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Are There Lessons For The Future Of Higher Education From Expo2020 In Dubai? – Forbes

Ever since Dubai announced that it was going to host Expo2020, which was going to showcase the future and “join the making of a new world at the greatest showcase of human brilliance and achievement”, I have been lusting to go to learn about what is to come. I remember the 1965 NY World’s Fair where we saw individual people movers, video phones, kitchens that cook their own meals and cities in the air. Many of these exciting ideas have not come to fruition but they were exciting to think about and to motivate outside-the-box thinking and some that were there have transformed how we live; just think the i-phone and self-driving cars.
Expo2020 Logo sign at the entrance
I finally got to go to Expo2020 recently, having waited more than a year because of the Covid delay, hoping to be stimulated by great new ideas that would help motivate my thinking about how higher education could change to competitively position itself for the future. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Despite some very interesting architecture, there was not much new. Many of the countries tried to be interactive or as we would say provide experiential activities by having you participate in their exhibits but unfortunately, the technology often didn’t work and only served to frustrate us. The few countries that used avatars to engage us tended to do the best jobs. Several used virtual reality but it was tedious to use and was not done as effectively as many of our colleges who are using it in active teaching projects.
Robot at Expo 2020
Most of the developed countries bragged about what they have accomplished in the past and most of the developing countries talked about their plans and visions. Many of the plans of the developing countries reminded me of the plans that so many of our colleges and universities create – significant growth in the next five to ten years with few concrete or realistic strategies to attain the growth.
Expo had three main themes: mobility, opportunity, and sustainability. In terms of mobility, a significant number of pavilions had electric cars on display. There were a few cute robots wandering around the grounds most of them less sophisticated than those being used today by some of our food services to deliver meals and definitely less sophisticated than those used in teaching in the health sciences. There was almost nothing about personal transportation pods, significant increases in mass transit, etc. In essence, nothing new. Space exploration also was discussed in many pavilions; small countries are aspiring to get to the moon and even to Mars. I was struck by the similarities in what the countries displayed; very much akin to the mission statements of so many of our schools.
In terms of opportunity, countries bragged about increasing equality for women as well as diversity initiatives; I found this very positive and hope that it will motivate significant change in the next several years. Many third-world countries talked about their audacious plans to develop their countries and to increase their standard of living; many of these plans reminded me of the enrollment growth plans of many of our schools. They were based largely on the philosophy of “if you dream it, it will happen!” I was dismayed at how little importance was placed on the need for education and educational opportunities.
Sustainability probably was the most encouraging theme. It was acknowledged as a problem that needs to be dealt with by most countries; something we are still debating in parts of the U.S. There finally seems to be a recognition that we do need to reduce our carbon footprint to save our planet. Countries talked about solar power and wind power but the most impressive innovations that were displayed were by many small countries that had to do with advances to preserve water and help improve agriculture and often were very low tech and low cost. In Peru, for example, a man has strung nets to catch the water in fog and it produces significant amounts of water allowing farmers in arid parts of the country to grow crops year round so they can continue living there. This was a very low-cost, low-tech solution with great ROI. There were other very interesting innovations presented that should help us move forward in our climate initiatives, an area that our colleges and universities are slowly adopting in terms of reducing their carbon footprints. Expo2020 seemed to be ahead of us in this area.
I’m not sure how we should interpret the lack of creativity about the future in an endeavor like Expo2020 which was billed as “Come see the Future” and where countries have invested significant time and money and yet had little to show for it. Many countries talked about cooperation and collaboration with others; there were eloquent statements to this effect even in the Russian pavilion which I visited on the day that they began bombing the Ukraine. In higher education, we have been talking about cooperation and collaboration and I am starting to see movement towards shared services and programs in several areas. This perhaps is a value that we need to emphasize as we move into the future.
Cooperation and Collaboration from the Russian pavillion
Expo2020 has also brought together groups of people from around 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 may result in greater sharing among countries, greater harmony and perhaps innovations. Expo2020 also served to attract investors as countries, especially developing ones, showcased what they are working on and were clearly looking for money to move them forward; this was something akin to a mega fundraising opportunity.
I was expecting to see tangible innovations at Expo2020 but perhaps I went with the wrong mindset and should look under the surface and hope that the networking and sharing that Expo motivated 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 tangibly what we may see in the future.

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