Are there lessons for the future of higher education from Expo2020 in Dubai?

Ever since Dubai announced it was going to host Expo2020, which was going to showcase the future and “join the creation of a new world at the greatest showcase of human brilliance and achievement”, I wanted to go and learn what is to come. I remember the 1965 New York World’s Fair where we saw individual movers, video phones, kitchens cooking their own meals, and cities in the air. Many of these exciting ideas didn’t come to fruition, but they were exciting to think about and thought-provoking outside the box and some that were there transformed the way we live; think of the i-phone and self-driving cars.

I was finally able to make it to Expo2020 recently, having waited over a year due to the Covid delay, hoping to be stimulated by some great new ideas that would help motivate my thinking about how which higher education could change to position itself competitively for the future. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Despite a very interesting architecture, there was not much new. Many countries have tried to be interactive or as we would say provide experiential activities by involving you in their exhibits, but unfortunately the technology often did not work and only served to frustrate us. The few countries that used avatars to engage us tended to do the best job. Several have used virtual reality, but it was cumbersome to use and not as effective as many of our colleges who use it in active teaching projects.

Most developed countries boasted about what they have achieved in the past and most developing countries talked about their plans and visions. Many of the developing country plans reminded me of the plans that so many of our colleges and universities are creating – significant growth in the next five to ten years with few concrete or realistic strategies for achieving growth.

The Expo had three main themes: mobility, opportunity and sustainability. In terms of mobility, a significant number of pavilions featured electric cars. There were a few cute robots wandering the grounds, most less sophisticated than those used today by some of our food services to deliver meals and certainly less sophisticated than those used in health science education. There was almost nothing on personal transport modules, significant increases in public transport, etc. Essentially, nothing new. Space exploration was also discussed in many pavilions; small countries aspire to go to the Moon and even to Mars. I was struck by the similarities in what the countries displayed; very close to the mission statements of so many of our schools.

In terms of opportunity, countries have boasted about increasing equality for women and diversity initiatives; I found this very positive and I hope it will motivate significant changes over the next few years. Many Third World countries spoke of their bold plans to develop their country and raise their standard of living; many of these plans reminded me of the enrollment growth plans for several of our schools. They were largely based on the philosophy of “if you dream it, it will happen!” I was appalled at the lack of emphasis on the need for education and the opportunities for education.

Sustainability was probably the most encouraging theme. It has been recognized as a problem that needs to be addressed by most countries; something we are still debating in parts of the United States There seems to finally be recognition that we need to reduce our carbon footprint to save our planet. Countries talked about solar energy and wind energy, but the most impressive innovations that were showcased came from many small countries that had to do with progress to conserve water and help improve agriculture and were often very low-tech and low-cost. In Peru, for example, a man has stretched nets to catch water in the fog and this produces significant amounts of water enabling farmers in arid parts of the country to grow crops all year round so that they can continue to live there. This was a very low cost, low technology solution with an excellent return on investment. Other very exciting innovations were presented that should help us move forward with our climate initiatives, an area that our colleges and universities are slowly embracing in terms of reducing their carbon footprint. Expo2020 seemed to be ahead of us in this area.

I don’t know how we should interpret the lack of creativity about the future in a business like Expo2020 which was touted as “Come see the future” and where countries have invested a lot of time and money but don’t didn’t have much to show. Many countries spoke of cooperation and collaboration with others; there were eloquent statements to this effect even in the Russian pavilion I visited the day they started bombing Ukraine. In higher education, we’ve talked about cooperation and collaboration, and I’m starting to see a move toward shared services and programs in multiple areas. Perhaps this is a value we need to emphasize as we move forward.

Expo2020 also brought together groups of people from all over the world to discuss various issues. These conversations are not particularly visible to the general tourist except through informal conversations with people, but I am optimistic that these activities can lead to greater sharing between countries, greater harmony and perhaps innovations . Expo2020 also served to attract investors, as countries, especially developing countries, showcased what they were working on and were clearly looking for money to take them forward; it was something that looked like a mega fundraising opportunity.

I expected to see tangible innovations at Expo2020, but maybe I left with the wrong mindset and should look below the surface and hope that the Expo-driven networking and sharing will lead to results in a variety of forums in the future. Countries are bidding to host future Expos and I can only hope that they will be able to demonstrate more concretely what we might see in the future.

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