EXPO 2017- Milestone or Death Star?

Written by Martin Geyer

The EXPO 2017 -“Future Energy” has been called many names: From a setting for amazing tech breakthroughs to a death star, barely capable of changing Kazakhstan’s dependency on natural resources. Puzzled yet curious by the controversial press coverage, I decided to book a flight to a city that is widely ignored by western media and that I (honestly) barely knew anything about. The followings are my personal impressions of the exhibition and its importance for the shift towards a more sustainable future.

Directly upon the arrival in Astana’s newly built airport you could feel the EXPO spirit. Huge posters above the luggage belt were there to welcome you and give you a hint on what you’re about to experience. The following (hybrid) taxi ride through the streets of this planned city felt strangely natural. Although most of the city was built in the 21st century (making it younger than me), Astana somehow managed to develop a distinctive look and feel by blending European and Asian architecture in a way that works surprisingly well together and makes the city feel a lot more natural than expected.

Arriving at the EXPO area, I was once again amazed by the architecture that just perfectly fitted the theme of the exposition while offering space for a total 115 participating countries and 22 International Organizations, a lot compared to past specialized exhibitions. So let me give you an insight into some of the pavilions.

The past, the present…

Bad things first. Sadly, some countries including the Netherland, Greece and the UKs got lost in presenting a lot of information about past inventions leaving very limited space for new ideas.  
Spain, Turkey and several Arab states did a better job by focusing on current projects, mostly in the field of wind and solar energy. Spain impressively demonstrated its comprehensive knowledge in renewable energy production (allowing the country to have an 70% carbon free energy mix), while states like Algeria, the UAE or Saudi Arabia were showing their potential in the use of sustainable energy while pointing out several projects that are already under construction. Germany besides some electric car and smart home concepts presented the installation of the first Kazakh wind park, build with German engineering assistance. Having by far the most extravagant pavilion, Austria took a memorable approach by stating that the most valuable energy sources we have are our own bodies. As a demonstration, most of the pavilion’s screens were powered by bicycle generators - and while walking home to Vienna might not be the most serious suggestion, taking your bike to work, trivial as it seems, certainly makes a difference.



… and the future

Italy stood out by combining the presentation of past ideas with the empowerment of new ones. In the entrance of the pavilion, you could see short movies featuring Italians of all ages presenting their view on what could lead us to a more sustainable future. Latvia, having one of the most technologically advanced pavilions, went on with presenting its vision of the Riga Freeport implemented in in a globalized infrastructure. It was the first time I got in contact with Chinas “One belt one road” strategy which I was reoccurring in several pavilions. 
Further promising ideas came from Hungary by presenting a newly constructed geothermal energy system that is far more efficient than current models and Switzerland by displaying the Solar Impulse, a plane purely powered by solar energy.

Kazakhstan’s ideas

While the Asian superpowers Russia, China and India did not leave out the opportunity to show their visions for connecting the Asian continent, they were all upstaged by the host country. Stretching its exhibition over three separate buildings Kazakhstan showed a lot of promising concepts.
From urban agriculture and horticulture by exhibiting plants that grow inside the expo buildings and presenting a new office tower in Astana that grows food for its canteen right above it in indoor greenhouses over a smart power grid that shifts energy from different sources to the different consumers while showing high flexibility under all circumstances, visualized by a massive illuminated cube to the Kazakh ambitions for Eurasian railway projects which could help cutting carbon emissions of goods coming to Europe by a factor of 20 compared to trucks or planes while being more than 5 times faster than container ships.
With most of the Kazakh exhibition being in the unique sphere in the middle of the EXPO area there could have been no better place to show these concepts. Making use of impressive 360° projections the exhibition perfectly blended into the post-modern architecture. 


My conclusion

So what’s the takeaway of the 2017 EXPO? Well, certainly a lot of countries showed the ambition of shifting their energy production away from fossil resources towards more sustainable sources. Moreover, a lot of knowledge was exchanged, and some promising concepts presented. However, it remains questionable whether countries whose economy is substantially dependent on the export of natural resources (including Kazakhstan itself) are all interested in accelerating this shift. Also, BMW proudly showing yet another concept car while simultaneously announcing to discontinue their existing electric car series leaves a bitter taste.

At the same time, rather unobtrusively Kazakhstan underlined its ambitions to become the main transshipment place on future railway links between Europe and Eastern Asia. This emphasize was also to be observed by many other Asian countries (including Russia and China) and while the economic consequences are unclear, it is certainly a plus for our planet. 

Now, is the EXPO really marking a milestone for future energy production? Hard to say at this point, but it marks an important step in achieving this goal and surely a turning point for Kazakhstan that will eventually benefit the whole planet.