‘Connecting minds, creating the future’, the slogan of World Expo 2020, is everywhere in this city. The ongoing event, which opened a year late in October 2021, is the first of its kind since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Few other places in the world are as future-oriented as Dubai. But what kind of future does Dubai want? The city has established itself as a model for the emerging urban centers of Asia and the Middle East, so its choices today could have far-reaching consequences in the future.
Unlike many of its neighbors, including in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai’s wealth is not built on oil. In fact, only 1 percent of the city’s GDP comes from hydrocarbons. Not long after oil was first discovered in the emirate in the 1960s, its ruler, Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, decided that the emirate’s economy should not rely on it exclusively. Instead, he pushed Dubai to become a center for global business, based on its favorable geographical position and its pro-market orientation. The city’s planners lived by the credo: ‘If you build it, they will come’.
Thanks to this mentality, Dubai has run like a start-up, continuously betting on new technologies and innovations. Prominent leaders are devoted to emerging fields: the young Omar Al Olama is Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence; Mohammad Al Gergawi, the right hand of current ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is both Cabinet Chief of Staff and Minister of the Future.
Gergawi was involved in the construction of Dubai’s Museum of the Future, a building that towers over the city’s main boulevard. An inspiring quote from Al Maktoum is engraved on its metal facade: ‘The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create’.
A similar spirit led Dubai to host the World Expo. Delayed by one crisis , the pandemic, the event is focused on solving others, such as climate change. But some contradictions become apparent. For example, the Expo has a district devoted to sustainability, but the lush, green exposition site was created from 440 hectares of desert through carbon-intensive water desalination. And while much of the infrastructure will remain after the fair, visitors explore the world through national pavilions meant to stand only a few months.
Dubai as a whole faces sustainability challenges. Most trips in the emirate are made by car, on highways like the 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road. And separate trash and recycling collection is not widespread. According to some estimates, only 20 percent of waste is recycled.As part of the team that designed the Expo’s Italian Pavilion, I thought a lot about how to manage these contradictions. After considering the context, our team decided that the pavilion would demonstrate the principle of circularity. We created a building in which all the components are either recycled or recyclable. The shimmering walls are constructed from two million plastic bottles. The floor is made of coffee grounds and orange peels. The roof consists of the hulls of three upside-down boats, which can be flipped over and set to sea after the event. We also chose an environmentally friendly process to cool the building, relying on a ventilation system that circulates air through the permeable walls and cools it through evapotranspiration.
Per capita energy consumption is among the world’s highest. The city has discarded the genius loci of Arab low-rise construction, perfected over centuries to mitigate high temperatures, in favor of an international architectural style born in the climes of mid-twentieth century Chicago and New York. Its competing skyscrapers’ unshaded glass walls absorb every ray of the scorching sun. Life inside, therefore, requires significant air conditioning, intensifying energy consumption.
In other words, behind Dubai’s eagerness to build the city of tomorrow looms some of the values of yesterday. While young people around the world are ready to travel by train or bicycle, their Emirati peers seem to aspire to cruise around in bombastic internal-combustion cars, just like last century’s kids.
Yet for an entire region undergoing massive urban growth, Dubai has become the model to emulate. So, where will Dubai lead its followers? If the city can combine its ability to innovate with the imperatives of sustainability, it will do more than ’connect minds’ and ‘create the future’. It will help to build a more livable one.