is a problem-solving club formed as part of GEMS’ after-school accelerator programme for curriculum enrichment.
Al Ali says: “For our part, we’ve been inspired in ways you wouldn’t believe. One group of students surprised us with a rendition of ‘Climb Every Mountain’ during one of the youth labs. They just stood up and started singing. My colleague was crying after the performance. There is so much goodwill.”
As the months unfold, Expo will seek to encourage young people from overseas to participate in Expo 2020. Another upcoming project will devise special experiences for young people during the event, including immersive exhibits and representations of metaphorical journeys. Al Ali has her hands full, but more than enough of the passion required to do it.
“World expos are known as these places that really inspire people – whether it’s through careers or cultures or innovations – and this is something we take very seriously,” she says.
“This type of expo has never happened before in this part of the world and it’s a wonderful opportunity to ask our young people to contribute to it.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.