Planning a positive legacy from mega-event projects

Expo 2020 Dubai

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  • Planning a positive legacy from mega-event projects
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Natalie Stockman


Natalie Stockman


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Mega events can continue to deliver for a city long after the turnstiles have shut, and the last visitor has flown home. The secret is to translate a grand vision into a methodological, measurable legacy plan that has community wellbeing at its heart.

The sustainability imperative continues to gain momentum, placing host cities under increasing pressure to demonstrate how short-term, large-scale events can provide long-term, sustainable benefits that continue beyond the event itself. Despite their temporary nature, major events do provide ambitious cities with opportunities to deliver positive transformations for both citizens and visitors via well-designed, people-centric experiences and legacy programs that address the needs and aspirations of communities and their environment.

Having provided end-to-end cost management to the world’s most iconic, legacy-driven events such as the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and, more recently, Expo 2020 Dubai, RLB believes that a methodical, measurable legacy plan, rooted in a socio-economic and environmentally responsible grand vision, is a crucial factor for success in an increasingly competitive and scrutinised industry.

What does legacy mean in the context of a mega-event?

Typically, event legacy themes focus on long-term plans for urban regeneration, infrastructure investment, economic growth opportunities, cultural development, social and environmental impact, and advances in reputation. An event’s legacy is essentially the long-term return on investment for host cities and is increasingly a key element of the business case to host “mega-events” (large-scale, cultural events with international significance).

Expo 2020 Dubai was a mega-event that not only captured the world’s imagination for its scale and pioneering design but also for its legacy ambitions. For instance, as much as 80% of the built infrastructure is being repurposed into a new, sustainably resourced, educational, cultural, innovation and commercial hub for the city. Expo 2020 Dubai’s legacy plan demonstrated a fundamental difference – perhaps even a new standard – when compared to previous expositions where, typically, most structures were dismantled at the end of the six-month experience. Expo 2020 Dubai’s state-of-the-art, permanent infrastructure offers Dubai the ability to continue hosting large, international events – such as COP28 in 2023 – thereby contributing to the positioning and future economic development of Dubai as a global event hub.

What underpins effective legacy planning for mega-events?

1.   A vision focused on improved quality of life for citizens

At the heart of legacy planning is a clear understanding of what an area or a city, and its people, want and need. To achieve this insight, host cities must prioritise and undertake a thorough analysis of the socio-economic, cultural, political, environmental, and infrastructural needs and aspirations of a city’s communities at the earliest phase of concept. Only then can hosts begin to design an effective legacy strategy based on a well-defined and informed vision of what is required.

What distinguishes Expo 2020 Dubai’s legacy blueprint from many others is not just its long-term infrastructure commitment to the city, including the development of strategic transport services, but also its investment in growing and supporting the city’s small-to-medium (“SME”) enterprises and start-up communities through new business programs, contracts and innovation grants; it’s a legacy plan that has the city’s community at its core.

Tafadzwa Mukaro, RLB Senior Quantity Surveyor & Contracts Manager for Expo 2020 Dubai.

The centrality of future citizens in Expo 2020 Dubai’s legacy program is also evident in its plan to create an open-ended visitor experience underpinned by an objective to continually educate, challenge thinking, and inspire action on issues around sustainability, mobility and economic development opportunities for the most vulnerable. Driven by its principle of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, two of Expo’s thematic pavilions, Terra (the Sustainability Pavilion) and Alif (the Mobility Pavilion), remain sites of ongoing interactive education and inspiration for visitors including school children.

2.   Demonstrating environmental best practice

Event legacy planning should build in long-term best practice for the planet at every stage, from concept through to delivery. Large event infrastructure (carbon intensive from every angle) is increasingly considered a significant, inexcusable waste of energy and finance if it is dismantled immediately following an event. Host cities, keen to elevate or solidify their global image, are therefore increasingly mindful of creating longer lasting, “greener” structures that can be repurposed to serve surrounding communities in subsequent decades.

Expo 2020 Dubai is the first exposition with a deep commitment to sustainability. This was accomplished through multiple programs including wastewater recycling, material re-use and carbon footprint monitoring. For example, Terra produces its own energy, cooling, and water. The amenities of the site’s legacy ‘city’, named Expo City Dubai, are accessible in 15 minutes or less via pedestrian walkways and bike paths, thereby eliminating the need for cars. The site also boasts a dedicated, state-of-the-art metro station and line, named ‘Route 2020’, constructed as an off-shoot of the city’s original ‘Red Line’. Route 2020 now provides a mass transit network to previously unconnected and growing residential and commercial hubs such as Discovery Gardens, Al Furjan, Jumeirah Golf Estates and Dubai Investment Park. This is in line with Dubai’s Vision 2040 urban development master plan to increase accessibility and sustainable transit around the city.

Expo 2020 Dubai also made history by developing its own  Virtual Expo, allowing anyone in the world, for years to come, to ‘experience’ or revisit Expo’s events, concerts and pavilions – a valuable idea from an environmental perspective and particularly useful during a travel-restricted pandemic. RLB, as a key advisor, offered environmentally conscious procurement options and recommended responsible contractors to maintain the sustainability goals of the site.

3.   Quantifiable goals

The success of a legacy plan will naturally be judged in the years following the event. To confirm the efficacy of a legacy plan, event hosts must be able to tangibly measure their goals. There are, of course, common legacy objectives – such as increased economic growth – that are multifaceted, complex to quantify and illustrate the challenges of assessing the true impact of major events such as international expositions. Expo 2020 Dubai has engaged consultants to produce periodic reports that measure attributes such as carbon footprint and SME spend, both on a local and global scale. These metrics have been used to guide decision making both in the run up to the event as well as for the legacy program.

4.   Collaboration and commitment

Collaboration and buy-in from all stakeholders form a fundamental component when it comes to executing an effective legacy from large-scale events. Based on RLB’s deep experience with mega-events, we know first-hand that effective collaboration enables access to a wealth of experience, knowledge and ideas. This is essential to enable successful execution of the event itself while also keeping one eye on the future needs of citizens to deliver positive, lasting change.

For Expo 2020 Dubai, RLB worked as part of a talented, multi-disciplinary team faced with a big challenge: to create an innovative, fresh and sustainable destination that also left a valuable legacy for the people of the United Arab Emirates. Despite the challenges of realising a multi-sensory event of this magnitude during a pandemic, a flexible, collaborative approach enabled our team to adapt to every situation, maintain strong relationships with stakeholders and ultimately bring to life the largest event ever staged in the Arab world.

As the organising team behind Expo 2020 waved goodbye to the last of its 24-plus million visitors in six months, the real impact of its legacy plans will be ascertained in the coming years. One thing, however, is clear: in an age where sustainable practices are increasingly under public scrutiny, aspiring host cities will do well to ensure that their events deliver a well-defined, measurable, positive impact on the long-term prospects and wellbeing of their cities, their communities, and the planet at large.

Written by:

Tafadzwa Mukaro, Senior Quantity Surveyor – RLB Middle East

Rohan Ramgutty, Quantity Surveyor – RLB Middle East