Taking centre stage: Team Australia at Expo 2020

Australian Pavilion

14 minute read



World Expos are among the largest international events on the planet, taking place every five years and lasting six months. They are events that showcase the best examples of collaboration, innovation and cooperation from around the world. Expo 2020 will be hosted in Dubai and was originally scheduled to open on 20 October 2020. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has been postponed to 2021.

CBE alumnus and Australia’s Commissioner General for Expo 2020 Dubai, Justin McGowan, has had a unique career spanning across many countries. Whether it’s enforcing UN sanctions, showcasing the Commonwealth of Australia for the world’s Business Olympics or effectively managing huge teams across different sectors, Justin has executive insights on what success entails at personal, organisational and national levels.

In this interview, Justin takes on questions about coordinating ‘Team Australia’ at one of the world’s largest events in the current climate of uncertainty.




Q. Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today?

I have had a fascinating and rewarding career. Starting out in the Royal Australian Navy, I had the opportunity to visit many countries, forge global ties and develop many skills and qualities that have helped in my current diplomatic career including judgement, resilience and integrity. I have been part of numerous operations, including in the Solomon Islands and the Middle East.

I later worked in the information and communications technology sector, where I developed strong project management expertise while undertaking some of the largest change programs in Australian Government. That experience helped me advance my systems thinking, stakeholder engagement and negotiations skills.

Following my varied roles in the Navy and private sector, I established a start-up company through leveraging the education and connections I made at ANU, where I completed a Master of Management in 2006. In 2009, I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and have worked in many of our embassies around the world. DFAT has given me the opportunity to expand my world view and represent Australia in Thailand and now, in my current role in Dubai. I am Australia’s Commissioner General for Expo 2020 Dubai, where I have the honour of leading the Commonwealth’s participation in one of the world’s largest events along with 192 other participating nations.

Don’t underestimate the value of teams. Diversity and varied perspectives are such great assets in organisations.

Q. As a senior executive and diplomat with more than 20 years of experience in the military, private industry and government, can you name three pivotal career lessons you have learned along the way?

I have learned so much throughout my career and continue to do so every day. Three standout lessons include:

(i)  Listen and take the time to learn from others. I learned this lesson very early in my career. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before me. People are so willing to share information and offer advice. I filter through the advice and keep what I need.

(ii)  Engage with risk. Don’t be afraid to fail. I find so many people are risk-averse. Those that make decisions make things happen. They may not always get things right but a decision is better than no decision at all.

(ii) Don’t underestimate the value of teams. Diversity and varied perspectives are such great assets in organisations. Obtaining a fresh perspective from someone who may have no subject-matter expertise is sometimes the most valuable. Be sure to bring everyone along for the ride and allow them to contribute. People will definitely surprise you.

Regardless of the medium of communication great teamwork requires collaboration, flexibility and a passion to achieve a common goal.

How is your team adapting to the current climate in preparation for the Expo 2020 Dubai?

At the heart of our coordination for Expo 2020 Dubai is teamwork and we have a wide range of stakeholders that we are working with under the ‘Team Australia’ banner. Our Expo team is currently split between Dubai and Australia. We have been working hard to coordinate all aspects of the project, from agreeing on a shared vision, to the design and build of the Pavilion, to close collaboration with federal, state and commercial partners to develop effective government, business and cultural events programs. We have also been partnering with a number of advisory groups consisting of government, industry and cultural-organisations representatives to ensure that we deliver an Australian Pavilion experience that reflects contemporary Australia.

Regardless of the medium of communication – in-person, video conferences, chat groups – great teamwork requires collaboration, flexibility and a passion to achieve a common goal. Close communication with all of our stakeholders during the COVID-19 crisis has been key, particularly in relation to the postponement of Expo 2020 Dubai and securing their continued support. We believe that in a year’s time, the world will be a very different place. Therefore, the team is working to adapt our plans accordingly, so that Australia is able to leverage the Expo opportunity to further our national interests as we seek to recover from the impacts of COVID-19. We aim to do this through various means, including by promoting Australia’s strengths as an attractive place to study and visit, and as a stable environment to do business and invest in.

