How The Edinburgh International Science Festival captured the hearts of Abu Dhabi

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is the world’s first science festival, founded in 1989, and remains Europe’s largest with 200 events and visitor numbers in excess of 90,000. Here Gill Duncan, Senior Projects Manager at Edinburgh Science Festival Ventures, explains how a well-loved international event was exported lock, stock and barrel to the United Arab Emirates in an event partnership which has stood the test of time.

By Gill Duncan

Eight years ago, our Director, Simon Gage, was approached by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Government which had heard about the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was keen to develop a similar event in its homeland. With our expertise in delivering a major-scale science event spanning over two decades their representatives felt we were the best team to do the job. Abu Dhabi Science Festival is the largest event of its kind in the Middle East and we have been the Programme Partner since its inauguration in 2011.

Having attracted over half a million people since then, and over 150,000 people annually, our Edinburgh team helps the organiser, The Abu Dhabi Department of Knowledge and Education (ADEK) curate, produce and deliver the events, supplying workshops and activities developed for local audiences. ADEK remains responsible for the direction of the event, its scale and the Festival’s focus and has the final say in choosing both local and international content from our recommendations. The Festival presents around 80 events, 40% of which are supplied locally and 60% internationally.

We work with local providers on content relating to their area of work, for example food control or the energy sector; our team helps them to develop their event scripts and train their staff to deliver workshops. The international element comprises of content from all over the world including the Edinburgh International Science Festival. How is it done? My team of four works around nine months of the year on the Abu Dhabi Science Festival. We bring around 140 participants from around the world to Abu Dhabi which includes a team of 60 that we recruit in Edinburgh to help deliver and train local staff comprising a technical team, front of house, site managers plus a team of science buskers performing science experiments on the streets of Abu Dhabi!

Being part of the Abu Dhabi Science Festival has helped Edinburgh put its work on an international stage

We work very closely with ADEK which manages relationships with local universities – this year there were 12 universities – and they provide volunteers who we train to be the Festival’s science communicators. A science communicator is the person delivering an activity or workshop and they are key to the Festival’s success. We train around 1,000 local students on their campuses to furnish them with science communication skills. Once on site, they receive training relating to the specific activity they will be delivering: cyber-hacking, space exploration, soldering – you name it! This process is in English but they present the events in both English and Arabic.

It can be a daunting experience but we want to make sure this is as positive experience for them as it for the children and families. The feedback that we have had shows that students report an increase in their general confidence as well as in speaking in English. They value the improvement in their communication skills plus the opportunity to network and make friends.

How has the Festival grown and how have we grown with it?
The Festival has grown substantially since its inception and so has our knowledge and expertise on delivering a large-scale event abroad. We have got to know our audiences well; which shows will appeal to them, which subjects are interesting and relevant to their local environment and economy, and we can now capitalise on this knowledge to enhance the content we deliver. For example, a planetarium show should explore the constellation of stars visible from the United Arab Emirates rather than the UK. Our skills in working with local suppliers and workforce have also developed.

We spent a lot of time getting to know them and understanding the landscape of Abu Dhabi – both scientific and industrial. For example, we met with the local nuclear authority and local conservationists working to protect coral reefs to understand what they do and tell their stories in the science content we deliver. We are growing our partnership together and we are already working on going back to Abu Dhabi in February 2018 to deliver another event related to their annual celebration of innovation. Being part of the Abu Dhabi Science Festival has even more firmly put our work in Edinburgh on an international stage. We now get many inquiries from representatives of various countries inquiring about the Abu Dhabi Science Festival model we helped to develop and how they could make it work for themselves.

What are the main challenges of producing a large-scale event abroad?
Timescales are one of the main challenges we face. We use sea freight to ship equipment and props to the United Arab Emirates and for that to work we need to have everything in place in September which, for a November event, seems rather early to our partners! As we grow, we will be looking into duplicating our workshops and activities to ease the process. There is sometimes a bit of nervousness surrounding a delivery of such a massive project in a foreign country among our Edinburgh recruits. We tackle that head-on and have a breadth of documents and training sessions to put their minds at ease.

What’s your advice for organisations looking to expand their business abroad?
I think it is crucially important to do your research. Go out there and meet the people you will be working with, get under the skin of what their ambitions and goals are. We use a lot of technology in communication but nothing can replace a face-to-face meeting.


Gill Duncan

Gill Duncan is Senior Projects Manager at Edinburgh Science Festival Ventures – Edinburgh International Science Festival’s arm delivering science events around the world. Here she talks about her seven years managing the programme delivery of the Abu Dhabi Science Festival.