This Is Really Risky
Today I'm taking a hot minute to reflect in some meaningful way on the six years of work that has brought Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai, to this opening day.
It has been a complex journey, beginning in an almost boundless sense of mission and optimism, burrowing through the difficulties that something both vitally important and radically different must encounter, growing slowly under a magnificent, spreading solar canopy in the desert sun, then coming to fruition over weeks and weeks and more weeks of long days and long nights in Dubai, at the height of Covid, for a public preview in the middle of the winter of 2021. Now, as I write this, the early morning sun is rising on its debut on the world stage.
Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.
What an amazing theme for an Expo. It was the first lens through which I was introduced to Dubai, even before the Grimshaw team, of which Thinc has been a part, was awarded the Pavilion. I had traveled there as one of about thirty creative types invited to a multi-day forum in which we discussed and explored almost every aspect of the upcoming Expo, still in its earliest planning stages. I was captivated by the depth of intent, the real democracy of inclusion, and the seriousness with which the Expo team approached an event intended to have lasting and significant positive impact in the world. It was thrilling, and wildly seductive, to be a part of it.
The award of the Pavilion was even more thrilling. It came with a powerful demand: to shake the trees, to go to places no such project had gone, to really, fearlessly put a huge stake in the ground on behalf of our living planet. To be inventive and courageous, to be rooted in the ancient sands of the UAE, and to reach the hearts of people around the world.
And to alter the course, in some meaningful way, of the future we humans will create.
Riding the wave of an initial surge of progress, I soon began to struggle. Our team began to struggle. We sought lyricism in the metaphor of an oasis and in the sheer beauty of the planet. We grappled with the grounded literalism of planetary threats and devastation. Paralleling the world we were studying and trying to embody, we ourselves fell out of balance. It was only when a couple of us traveled to Bodardle, the farmhouse in Cornwall belonging to Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project and an advisor to the project from the get-go, that it became apparent that imbalance was exactly the right state to be in.
During five days of ping-pong-induced reverie, we realized that the only way to stand this pavilion upright was to flip the world on its head. From the dry(ish) science of Planetary Boundaries, we began to craft an emotional journey that would draw people into a state of wonder—encountering the astonishing, hidden webs of life that support all life—only to whack them 'cross the side of the head with the madness with which we humans consume that wonder and everything it enfolds.
Having sent the inhabitants of Terra through the wilds of human folly in a world gone mad, we also devised ways to entice them to regain control through meaningful choices (often with ambiguous outcomes), and to recenter themselves in what it is that they truly value. We would usher them, in the fantastical world that I sketched as we dreamed, probed, argued, laughed, and lost ping-pong balls under the kitchen cabinets, toward a profound return to meaning, inspiration, purpose, and hope.
A week later, a small group of us traveled to Dubai to present the initial concept to Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, the UAE State Minister charged with the leadership of Expo. It was she who had challenged all of us, months previously, to push every possible boundary and invent something genuinely new, and of genuine significance.
I have often worked with people whose appetite for invention waned at the edge of the known, and whose quest for breakthrough ended in the safety of the already proven. I've seen them recoil when they encountered the thing they most desired. I've seen them beat a hasty retreat at the first scent of danger.
Not Her Excellency Reem. At the end of the presentation, she looked at us calmly and said "Wow. This is really risky."
And then, through a radiant smile, she added: "Let's do it."