As Expo 2020, which concluded in March of this year, recedes further into the background, it’s worthwhile to take a look back to take stock and consider some of the insights that we can take away from this global exhibition of technology and innovation. World expos have always been an important showcase for global innovation and ingenuity. For example, the telephone, the Eiffel Tower, even ketchup, were first publicly debuted at world expos.
We attended the Expo ourselves when it finally took place after the delay imposed by the pandemic, and saw for ourselves some of the developments that could point the way towards the future, both technologically and socially. From our observations, we gathered 5 main insights that point some potential paths forward for transformative technologies and social trends that we would like to share:
1. Artificial intelligence and automation are as relevant as ever.
As you wander around Expo 2020, you’ll notice a striking number of robots who are going about their daily business. Over time, you’ll realise just how broad their range of responsibilities are. Terminus Technology, a leading provider in artificial intelligence technology based in China, provided no less than 150 robots to assist at the Expo. They were tasked with greeting visitors, delivering food and beverages, and offering general assistance.
But they were hardly the only examples of artificial intelligence on display. Germany hosted a Beethoven concert conducted entirely by robots. And in the Estonia pavilion, one was introduced to the charismatic robot Yanu, who was tasked with serving you your favorite beverage while cracking a joke or two.
Regardless of whether we’ll ever fully accept these multi-talented robots into our daily lives, the examples that were on display in Dubai stress just how versatile artificial intelligence has become. We now have clear indicators of how even the hospitality and entertainment industries might be affected by developments in AI.
2. Facing the future also requires appreciating the past.
There was a surprising focus at Expo 2020 on turning to history for inspiration. One of the main draws at the mobility pavilion had been the massive statues on display of pioneers in the history of exploration - Al Bakri, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Majid. Designed and built by WETA workshop (best known for their work in creating special effects for the Lord of the Rings films), it drew attention to how an understanding of the past has the potential to guide us all in the future.
The sub-theme of sustainability dominated many discussions at the event, and there’s a clear trend of countries turning to the past to form future solutions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the designs of the pavilions themselves. Consider Morocco’s use of an ancient alternative to concrete for their pavilion, designed as a model for sustainable housing. The smart design reduces the need for air-conditioning inside the building, and therefore lessens the amount of energy required for maintenance. Sweden’s pavilion has also took a similar approach, drawing inspiration from the ancient powers of the forest. By embracing innovative design and technology, Sweden succeeded in more than halving their potential net CO₂ emissions at the event, positioning itself as a leading example in global sustainability. By relying almost entirely on sustainable materials such as timber and foamglass, the building emits between 3,000 and 3,500 tonnes less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than a concrete structure.
From our experiences at Expo 2020, then, it’s become clear that industries can no longer afford to miss out on being at the forefront of sustainable global developments. But it’s also clear that the past can help guide us in unexpected ways.
3. Digitalisation can help form a sustainable society.
We’ve all experienced a greater shift towards digitalization since the pandemic broke out, but there are some countries that have succeeded better than others in the process.
Nowhere is this made more apparent than in Estonia’s pavilion, which demonstrated the clear environmental benefits of establishing a modern information society. Forty Estonian companies and organizations at the pavilion provided convincing reasons for why Estonia is uniquely equipped to deal with future challenges.
The most striking development is that Estonia has become increasingly sustainable as a society. Transitioning to online platforms has meant that the country has been saving up huge amounts of materials and resources. By adopting an increasingly digitized way of life, they’ve managed to save on stacks of paper as high as the Eiffel Tower every year. The environmental benefits of digitalisation are often overlooked, but if we all followed Estonia’s example, there’s already the potential for a global 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. There’s clearly still a large scope of possibility when it comes to digitalisation, and we could all learn something valuable from countries like Estonia.
4. Collaboration and knowledge exchange are more important than ever before.
192 countries were represented at Expo 2020 - a new record for the event - and there’s a clear sense that many of them are working towards similar goals. The shared theme for the event was outlined as “Connecting minds, creating the future”, and widespread efforts have been made to promote the benefits of international cooperation and innovation.
It wasn’t hard to spot this in action. EU institutions, in cooperation with member states, arranged over 40 events and activities to promote mutual understanding and international cooperation. And the Opportunity Pavilion has been designed to keep a focus on UN initiatives, providing exhibitions on global missions and offering optimistic visions of interconnected futures.
There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to point out how this idealism doesn’t match with our current reality, with the worsening situation of many global conflicts in the past few years, especially with the outbreak of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. But there can be little doubt about the aspirations of many countries at the event, or the increased demand for international collaboration and knowledge-exchange.
5. Controversial innovations are still in demand.
Developments in drone technology have always been met with a great deal of scrutiny. But this hasn’t done anything to lessen their presence at Expo 2020. Representatives from Sohar in Oman recently discussed the ways they’ve adopted eagle-eyed drones for anew monitoring system at their port, arguing that drone technology will be instrumental in realizing effective maintenance in the future. They claim that drones are ideally suited to monitor the spaces that workers find difficult to reach, and so provide the kinds of rapid data-driven analyses that maximise overall efficiency. The China pavilion has also fully embraced drone-usage this year, grabbing international attention by using them for a dramaticlight show.
More controversially, face-recognition technology has also had a major presence at the event. At the Russia pavilion, NtechLab installed multiple cameras connected to their central hub, to indicate the kind of technology that might be used in future ‘smart cities’. The system compiles information about the comings-and-goings of visitors, and offers video-analytics about who they might be (by collecting data about visitor gender and age). The pavilion doesn’t shy away from showing the technology’s potential use for surveillance, claiming that in Moscow alone, over5000 crimes were solved in 2020 by using similar methods. Many of us might hope that this kind of technology has limited reach, but recent estimates suggest that themarket size will increase 18% by 2027.
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