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Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Inside Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

John Bull is the Director of Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Expo 2020 Dubai will welcome around 25 million visitors from all over the globe during its six-month duration. The event will be a celebration of human ingenuity. Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion, promotes ecology, sustainable technologies and design through immersive experiences, and will play a central role.

John Bull Terra Sustainability Pavilion Expo 2020 DubaiJohn Bull is the Director of Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. He describes himself as a museum experience builder. In the run-up to the event, where Dubai will host the world for 173 days in the name of ‘connecting the world and creating the future’, he spoke to Blooloop.

Starting from the shop floor

“I started back in the early 2000s in the UK at London’s Science Museum,” says Bull. “I was lucky enough to work there for 6 or so years.

“I’m quite proud that I started on the shop floor. That was in a role they call the ‘explainer’. It was all about bringing the science home to the public, and relating it to different people.

“I think it was probably one of the most formative things in my career and something that still affects me today.”

In 2006, he moved to the London Transport Museum. “I oversaw the education department and the exhibition programming there,” he says. “It was fantastic because it is one of the largest independent museums in the UK. This kind of museum faces different challenges from a national. It’s got the most amazing collection. It tells a beautiful story about how London was shaped, and how the people of London have shaped it.”

See also: Expo 2020 Dubai’s Sumathi Ramanathan on why the Expo will be ‘one of the biggest destinations on earth’

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

New opportunities

Later, he moved to the Gulf. “In London, there are over 250 museums,” says Bull. “Out here, it is a very different landscape. I believe that there are more opportunities for institutions such as museums and science centres to have a bigger impact. Because they are not simply treading ground that had been trodden before. There is also an opportunity to reconsider, and do things in a different way. I was, and I continue to be, really excited about the possibilities.

“I came here almost exactly two years ago to work on the Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something with genuinely worldwide significance. And that’s where I’m lucky enough to be still.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai will bring 192 countries together, featuring narratives from every corner of the globe.

Bull says: “For me, the Expo represents all the best about mankind. It is this opportunity to be hopeful and energised and excited about ways that we might come together to tackle some of the more pressing and challenging situations that we find ourselves in. And also to make these enormous step changes, almost like paradigm shifts, in the way that we think.

“From the beginning, from the very first Expo, they have been a chance to show a brighter future, and I love that. So that’s what I hope Expo 2020 Dubai will do. We are going to fulfil our ambition to connect minds and create the future. If we can do that, it will be awe-inspiring.”

See also: Expo Live: bringing together innovators from around the world for Expo 2020 Dubai

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai


Bull, who began as an ‘explainer’, now sees his role as that of a storyteller. “On this topic of sustainability, I think the body of science that paints a picture of the need for sustainability is very comprehensive. So, it’s not a question that needs explaining to people. What we need to do it to make it more personal, so people care about it, to make it directly relate to their lives.

“Here at Terra, which is the name of the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, we decided to craft that very carefully into a story. This does and shall connect with every single one of our visitors so that they can see the relevance. We want them to feel moved, excited, passionate, and maybe a little bit scared. It’s all of the things that being a really good storyteller is about.

See also: A show like no other: arts and culture at Expo 2020 Dubai

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai


We are hearing messages about sustainability every day. Is there a risk that people will be less engaged due to the familiarity of the message?

Bull says, “I think one of the challenges that we have is to tell this story in a way that really connects with people. One of our biggest fears was coming across as preachy, or negative. The last thing anyone needs is to have fingers wagged at them, and to hear: ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, do that.’

“Because often, we already know. The Sustainability Pavilion story is very much rooted in the reality of life. And also, the wondrous dichotomies you find in life. We want to be sustainable, and yet we want nice things, we want to spend money, we enjoy shopping.

“We are not saying, ‘give up your life and go and live in a cave’ – we recognise we live in this real world where we face challenges. So we are saying, ‘let’s be wise, let’s face up to those challenges and just make some better decisions.’”

See also: 24 of the best country pavilions on show at Expo 2020 Dubai

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Terra – making information accessible

One way to do this is by demystifying some of those choices.

“Some of the bad decisions that we collectively make are because we don’t know. For example, it surprised me to find out that over two and a half thousand litres of water have gone into the making of one average cotton T-shirt. It’s an enormous amount, and yet we treat fashion as disposable.

