A future for Expo 2020 Dubai

The formal announcement for the future of the Expo 2020 Dubai infrastructure confirms that much of it will be featured in Expo City Dubai, to be opened officially on 1 October – which reportedly includes or repurposes more than 80 percent of the built environment on the Expo site.

The new 4.4km2 district (which has apparently been renamed from the originally trailed District 2020) is of course described as “a smart and futuristic destination for business and innovation, driven by sustainability, innovation, education and entertainment”. We wouldn’t have expected anything less.

But at the official launch Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid described the transformation of the exhibition site as “a city that represents the most beautiful ambitions of Dubai”, which promises to be less vapourous. His statement went on to spell out some of those ambitions – “Expo City Dubai will be an environmentally-friendly city, one friendly to families, to the economy, and to future generations. A city connected to a port and two airports, and also to beautiful memories in the hearts and minds of millions of people (see what he did there?) … A city in which the magic of Expo will live on …”

Specifically, Expo City Dubai will feature a number of Expo 2020 Dubai’s flagship offerings. Three of the most visited attractions will remain as is – the iconic Al Wasl Plaza and its 360-degree projection screen (the world’s largest); the Garden in the Sky rotating observation tower; and the gravity-defying Surreal water feature (right), an elegant design in its own right and a popular place to cool down when temperatures got too hot.

So will the Woman’s Pavilion, which features female change-makers across the world; and the Vision Pavilion – modestly sized at 360m2 but a genuinely impressive record of Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai (it was based on his book My Story: 50 Memories from 50 years of Service).

Alif, the Mobility Pavilion and Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion, will also live on as “interactive educational experiences”, which obviously makes sense. The Opportunity Pavilion gets a bit of a swerve to become the Expo 2020 Dubai Museum – highlighting the history and impact of World Expos and celebrating the success of the Dubai event (we’re not sure that this merits an actual museum, but hey ho …)

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at its best

Visitors will also be able to see several of the country pavilions, either reworked or as we experienced them during Expo 2020. The UAE and the Saudi pavilions are definitely retained; details of modified versions of the Luxembourg, Australia, Pakistan, India, Morocco and Egypt pavilions are expected in the next few months.

As well as the must-haves of any UAE commercial development – 2,000 apartments, offices and co-working spaces, leisure facilities, food and entertainment venues, sports facilities and a mall – it will also house the world-class Dubai Exhibition Centre that hosted a variety of conferences and concerts during Expo 2020 Dubai.

The district’s sustainability credentials include 123 LEED-certified buildings (some of them LEED Gold), the first WELL certification in the region (demonstrating the built environment’s positive impact on health and wellness), no single-use plastics (not sure how that will be enforced)prohibition of cars (buggies, scooters and bicycles will be the powered transport used in the zone), smart metering and sensors to monitor energy consumption and efficiency (delivered via the world’s largest installation of Siemens’ Mindsphere cloud technology platform), and a 10km bike track and a 5km running track among its extensive outdoor spaces.

It’s early days yet, and those facilities and services might well follow. Expo City is one of the five ‘urban centres’ in the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan – the others being Deira/Bur Dubai, Downtown/Business Bay, Dubai Marina/JBR and Silicon Oasis – so it’s medium term future is set (even if the ‘urban centre’ designation does include the unlovely Jebel Ali area).

All in all it looks as though the district will be a pleasant and indeed impressive place to live and work. More students would be a good thing – there’s no higher education institute on site yet, as far as we can tell – and it could probably do with some conventional arts facilities, like a medium-sized theatre or performance space and some studio/gallery options for creatives. The Rove is still the only hotel at the site. At least the 11 artworks created for public spaces around the site will remain as permanent landmarks, though a couple will apparently be moved.

magpie’s favourite: Monira Al Qadiri’s Chimera

The apartments (2,273 of them in 15 towers) will have around 3,500 residents to start with, which isn’t massive – a couple of years ago there was talk of ‘District 2020’ homing 145,000 residents. But it’s enough for real estate agents to sell the ‘city within a city’ vibe, and despite the metro stop the district is far enough away from the main action in Dubai to suggest that rents will be relatively reasonable. It shouldn’t be hard to fill those flats.

The business tenants will also provide a core, if not a 24-hour population. The only big tenants announced so far are Siemens and DP World, who have said they will relocate their HQs to Expo City. Meanwhile “we are in the midst of a careful selection process to ensure that all tenants and partners in Dubai are part of the growth and values promoted through Expo 2020” said Ahmed Al Khatib, chief development and delivery officer at Expo 2020 Dubai (which sounds like he’s in the midst of a careful negotiation process to ensure that the right kind of tech-savvy businesses can be attracted into the fold as bellwethers).

Image-wise there’s also the Scale2Dubai programme, an imaginative initiative that offers startups and small businesses two years of free workspace plus visa assistance, support and guidance to grow, and access to funding, networking opportunities and connections with big-name global players. Perhaps more to the point, it’s about helping startups get beyond their first year of operation (half fail within 12 months). Scale2Dubai is an annual programme that will help 80 to 100 businesses each year; the first cohort of 85 has apparently been selected – there were over 3,200 applicants – and should be publicised soon.

It’s also a key part of presenting Expo City as a ‘living lab’ where connections and co-creation is encouraged. It helps that Expo City will be a free zone, the newest of Dubai’s 20 light-regulation business areas. “Expo City Dubai will be an independent free zone and it will have its own authority,” said Al Khatib. “We are in the review stage now with the relevant authorities to ensure that the offering we have is competitive with the other free zones.”

That means establishing an independent identity for the district to attract particular types of businesses. Most of Dubai’s free zones have a very specific vertical focus – Media City, Humanitarian City, Production City and the like – but newer zones such as Dubai South and Meydan are more horizontal, selling themselves less to specific industries and more on the basis of infrastructure and atmosphere. For Expo City the Expo brand will obviously count for a lot, and the fact that it’s the world’s largest 5G enabled neighbourhood (whatever that means) will help; so Al Khatib says he’s looking particularly at “small and medium-sized enterprises, which are key to the future prosperity of the UAE and the region … We are especially keen to welcome any tenants focused on innovation, technology, education and healthcare.”

Expo City has an information-light website here.

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