The UK’s “story of innovation” at Expo 2020 Dubai

The United Kingdom is not new to World Expos. The country has a long history of participation that dates back to 1851, when it hosted the first expo — The Great Exhibition — in Hyde Park, London.

Expo 2020 Dubai, which was postponed earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will run from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022. For the UK, it comes at “a very important time”.

“We are reimagining our relationships with every nation on Earth; and we are being bold and forward looking. We are trying to build long lasting partnerships,” Laura Faulkner OBE, UK commissioner-general and project director at Expo 2020 Dubai, tells Construction Week in a virtual interview.

The UK’s participation, led by the Department for International Trade, at Expo is based on the theme, “Innovating for a Shared Future”.

The pavilion itself is inspired from one of the final projects by the late British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author Stephen Hawking, called ‘Breakthrough Message’.

Hawking’s project invited people across the world to consider a message they would wish to communicate if one day other advanced civilisations were encountered in space.

Based on Hawking’s project, the UK Pavilion will allow people from across the world to contribute to a collective message and showcase British expertise in sectors including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and space.


Faulkner says: “We have a broad theme, but underneath that, we have spotlighted technologies, AI, man, and machine learning, as well as space exploration within the pavilion’s design.”

Innovative design                           

Avantgarde is the prime design contractor of the UK Pavilion, with the firm leading a consortium of Es Devlin Studios, Veretec, Atelier One, and Atelier Ten.

Explaining the design stage of the UK Pavilion, Faulkner says: “With every Expo that the UK has been involved in, we set a challenge to the design industry in the country. We are purposefully broad in our call to the industry, and on this occasion, the UK is at a stage in its development where it wants to tell a certain story. And that story is innovation.”

“We asked the industry to give us designs that [not only] spoke to the theme of innovation, but also put a spotlight on to the UK’s advances and its contribution to global technology and particularly artificial intelligence,” she adds.

The centrepiece of the UK Pavilion is a 20-metre-high cone-shaped structure made up of rows of slats that extend outwards from one central point to form a circular façade.

Faulkner tells Construction Week that the cone, which is of the same height as the Expo’s entrance gates designed by Asif Khan, is taller than the Angel of the North, a contemporary sculpture, designed by Antony Gormley, located in England.

The UK Pavilion sits on a plot area spanning 3,417m2, which is as much as the floor area of Westminster Abbey, equivalent of 13 tennis courts.

Construction update

Ground on the UK Pavilion was broken in June 2019 by International Trade Secretary, Dr Liam Fox MP, with Pico International being appointed as the prime construction contractor, following a tender issue in September 2018.

The main consultant of the pavilion is Mace International (UK) Limited, with Dawson Consulting Architects and Engineers acting as the Architect of Record (AOR).

Talking about the process of choosing companies to construct the pavilion, Faulkner explains: “The construction itself takes a while because we go through many stages to make sure we have companies that are able to build the new and novel designs that we always try to achieve with Expo.”

Revealing the current construction progress, she says: “We have mobilised 100%. The substructure which is critical is 96% complete. The façade is about 50% and the superstructure is about 40% complete, with the overall construction of the pavilion being 40% complete as well.”

She adds: “The wedge and the conferencing facility is ready and glased. [Additionally] the walls, the cone, and the steel [elements] that will allow the cone to rise in the desert are also ready.”

The commissioner-general notes that the finishes and external works are yet to be completed, as it forms the last part of activities that will be implemented once the external superstructure — the cone — is put in place.

However, she exclaims that by December 2020, the pavilion could be viewed in its “entirety”, except for the technology that will go within the exhibition and curation of the visitor journey. 

Following the postponement of the World Expo, participating countries are charting plans to maintain the freshness of their respective pavilions.

For the UK, Faulkner says: “We are taking decisions on how and when to do the layering of the pavilion, because we have to keep this building for an extra 12 months than we had originally intended, in order to make it new and special for the visitors that come in October 2021.”