“People keep a T-shirt for one season and then get rid of it. It’s not a rational decision. And when we peel back some of these layers of information or lack of information, explained through a good story, it is clear people do inherently love the world around them and want to protect it. They recognise that this is our one home and that the time to act is now, but they are not sure how.

“So if the Sustainability Pavilion can make that easy and obvious and fun, that is what we want to do.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Making a difference with the Sustainability Pavilion

One of the problems in engaging people is the magnitude of the crisis facing the planet. It can leave people feeling helpless and unsure of what difference they can make.

Bull says, “There are two sides to this coin. Every single person can make a difference. There are small things that each one of us can do in our lives that will genuinely make an impact. But what we also need to know is that we shouldn’t feel disempowered, we should feel that we have agency.

“We also have agency by coming together. These big issues do need tackling on a bigger scale, but what are governments? They are representatives of the people.

“Expo 2020 Dubai is about bringing people together, to discuss things, to find ways forward. If we can do that, and speak with one voice to suggest a new way forward, there really is hope.”

See also: The infrastructure of Expo 2020 Dubai: creating a complete city

Spreading hope at Expo 2020 Dubai

The final sections of the Terra experience are focused on hope.

“What we want to do within the Sustainability Pavilion, in the vein of Expos over time, is to showcase some of the best innovation that is happening around the world. We want to tackle some of these grand challenges that are ahead of us.

“We are, however, very careful not to paint this picture where everyone can think: ‘Oh, it’s alright. The scientists are going to save us.’

“That is not what we want to do at all,” adds Bull. “But we are aware it is a risk. So, what we have done is to showcase community/grassroots initiatives and initiatives by scientists, and also by industries and governments. There are some fantastic initiatives that are happening here in the UAE and Arabian Peninsula, too. Things like re-introducing the Arabian oryx to this part of the world and into Africa.

“These things are happening, and they are happening in all different areas. So, people should feel hopeful, and they should feel that they can make a difference. That is very much the tone of Terra.

“Yes: we are in a situation which is potentially devastating. However, the ship has not sailed. There is still hope if we pull ourselves together, pull our socks up, get together, work together, and do it now.”

Expo 2020 dubai-fireworks at night blooloop

Immersive experiences inside the Sustainability Pavilion

Terra has been designed as a series of immersive experiences that connect visitors with the natural world.

Bull says: “As with any story, the real success of it is in the depth of the characters and the landscapes, the places that you create.

“That is the approach we have taken. ‘Immersive’ is an overused word. But it is these all-encompassing immersive environments that take our visitors out of their day to day life, and transport them to this new world. We have taken inspiration from the theatre. Our visitors will find themselves as the main character in these sets.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Exploring the natural world

One of the first sets that visitors to Terra will encounter is about the beauty of the natural world.

“Every great story, every fairy tale, starts with the wondrous kingdom,” says Bull. “And that was perhaps the easiest thing for us to do because nature is inherently beautiful. So we crafted these unusual – but real – natural environments, and we will submerge the visitor in them.

“For example, we invite them to go into a forest. In that forest, they’ll dig beneath the ground into the root network, and they will discover what is known as the Wood Wide Web. This is basically all about how the trees speak to each other. How they share resources, how they protect each other, and how they attack each other or attack foes.

“They do this partly through the amazing symbiotic relationships between the roots and fungus. With some types of tree, the ‘mother’ tree will send nutrients and protection down to the saplings that are her direct children, but not to other saplings in the area. What we want to show is that these earthlings that couldn’t possibly look any more different from us are actually so like us.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

A subterranean soap opera

“What we have built down there is a subterranean soap opera. We want everyone to come out of this place saying: ‘Wow: I had no idea I had so much in common with a tree.’”

For the next stage, visitors to the Sustainability Pavilion will climb among the roots. Here beautiful displays will immerse them.

“We use these carefully throughout the experience, where appropriate. For example, there are messages that beam from tree to tree as they go down into the experience. These become increasingly artful and esoteric, and more like a blast of electricity zooming from one place to another. The careful use of digital technology has been important for that.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Nature under threat

The next stage in the story, still very much in the tone of a fairy tale, is the threat to the wondrous kingdom. Bull says, “The visitors will discover that the threat that faces the natural world comes from us. All of us, collectively.”

The forest is the first stage of their experience. Then, visitors will find themselves in an enormous factory. Here, huge stacks of boxes of goods are ready for shipping around the world.

