Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, said goodbye to the last of its 4 million guests on 10 September. So was it successful? In my role as producer and creative director for the USA Pavilion, I spent plenty of time in Astana. I want to share with you the highlights of my journey, and some takeaways for Expo 2020 Dubai.
GOOD DESIGN, GOOD EXPO
Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana in 1998, embarking on a fiendishly difficult task that has defeated many city planners: to build a visionary city that incorporates a number of styles and functions as a cohesive, awe-inspiring whole. The same kind of visionary thinking went into the design of the Expo site. The Expo plan fit snugly in the context of greater Astana: elegant and modern, guided by a design intention to present a “future that works for everyone”.
The brevity of the Expo, at just three months, and the modest ambitions of the Expo planners – drawing 4 million visitors in contrast to Shanghai’s 73 million in 2010 – contributed to its success. Expo participants embraced the challenge of creating entertaining, charismatic pavilions on short schedules with limited budgets. Almost every participant created a solution that contributed to the liveliness and pure fun of this Expo.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
I visited every Expo pavilion experience. Here are some of my favourites:
NUR ALEM PAVILION (THE SPHERE)
Wow. The Expo hosts got this one just right. First, the Nur Alem Pavilion was a brilliant icon for this Expo. This dramatic sphere anchored the site and drew people toward it. It shimmered in the sun during the day, and was illuminated with coloured lights during the striking Kazakh sunsets. At night, it came alive with LED lighting, featuring signature media. The presentations inside the pavilion were flawless, covering the mythic history of Kazakhstan and the kinds of energy that will power the 21st century.
This place, one of the few standalone corporate pavilions, made a tactical decision to win the hearts of children – and the parents trying to entertain them. Shell invited kids to come inside, engage in fun, interactive activities and “build your own future world”. There were lots of smiling faces emerging from this pavilion.
This pavilion combined an elegant, efficient design aesthetic with a clever interactivity strategy to please guests. We were given a “smart stick” geared to our language preference. This stick allowed us to collect information, solutions and ideas on our journey. We were then invited to discover various kinds of emerging energy and a variety of energy products. In the final immersive media space, the energy stick triggered a show that affirmed the case for diverse solutions if the world is to meet its energy needs. Great hospitality complemented this programme of guest engagement.
Great pavilions don’t have to be large and complex. Monaco produced a mesmerising experience that featured undulating mirrored blades reflecting footage that told the story of Monaco’s relationship with its marine environment. The effect – enhanced with a lush soundscape and aromas – was hypnotic. And Monaco also served the best cup of coffee at the Expo as part of its outstanding hospitality programme.
Switzerland had a standout pavilion in Milan, and their expression of Flower Power in Astana was another winner. Here we entered a world illuminated by a kinetic light sculpture featuring poles with spinning LED lights projecting flowers. Then we were invited to enter three narrative “houses”: energy self-sufficiency, food production and clean water. All this, plus a flexible space to showcase new ideas and hold creative workshops.
Austria’s pavilion delivered on an oft-ignored commandment of Expo design: Expos are supposed to be fun. As I entered, I found myself inside a wild and whimsical Power Machine with all the energy supplied by guests. I joined my fellow visitors pedalling a stationary bike and pulling on ropes to power a Willy Wonka-style factory of pop art kinetic sculptures. This pavilion put every guest at the centre of the experience.
This exercise in pure fun asked what the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian would have designed to show the world how, for centuries, the Dutch have used boldness and ingenuity to adapt to a hostile environment and climate change. Mondrian’s simple, bright and playful graphic design put across the theme Low Land, High Energy with simplicity and style. The highlight was a 3D holographic theatre. This was a multi-layered visual feast that engaged the Expo theme in a way that was effortless, seamless and memorable.
Simple, elegant, striking. As we entered, we discovered a living, computer-generated “universal landscape” that cycled through a virtual night and day. At the centre of this landscape was stylised, yurt-inspired structure composed of transparent spokes that illuminated when touched. Then came a gallery of energy innovations in the UK, and a special display on “graphene” – a wonder material that’s the strongest, thinnest and most permeable material known to man.
The USA Pavilion was all about hospitality and engagement. After a greeting by a friendly ambassador, guests were asked, “What is the source of infinite energy?” An immersive multimedia presentation delivered the answer with a blast of exhilarating music, acrobatic dancing and a cascade of kinetic images. The source of infinite energy is, of course, us – people! Harnessing our ingenuity and innovation can solve the challenges we face in creating an abundant, sustainable world. This show was followed by an exhibit that included an interactive energy model, video walls and supporting photo opps.
