A New Zealand Simplified, Airbrushed, Idealised

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Columnist Rod Oram visits the $62m NZ pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai – and comes away emotional, impressed and a little misled

After living for two months on the other side of the world, I had my first “taste” of Aotearoa in the desert on the way home. I was starved. It was rich. Just as well I’ve waited a month before writing about it.

Walking into our pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai was an emotional experience for me. It instantly immersed me in the story of who we are as a people, what we make of this place and where we are in the world, literally and figuratively.

An image of a whale in the NZ pavilion’s ‘film room’.

The narrative is told so powerfully, I’m sure most visitors leave with some distinctive impressions of us. So far, some 400,000 people have experienced it.

That’s why I enjoy World Expos. Once every five years, they give almost every nation a chance to tell its story. They’re glorious extravaganzas, showing us humanity’s consoling commonalities and disconcerting differences.

Getting our Expo message across helps build consumer, trade and international relationships. But it’s impossible to measure the return on investment — $62 million in the case of Dubai. Still, it’s worth fronting up anyway.

This was my third Expo. My first was in Aichi, Japan, in 2005, and my second in Shanghai in 2010. New Zealand skipped Milan’s in 2015. Perhaps the bean counters failed to work out the RoI of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” the theme of that Expo.

We have presented essentially the same story about ourselves in all three Expos: we are creative, caring people living in a largely unspoilt, unique country.

But we’ve done it very differently on all three occasions. With each telling, our story has become fuller, more confident, more forward-looking.

Here’s an extract of my report from Aichi, where the Expo theme was “living harmoniously with nature: the wonders of technology and sustainable environmental practices”:

The $8.5 million NZ pavilion…is an abstract evocation of the bush – curved, wood-planked walls painted in many shades of green; dappled lighting; a tall, airy space. And the centrepiece is a huge greenstone, bathed in light, water running over it, a fluffy long white cloud high above.

It is fascinating to watch visitors. Many of them pause as they come in, adjusting to the uncluttered space and the restful lighting. Then the greenstone catches their eye. They are drawn to it. Most of them run a hand over it; many ask companions to photograph them in front of it.

All this is a relief from the hurly-burly of many other pavilions. Ours is a restful oasis; a place where visitors are encouraged to engage rather than being told “do not touch”, as do a forest of such signs in, for example, the Russian pavilion.

Further images about New Zealand are delivered in a seven-minute film playing on a 12m wide screen and on a highly innovative interactive display created by HIT Lab of Christchurch. Both offer clear messages about our land, people, culture, environment, economy, technology and quality of life.

The theme of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 was “Better City, Better Life,” emphasising the role of urbanisation in 21st century life. Our pavilion was large by our standards, but still one of the cheaper ones at $30m. Here’s part of my report from Shanghai:

Occupying a prime site near the towering Chinese national pavilion, it has a sloping roof landscaped from sub-alpine tussock at the top, through bush, a geyser pond and lush flowers to a coastal pohutukawa at ground level. It is populated by thousands of live plants brought from New Zealand, though given the season, the flowering pohutukawa is artificial.

The roof garden is hugely popular with visitors. They linger in it, enjoying the bucolic break from the tarmac, concrete and steel vastness of the Expo. It also offers a respite from the Expo’s exhausting rhythm of long, tedious queues to get into pavilions punctuated by frantic rushes through them.

The journey through the New Zealand pavilion evokes a day in the urban life of Kiwis. As visitors stroll up a 120m ramp that winds through the building up to the roof, they glimpse how we live, work and play, enriched by our cultures and beautiful land.

While NZ Trade & Enterprise had a full business promotion programme at Shanghai, the main audience was clearly potential Chinese tourists. The subsequent boom in their arrivals, though, obviously had many additional drivers.

The theme of the Dubai Expo is “Connecting minds, creating the future” with particular emphasis on “sustainability, mobility, and opportunity”. Our $62m pavilion is somewhat smaller than Shanghai’s but much simpler, relying instead on an impressive, immersive audio-visual experience to tell our story.

The digital ocean in the pavilion.

The underlying theme is kaitiakitanga, our indigenous ethos of care for and protection of our natural environment. To develop the pavilion, NZT & E partnered with the Whanganui iwi through its governing entity Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui.

The story begins by emphasising the Whanganui River is a living entity – “I am the river, the river is me” – as recognised in the Te Awa Tupua Act of 2017. As you journey through the pavilion the theme takes on many variations such as I am nature…learning…open-minded…a solution…Aotearoa.

The continuous AV show glides enticingly through topics such as sustainable fisheries, regenerative farming, culture and education, creativity, healthcare technology, agricultural technology, renewable energy, and global connection.

Thanks to the AV technology, you can get a sense of the journey through this virtual tour. If you take it be sure to click on the + Learn More button on the right side of your screen. While the notes are informative to a greater or lesser extent, some are blatantly misleading, others are outright odd.

For example, Sustainable Fishing highlights the effectiveness of the “tiaki” net for preventing unwanted bycatch. Yes, it has its merits but the Ministry for Primary Industries explains its limits. More than 15 years old, the tiaki technology still accounts for only a modest proportion of the overall catch.

Our fishing industry has many serious issues to address, as Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, laid out in her report on the sector in March.

Similarly, Regenerative Agriculture is clearly the future for the sector globally, as for example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and partners explained when they launched Regen10 at the UN’s climate negotiations in Glasgow last month. Their goal is to ensure investment of at least US$60 billion a year helps 500 million farmers worldwide switch to regenerative practices by 2030.

But here in New Zealand regen ag (farming systems that help restore ecosystem health and resilience) is practised by only a small proportion of farmers. Many more are dismissive of the term. Meanwhile, farming generates 48 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions and causes most of our acute rural water degradation.

The “digital” river at the entrance to the pavilion.

When it comes to universities, the AV tour says all eight of ours “are ranked in the world’s top 3 percent.” The un-named source must have an extraordinarily generous definition of a university.

This is the reality: QS World University Rankings is the authority on the top 1,300 universities. In it, ours rank from 85= (Auckland University) to 451= (Auckland University of Technology).

Under Agricultural Technology, the virtual tour says: “Our innovations include carbon-zero milk, sheep that emit less methane, nutritionally superior apples and distinctive, red-fleshed kiwifruit.”

Under Healthcare Technology it says: “Non-invasive high-flow breathing aids designed in New Zealand are the preferred front-line therapy for Covid-19 patients.”

Under Globally Connected, rocketry is the sole technology cited in the pavilion and in the virtual tour. The latter says: “Our ingenuity, relative isolation and innovation-friendly business environment has made New Zealand a new hub for space missions.”

But a 2019 report on the sector commissioned by our government reckoned we had a 0.27 percent share of global space sector revenues. Thanks to Rocket Lab’s inspiring achievements to date, that minuscule share is growing. Hopefully it will have an even more spectacular future. Even so it will take us many years for reality to catch up with the Expo’s hype.

Most concerning of all, the story we’re telling the world at Expo is simplified, air-brushed and idealised. Our achievements are more modest. Actual life here is far more rugged and compromised for many members of our society.

Of course every country spins its best yarns at Expo; and of course most visitors know that and go happily along for the ride.

My response was so visceral, though, for a simple reason. The pavilion tells the story of the people and nation we could become.

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