• Transform magazine
  • July 03, 2022


Five minutes with Steve Austen-Brown


Steve Austen-Brown, creative director at global brand experience agency, Avantgarde London, speaks to Transform magazine about the Expo Dubai 2020, and the design behind the UK Pavilion, including the challenges encountered along the way.

What can we expect to see in the coming months at the Expo Dubai 2020?

World Expos are where all nations come together and share ideas about the future and how we can make the world a better place. It is also a place to discover hugely sophisticated branding exercises for countries, expressed through architecture, engagement, and content. We get to witness the latest technology and innovations bringing to life these stories through experiences, singular and shared. What is fascinating is how the stories that are told through immersive experiences represent and reflect the different countries’ characters. 

What was Avantgarde’s role in the creation of the UK Pavilion at the Expo Dubai 2020?

After inviting artist and designer Es Devlin to be the first woman to design the UK Pavilion at a World Expo, we brought together a team of the very best experts and specialists to create her powerful vision. Avantgarde then led the design team which included over 100 architects, engineers, digital, lighting, landscape, AV, graphics, branding and signage designers as well as software, algorithm, and artificial intelligence (AI) specialists to deliver the UK Pavilion.

What were the challenges of constructing Es Devlin’s original concept? How did Covid-19 affect the project?

The central challenges were around scale. To build a unique 25m high structure around cross laminated timber (CLT) was an engineering feat. To then allow the largest number of visitors to contribute to the pavilion was the next challenge. The concept was that up to 25 million visitors over six months should have the opportunity to donate a word of their choice to the algorithm-generated poem that is shown across the façade of the pavilion. Each visitor contributes the word through their own smart device, and receives back, within six seconds a unique couplet, which is then integrated into the ever-growing poem and refreshed on the façade every 60 seconds. The smartest algorithm creators worked with some of the best UK poets to make this happen.

Of course, Covid-19 did have an impact, as it did to all live projects. Remote working was challenging at times, especially when multi-disciplines had to get together. But we worked around this. The biggest issue was the design team having access to the site during the build, given the travel restrictions in place.

Why did you choose to incorporate AI technology with the building design?

AI is one of the central UK innovative industries that is being celebrated during the Expo. UK is a global leader in this area, and it therefore made sense to promote and explore this technology within the heart of the pavilion experience. There is also a perfect context for AI to play within the realm of poetry and the system of poetry construction is something that it can learn. The AI was fed 1000s of lines of poems from 100s of UK poets and became more and more of an expert at reading the patterns of words. We wanted an intuitive way for every visitor to engage with the pavilion and for every visitor to have a unique experience - AI enabled this ambition to be realised.