“They’ll see that they’re standing underneath the most enormous U-shaped machine. It has a mouth with grinding teeth. We call him the Gnasher.” Gnasher is a machine of endless consumption, inspired by a steampunk/Wallace and Gromit aesthetic.

“Our Gnasher tells his tale of endless conversion of natural resources into consumer goods. Because everything we own was once a natural resource. Every time we get something, we’ve made a choice: let’s turn this plant into this table. Let’s turn these minerals into this mobile phone. Let’s turn these minerals into a giant box of plastic moustaches.

“Some of these choices are logical and sensible. Some of these choices are ridiculous, so this is a dark place, daunting, a bit worrying. It’s unsettling, but it’s also darkly humorous.”

Using humour

Humour is an important factor throughout the Sustainability Pavilion. “It is another technique that we’re using to make sure that we’re not boring or preachy,” adds Bull.

“We have to laugh at ourselves. We have to be sufficiently grown-up to be able to take a step back and do that. Some of the choices we make are not rational, and we want to challenge that.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

A brighter future

Visitors are then led towards the final stages of Terra. One of the final galleries, the Laboratory of Future Values, explores initiatives for a brighter path forward.

“We want to make sure we do everything possible to ensure that our visitors become agents of change. We genuinely aspire to change people. The aim is to get them thinking differently, and wanting to do things differently. So, some of the last experiences are about opening the door to allow them to do that, inviting them to change their behaviour.

“We want them to take up new challenges, to sign up to initiatives here in the UAE and around the world with an environmental focus.”

The Sustainability Pavilion achieves this through some meticulously thought out exhibits and exercises.

“One of the things which is unusual about what we’re doing across all these sections is we’re working with environmental psychologists. We have been heavily influenced by concepts like nudge theory. [This proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence behaviour].

“We’ve been thinking very carefully about how we craft these environments. It’s important that they are not negative and not preachy. They paint the picture of a need for change, and enable that need sufficiently well that we can actually do something.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

After Expo 2020 Dubai

Once the six months of Expo 2020 Dubai are over, Terra will be far from finished.

“The vision has always been for Terra to be an ongoing project, not just for Expo 2020 Dubai, but for beyond. There will be a short transition period, with some small changes to the exhibition and to the building. After this, we will re-open as a Science Centre for Dubai.

“We will continue to tell this story about sustainable living and to inspire people. We want to equip them with the skills to come up with new ideas to move societies forward.”

During the design and build of the pavilion, sustainability was at the forefront.

“With everything we do, we say there is a better way. That’s as true of the buildings as the exhibitions. Here, the building is a metaphor for the better relationship mankind can have with the rest of nature.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Sustainable design at Terra

Every aspect of the Terra Sustainability Pavilion building has been considered from a sustainability aspect. This will enable it to achieve LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] platinum certification. This is the highest level of environmental certification that it is possible for a building to have.

“Its most striking feature is the canopy over the top of the building,” says Bull. “It is 130 metres wide and covered in innovative photovoltaic panels. These capture the abundant energy from the sun, which we’re currently feeling in the summer over here.

“Throughout the landscape, we have eighteen energy trees. They are structures the size of a tree, covered in photovoltaic cells. They act like flowers. The head of the ‘tree’ tracks the sun over the course of the day. A unique feature of the trees is their bifacial solar panels. These capture both direct sunlight and reflected sunlight off the ground.”

Pioneering ‘water tree’ experimental technology is also showcased. This harvests humidity, gathering water directly from the air.

“We are showing that this technology can work even in this environment. So, imagine what they could do in a more humid, wetter environment.”

Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Solving problems through technology

Most of the Sustainability Pavilion is under the ground so that it requires less AC. The plot the building sits on is nearly 24 000 square metres.

“Our planting schemes are built to use 75% less water in irrigation than other similar plantings in the region,” says Bull. “We do that through innovative technology. We also choose plants suitable for arid environments.

“One of the things we want to do is take these plants that are sometimes seen as a weed out here. We want to grow them into a beautiful state. Then we can say: ‘Look: these are beautiful plants native to the UAE, to the Arabian Peninsula. We should be using more of them.’”

Finally, Bull says: “This approach to sustainability is running through Expo 2020 Dubai as a whole. And it is absolutely exemplified in Terra. You can find it in how we operate, what we sell in the gift shop, the food we sell in the restaurant. Even in the cleaning products we use. We’re pushing the boundaries. I’m really genuinely excited about this.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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