This pavilion was the perfect precursor to the UAE hosting the next world expo in Dubai. The country will provide a gracious, hospitable welcome. The signature experience was an energetic presentation about how the UAE is building on its past traditions to provide future generations with sustainable and stable sources of energy.
A powerful experience can be short and straightforward. The Israel Pavilion featured two simple, well-executed, five-minute show experiences that delighted guests. The first room, Energy Country, was an infinity room that plunged us into all aspects of Israeli culture, powered by alternative forms of energy. The second room, Energy of Creation, presented a live dancer supported by 360º video projections on all four scrim walls and an LED sphere hovering above the stage. This was a dynamic fusion of art, dance, science and technology.
Small City, Big Ideas. The Singapore Pavilion invited us to step into a giant terrarium, a metaphor for Singapore as the Garden City. Here we could linger in this refreshing, entertaining environment and discover exhibits on the specific ways that the city state is responding to the need to create a sustainable energy future. This pavilion demonstrated that a non-narrative, environmental storytelling approach can be successful with a sufficiently bold design commitment.
Once again, Japan delivered an extraordinary experience with great narrative power. Zone 1 of the pavilion presented the challenges Japan – and the world – faces in the 21st century and beyond. Zone 2 presented a super-widescreen immersive show experience that reassured us that a bountiful future of clean energy can be realised by the wise use of emerging technologies. Zone 3 invited guests to discover and interact with these technologies. I was happy to see Morzio and Kiccoio, the mascots from Expo 2005 in Aichi, cavorting here.
This simple pavilion, done on a budget, proved to be very popular with guests. Everyone called it the “Butterfly Pavilion”. The centrepiece was a floor-to-ceiling rainforest room. Here we found ourselves twirling amidst thousands of butterflies … and the occasional tiger emerging from the foliage. The Malaysians were very clever about using social media to build the buzz; it was in the top 10 most popular pavilions.
This pavilion was well-executed and quite impressive. Russia chose to focus its narrative firepower on the story of icebreakers finding energy under the Arctic. Russia showcased its technology and expertise in finding energy in treacherous environments to power the near future. Guests found themselves under the ice and in an ice cave. They were even invited to touch a giant chunk of Arctic ice.
MY TOP TWO PAVILIONS
SOUTH KOREA PAVILION
What do I want in an Expo pavilion? Beauty, engagement, the opportunity to learn through enchantment and meaningful interaction. The South Korea Pavilion had all that, and one thing more: love.
This pavilion had a beautiful exterior with lots of activation: very appealing. The first room was a white-on-white animation theatre featuring an artist who drew vignettes from the history of energy in South Korea. These vignettes then came to life and formed a huge portrait of the nation as a forward-looking energy powerhouse. The second room was the love story. This ingenious theatre featured projection on slits of cloth, facilitating the entrances and exits of live actors. Here Astan found his true love, Ara, as they both discovered how to transform a barren landscape into something living and fertile. In the third room, every guest was given a Samsung mini tablet and invited to create a “future world of energy”. We roamed a forest filled with “trees of light” as we did this. Magical from beginning to end.
Who knew that an ear of corn could make such an engaging host? Pa-Lang was the corn mascot of the Thailand Pavilion. The creators of this pavilion knew the best and only effective way to educate an audience is through light-hearted entertainment. We moved from a traditional introductory gallery featuring Pa-Lang to a 3D animation theatre highlighting the role that agriculture plays in the development of sustainable, renewable bioenergy. The final hall was an Energy Creation Lab, where we found multimedia presentations, videos and interactives that invited us to explore biomass energy solutions. It also got the social media element right, with one of the more active outreach and engagement strategies.
Let’s return to my original question: was this Expo successful? My answer is an unqualified yes. Why? Because people loved this Expo. I saw happy, enthusiastic visitors enjoying themselves, and the people who came to share their expertise and learn from others also helped make it a success. The global community came together in a programme of symposiums, engaging in lively discussions about how to create a sustainable energy future. This was a big stage for Central Asia and Kazakhstan used it to its advantage: making friends, influencing guests and winning hearts. The friendly ambassadors enhanced the experience with never-ending smiles (and tons of selfies).
Many pavilion producers were fellow members of what I call “the class of Expo 2005”. This is the group that produced some of the most memorable pavilions for the Aichi Japan Expo in 2005. Many of us met again in Shanghai, producing pavilions for Expo 2010, and again in 2015 in Milan.
I hope we meet again in Dubai in 2020, because expos offer people like us a unique opportunity to make the world a better place. They are defiant beacons of optimism and courage that exist in a magic space beyond the walls and borders countries erect to fight off the rest of the world. In three years, we’ll have another opportunity to “connect minds, create the future” – the theme of the Dubai Expo – with transcendent experiences representing a new, better tomorrow for humanity.