The theme for the Pavilion is 'Blue Sky Dreaming’, which encapsulates Australian optimism and creativity.

Q. When Expo 2020 Dubai takes place in 2021, during the new dates proposed by the UAE Government, what can we expect at the Australian Pavilion?

We recognise Expo 2020 Dubai as a tremendous opportunity to showcase what Australia has to offer the world: our ingenuity; innovation; economic strength; research and educational capabilities; and of course, our beautiful natural environment. We want visitors to leave with a strong sense of Australia’s values.

Let’s start with the Pavilion. Designed by Brisbane-based architects, bureau^proberts, the concept for the Australian Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai wasn’t simply to create a building but to bring ‘a piece’ of Australia to Dubai and the world. The design takes inspiration from the cumulus cloud, which is a feature of the diverse Australian landscape and a sign of clear weather. The cloud-like canopy comprises a myriad of elements signifying Australia being home to numerous cultures, which together unify and enhance the nation. You can find the design on our website.

The theme for the Pavilion is 'Blue Sky Dreaming’, which encapsulates Australian optimism and creativity. It celebrates Australian diversity and collaboration, and envisions a future of infinite possibilities founded on more than 60,000 years of innovation. This theme seeks to represent how Australia has made a significant contribution to addressing global challenges through innovation for generations. This is particularly relevant when considering Australia’s role in the post-COVID-19 landscape. It condenses the achievements and aspirations of Australians and celebrates their ingenuity and optimism, as well as the Australian mantra of ‘giving things a go’

Finally, unlike previous Expos that have been mainly focused on innovation, Expo 2020 Dubai has as additional agenda. Due to its location, Dubai is one of the world’s key hubs for trade and investment, which has many people referring to Expo 2020 Dubai as the Business Olympics. The Expo is estimated to attract 25 million visitors, 70 per cent of whom are anticipated to come from outside of the UAE. Therefore, the Australian Government, together with state and territory government partners, will be working hard to make the most of this opportunity to promote trade and investment, with a particular focus on assisting Australian companies and industries most impacted by events that have occurred this year, from bushfires to COVID-19. 

We hope to give visitors a sense of contemporary Australia, which is culturally diverse, harmonious and technologically sophisticated.

Q. In your opinion, what would be a successful Expo for Australian businesses and the Government?

Success can be measured from many different perspectives. A key success criterion for me personally is that we do our country proud by showcasing to the millions of international expo visitors the best of what Australia has to offer.

Expo 2020 Dubai is an exceptional project and does not fit easily into traditional indicators of success, so measuring impact and value over time will be challenging. As a Government, we hope to give visitors a sense of the country beyond stereotypes by projecting contemporary Australia, which is culturally diverse and harmonious, and technologically sophisticated. Our aim is to utilise Australia’s presence at Expo to support Australian business seeking new export markets and supply chains in the post-COVID-19 world. The team will do this by strengthening ties and deepening relationships between Australia, the UAE, broader Middle East and beyond, and by cultivating and nurturing new areas of cooperation and exchange. We will promote bilateral and regional trade and economic cooperation by raising awareness of Australia’s economic achievements and strengths in major export sectors. Expo 2020 Dubai will highlight Australia’s credentials as an innovative nation with excellent education, training and scientific research capabilities as well as seek to increase awareness of Australia as an exciting travel destination. The success of these efforts will become apparent over time.

In terms of short-term success, we have internal benchmarks that we are working towards. Such benchmarks include attracting 2.5 million visitors to the pavilion over the six months of Expo; strong participation in the pavilion’s Business Program; up to 130 trade and investment events in our pavilion function space; and strong communications and public-relations engagement that will effectively enhance the reputation of the nation. 

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