Advancing Public Diplomacy through World Expos
Source:Public Diplomacy magazine     

PD – Public Diplomacy magazine (www.publicdiplomacymagazine.org)

Winter 2010

Advancing Public Diplomacy through World Expos

Encompassing connections between aesthetics and functionality, culture and politics, tradition and innovation, entertainment and diplomacy, utopia and reality, World Expos are an inimitable phenomenon that, for two centuries, have maintained a unique ability to resonate with the global public and to advance the international image of nations.

Until recently, however, the explicit connection between World Expos and public diplomacy has not been fully explored. The concept of public diplomacy has, in fact, always been part of the DNA of these events since their inception in the 18th Century, when France took the initiative to organize in Paris a national exhibition to showcase its industry and to establish a new platform to inject novel ideas into society and to engage citizens in the events of an emerging nation.

By adding international dimension to this event, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in London in 1851, inaugurated Expos as the hall-mark events of the globalizing industrial era. Between April and October 1851, 25 participating countries welcomed more than 6 million visitors who wished to discover new products, new architectures and new materials.

Although the concept of an unprecedented international platform for communication and exchange of industrial developments was in itself new and powerful, governments and cities continued to expand the scope and the contents of each Expo. Originally conceived to promote industry, Expos began to connect cultures and present national achievements in all domains of human activity. Participation in an Expo also offered opportunities for political and economic cooperation and provided an ideal framework to promote national identity, making each Expo an essential destination for official visits by heads of state and high-level government officials.

As these events acquired greater international legitimacy and their diplomatic significance increased, nations felt the need to establish a shared international framework to support the development of Expos, to protect their educational value and to ensure appropriate guarantees for organizing and participating countries. The Paris Convention of 1928 defined such a framework and established the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) which remains a unique organization where conventional diplomacy and public diplomacy go hand in hand.

Through its mission to foster Expos as platforms for education, innovation and cooperation, the BIE facilitates a link between traditional diplomatic activities and public diplomacy and connects the multiplicity of players that today engage with foreign publics. Alongside governments, a variety of international organizations, non-governmental entities, corporations, cities, etc. reach out to the international public to fulfil both their traditional and new objectives. In this landscape of diverse global communicators, the need to find opportunities to catalyze the world’s views and energies is obvious. The real challenge is to have a setting where this can happen in a way that is non-confrontational, with approaches that are innovative and with the conditions to bridge high-level public institutions and civil society.

World Expos provide precisely this setting. Within an Expo, the host country, the invited countries and other participating organizations come together to orchestrate an educational exchange with the global public, to promote the development of platforms for innovation and cultural progress and to support the making of new international destinations and identities.

If the origin of Expos coincided with the industrial revolution and an historical period focussed on identity creation and image projection of nations, it is no surprise that today, in light of the new world dynamics, we are experiencing a renewed and growing interest in World Expos. The make-up of our societies is increasingly shaped by the economic and communication revolution, with nations and cities competing for relevance and attractiveness on the world stage. As nation and city branding become a strategic priority, World Expos provide a powerful tool to support the competitive image of cities and countries.

This growing interest in Expos is reflected in both quantitative and qualitative aspects. Today 156 nations have ratified the BIE Convention; a record 300 participant countries will be present in the upcoming Expo of Shanghai 2010; the number of cities bidding to host World Expos is increasing and their cultural profile is diversifying. From a content point of view, Expos offer a powerful stage for cities and nations to both meet, and also exceed, their branding and communication objectives.

Today’s repositioning of Expos as a special type of public diplomacy platform is based on the awareness that they can no longer be presentation stages for new products. Progress and innovation proceed at a faster pace than Expos and communication is becoming more immediate and specialized. People learn about new products from other more flexible stages and about world cultures and destinations through mobility, television and the Internet.

In this new context, to fulfil their role as platforms for education and progress, Expos must be capable to inspire and connect the actions of governments and civil society in their common endeavour to face universal challenges with available resources. To this end, at the macro-level, Expos are changing the way in which they encapsulate and communicate innovation, by shifting from a view of innovation driven by materials and products, to one driven by solutions and practices.

This is why, Expos have elected the theme as their central core and organizing principle. In so doing, Expos have come to support a double goal of public diplomacy. On the one hand, they represent a key assets for governments and international organizations in their effort to communicate the major issues they have placed at the top of their global agendas. At the same time, through the Expo, the host city and country take the lead in catalysing global attention on a key issue for humanity attaching to it a more innovative and relevant image that advances their brand as well as their cultural and political identity.

Because Expos provide a snapshot of the resources and the state of the world at a particular time in order to help the general public understand future perspectives, it is not a coincidence that the themes of the 21st Century Expos all make reference to the top priorities established by the international community.

Since the year 2000, the main UN agendas have guided the selection of Expo themes. Agenda 21 of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro inspired the themes of Hannover 2000 Humankind, Nature and Technology: A New World Arising, Aichi 2005 Nature’s Wisdom, Zaragoza 2008 Water and Sustainable Development and Shanghai 2010 Better city, Better Life.

Following the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the future Expo of Yeosu 2012, with its theme The Living Ocean and Coast: Diversity of Resources and Sustainable Activities, will focus on harmonizing the development and environmental preservation of maritime resources with a special emphasis on climate change. Finally, Milan 2015, through its theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, has committed to promote the UN campaign to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

To further understand the current repositioning of World Expos, I would like to stress that the concepts of “exhibition” and “display” within an Expo are not simply referring to a passive showcase. Exhibiting in an Expo means being an active part of it, in terms of means and objectives. As a result, participant countries are themselves key contributors to the urban and cultural regeneration efforts undertaken of the host city and nation.