Kinnarps Project Solutions is the fit-out contractor for the UK Pavilion that has appointed UAE-based Landmark Landscape for landscaping. Meanwhile, another UAE firm, Trinity Engineering Services is providing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) works.

The commissioner-general explains that concrete, steel, glass, and timber has been used for the construction of the pavilion, with majority of materials being sourced in Dubai and from Italy.


Schindler Pars International Limited, a fully-owned subsidiary of the Swiss Six Exchange-listed global mobility provider, Schindler Group, is supplying elevators for the pavilion.

Meanwhile, UK’s Essex-headquartered McLaren Construction is supplying cement and steel, with glass from Bauporte Gulf Building Materials Trading, and wood from Italian firm Rubner.

Faulkner notes that the country intends to complete the construction activities “very many months before” the Expo opens its gates. “The current plan is to have completion as well as our building completion certificate in March 2021.”

Budget and Expo postponement

The United Kingdom’s participation as well as the construction of the pavilion is a government project.

Faulkner says: “The whole of the United Kingdom’s government, its private sector, and many of the stakeholders and partners, as well as private sector companies across the UK, all see a purpose and a value in participating.

“But it starts first with government. It is government funded, and a proportion of it comes from private sector participation.”

On 29 May 2020, the General Assembly of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) formally approved the year-long postponement of Expo 2020 Dubai, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on global public, social, and economic health.

Talking about the postponement, Faulkner notes: “We work in a way that we try to plan for the unexpected. In 2020, that unexpected has been a global pandemic. So much like other nations, we have rolled our sleeves up, and have looked carefully at what this means.”

She adds: “Government projects always look and anticipate the unexpected through contingency planning. So [in that way] we would have always been ready.”

Faulkner confidently says that the United Kingdom has given its “agreement, support, and reconfirmation” to be a part of the World Expo, when it opens the doors in 2021.

Worker Welfare

“We take the health and safety of workers very seriously, and so does the Expo. Having put all of the health and safety measures in place, working with Expo, and the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, we are always focused on one thing, and that is the people,” affirms Faulkner.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there were some workers who showed minor symptoms of the virus at the UK Pavilion. However, all these workers returned to work after following “suitable quarantine periods and care”, based on Expo 2020 Dubai’s COVID-19 standards.

“Currently, we have gone seven weeks without having a new case anywhere near this project. And we hope that will continue. But what we are certain of is that throughout, we have strong social distancing policies in place,” says Faulkner. “We have mitigated every angle including workers travel, their living as well as safety.”

Faulkner says that it had been a difficult situation for everyone associated with UK’s participation at the World Expo, due to the pandemic. “But at this point, building is continuing, and everybody who is working on the UK pavilion is well.”

Around 120 people are currently working at the construction site of the UK Pavilion. These workers are from the prime construction contractor, Pico, and its various subcontractors.

Activities at the UK Pavilion have been carried out in day shifts only. Faulkner notes: “There has been no reason to have anyone working night shifts.”

Together the construction team has recorded 287,469 lost time injury-free (LTI) safe man-hours on the site.

The journey

Faulkner says that for visitors coming to the UK Pavilion, the journey is divided in three stages.

The first element is the Maze of Aspiration, a journey through several illuminating displays, giving an augmented reality experience that explores the UK’s role in AI, machine learning, and space.

Then the visitors are taken to the Coral Space, which is the entrance of the spherical area, where visitors can contribute a word to a collective message. The interior also provides an immersive soundscape that reflects the UK’s diverse culture.

The last and final element of the journey is the Speech Space, where the visitors will walk back to the front façade to see the collective message — “an artificial intelligence based poetry” being broadcast; and beam over the Expo site.

On being asked about the number of people the UK expects will visit the pavilion, when the Expo opens on 1 October 2021, Faulkner grins: “We hope everybody.”

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