At the same time, the host country, makes available to all participants a unique national stage to reach their national public as well as other institutions that might help advance medium and long-terms projects with mutual economic, political or technological benefits. This is why Expos facilitate multilateral cooperation and enable the exchange of good practices, supporting, at the more practical level, the pursuit of a country’s strategic public communication goals or even the adoption of new policies and solutions.

Amongst the new forms of exhibition, Expos have elected best practices as an ideal framework to drive a multi-layered cooperation between the diverse global players in their public education effort. Best practices are a way to connect the practical perspective of Expos, the central role of the theme and the educational responsibility of all participants. As an example, for the first time Shanghai 2010 has given true exhibition status to best practices and has opened the Expo to a new group of participants, i.e., cities, which, today, hold the keys to the implementation of the best solutions for designing, planning and building quality environments for urban life. The Urban Best Practices Area is a 15 hectares zone at the heart of the Expo site where cities from around the world will present the concrete solutions they have adopted to address specific urban challenges.

With best practices, real-life takes a central role in Expos educating the public through experience and spear-heading new forms of cooperation between participants. Because best practices within Expos represent the best solutions from around the world that can and ought to be shared, they also contribute to provide concrete content to multilateral public diplomacy initiatives. As a way to help unravel the meaning of progress in our present time and as a way of sharing solutions in a spirit of solidarity, best practices must and will become more and more an integral part of Expos.

In the effort to help societies understand the processes of globalisation and to foster the public understanding of interconnections, Expos are one of the few instruments that can help fill the knowledge and awareness gap related to global problems. By providing opportunities to accelerate urban and economic transformations, to attract international participants and to raise the profile of the country on the world’s stage, they are fertile grounds for cooperation and multilateral public diplomacy ambitions.

Expos are engines of change that strongly support the top-down policy efforts of governments. Their transformational power affects societies in both material (architecture, urban planning, transportation) and intangible ways (culture, education). The desire to dream, the freedom to imagine and the inspiration to act have remained a constant characteristic of Expos through the years and contribute to make them catalysts for urban and cultural regeneration. For the numerous international players that successfully and productively come together in a city, big or small, to build a multidimensional vision of the world, Expos are a new platform that allows for the expression, on an equal footing, of different voices. What is truly remarkable is that, by marrying public diplomacy and cooperation, Expos provide a non-confrontational setting whose breadth of benefits—whether socio-economic, cultural, political, or environmental, and both short-term and longterm—is second to none.

For the public, Expos are first of all an ephemeral microcosm that offer memorable experiences for the duration of the event. This is the aspect of the concept stressed by the usage of the term “World’s Fair” in the US, which, unfortunately misses the long-term impact that a renewed urban environment and a regenerated cultural setting have on citizens. Not only do Expo have significant quality of life benefits but they help spark active citizenship and shape new behaviours. For instance, through the Expos of Aichi 2005 and Zaragoza 2008 the citizens gained a completely new awareness of the environmental implications of their behaviour and significantly changed their daily practices. At the same time, the meeting of other cultures created greater incentives for travelling abroad and learning new foreign languages. Although this may sound like anecdotal information, it is nonetheless very significant as it proves that Expos can be sources of inspiration and support for large public communication campaign of different types. To prove this point, there is an ongoing campaign to ban smoking in Shanghai in preparation for the upcoming World Expo.

For the city, Expos are a key part of a strategic plan for urban development and act as catalysts for accelerating infrastructural transformations. By linking different eras of urban life, Expos can be thought of as the rite of passage chosen by a city to enact a vision for its future layout, for the mobility within its walls and for the social, economic and cultural activities it will support. The role of Expos as instruments for urban renewal has remained constant throughout the years, although it is amplified today with the focus on quality of life. As the world experiences massive urbanization, it becomes more urgent to find solutions that can improve existing major cities and enable smaller cities to grow in a sustainable way. The actions that will accompany urban renewal fuelled by Expos will involve, amongst others, the regeneration of certain areas, the overall or partial branding or re-branding and the reconfiguration of the city’s operational systems (transports, telecommunication, networks, etc.). As a result cities will increasingly reflect and rely upon a culture of sustainable urban development, with Expos as an important instrument for sharing practices and facilitating global debates for better and better solutions.

For governments and the international community, Expos offer a unique platform for multilateral public diplomacy: they are platforms to educate the public and vehicles to promote national identity, away from local political debates. Expos have indeed become a domain in international life where conflict for power in not at all predominant and countries find a place to discuss global concerns in a non-confrontational environment. Part of the reason for this is that Expos are all-inclusive. Not only do they offer a place for dialogue amongst diverse institutions, but countries can have equal opportunities to be present. In particular, developing countries increasingly value their presence in the Expos as an opportunity to show their achievements beyond the stereotypes. At the same time organizers value the presence of developing countries as a testimony of the universality of the values that they are trying to promote.

As platforms that are issued by the will of the international community to bring together countries, global actors and citizens around a theme of universal interest, Expos are becoming a key, and possibly the broadest instrument for public diplomacy in the 21st century.


Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales

Secretary General of the Bureau International des Expositions

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