A pillar of the success of EXPO 2010: the Theme Development
Article by Mr. Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales
Secretary General of the Bureau International of Expositions
Background: The BIE and the Theme of Expos
Amongst the many reasons for the extraordinary success of Shanghai 2010, its theme Better City, Better Life is a key factor. With the choice of this theme and the ability of the organizers to implement it in many innovative ways, Shanghai 2010 has effectively demonstrated how powerful the educational capabilities of an Expo can be. In fact, Expo 2010 has helped us think “holistically” about future better cities and understand the important role of citizens in improving the quality of the urban environment and society.
As Secretary General of the Bureau International of Expositions (BIE), I have carried out my duty to contribute to the development of the theme Expo Shanghai 2010 as a great privilege. With the organizers, we have defined, expanded and implemented the theme from the earliest stages of the Expo, until today when we continue working on its legacy. This process has challenged us in many respects, but it has greatly stimulated our thinking and helped further the ability of Expos to adapt and to meet the demands of the 21st Century.
The importance of a direct and permanent involvement of the BIE rests on the fact that our organization is one of the most important stakeholders when it comes to theme development. Indeed, the BIE embodies the international community that, when selecting the host city or accepting to participate, takes into very high consideration the relevance of the theme. It must be powerful enough to inspire the development of attractive pavilion content and to enable the participants to show some of the outstanding achievements or their country.
Furthermore, the reputation of the BIE and of the events it regulates is ultimately affected by the ability of each Expo to generate international interest based on the theme itself. By placing a greater emphasis on the theme as the central core and organizing principle of Expos, the BIE intends to strengthen their role as instruments for public diplomacy and for international public education. This can be achieved by creating platforms that are capable to inspire and connect the actions of governments and civil society in their common endeavour to match available resources to the universal challenges we all face.
This, in short, explains why the BIE engages actively with the organizers in all aspects of theme development: from its selection and definition, to the more detailed development; from the activities of communication and promotion to its application to events and exhibitions.
The Meaning of the Expo Theme
Innovation is the hallmark of Expos. Whether it is architecture, urban planning, new services, exhibition content, performance, new technologies and so on, each Expo is built and showcases inventions and novel approaches. The Expo is the canvas and the theme is the core vision that supports the master-plan of the Expo.
At the same time, as the innovative backbone of each Expo, the theme supports the educational force of the Expo. This is especially with Shanghai 2010. In this case, the theme of the Expo Better City, Better Life coincides explicitly with one of the essential objectives of an Expo, i.e. to help create better cities. Because, the specific theme of Shanghai 2010 and one of the universal objectives of Expos were the same, they reinforced each other. This has created a virtuous cycle for communication and exhibition, where the messages were amplified by the staging of the Expo itself, and, in turn, the Expo was better appreciated for its contribution towards the development of better quality urban environments.
In the theme of Shanghai remains an attractively simple yet powerful proposition, the process that led to it was complex and challenging. The early stages were particularly important because they were a moment of mutual learning, which is fundamental for the development of an attractive and credible theme. Exchanging information with the different stakeholders was not simply a matter of addressing practical questions, but a way to learn about the identity and vision of the country and understanding how best to integrate its aspirations into the selection and the development of the theme.
During the definition process, the role of the BIE was to encourage the organisers to make explicit the core of their intellectual and cultural contribution that would support the development of a platform for global dialogue and cross-cultural exchange. To this end we have held many discussions with the organizers to answer the following questions:
- How does the vision of Expo 2010 aligns with that of the Country and of the host city?
- What is happening and what will happen in the world in the coming years?
- What would the international community expect from Expo Shanghai 2010 to show?
- What are the key drivers of progress in the Country?
- What are some of the main challenges faced by Humankind?
The BIE poses these questions to every Expo as they reflect the key criteria for the selection of the theme. The theme should reflect the essential aspects of the identity, history and culture of the organising country while addressing subjects of international relevance. It should enable the development of different topics to launch and sustain a broad programme of public communication though exhibitions, forums and events. It should stimulate an interest for exchange and co-operation from participants. Last but not least, it should appeal to both the rationality and emotions of their citizens who must be able to relate the theme to their daily lives and their most vital concerns.
The ability to provide answers that satisfy all of these criteria is one of the recipes for Shanghai 2010’s overwhelming success. As I have stressed in my speeches, it is indeed fair to say that there was no better time and no better place than Shanghai 2010 to catalyse the world’s energies on how to face the challenges of the 21st century cities through a World Expo.
Because of the combination of its size, its rapid development and the millenary tradition of China, Shanghai embodies the different challenges faced by the majority of cities in the world. Also, as the first Expo to take place in the developing world, Shanghai was an ideal venue to bring together diverse experiences and build bridges that can help improve the cities of tomorrow. Finally, China demonstrated an outstanding ability to leverage its Expo as a means to shape its image abroad, to pursue major educational campaigns and to cement its cooperation ties with a variety of international players.
The theme Better City, Better Life eventually sealed when the Chinese Government submitted to the BIE its official candidature to bid for Expo 2010. At that time, I was already persuaded that the title the Chinese chose was much more than a slogan: it was a manifesto for 21st Century urban development. The theme Better City, Better Life could satisfy the expectations of the international community for a World Expo in Shanghai as a city capable to offer innovations, solutions to problems, a dynamic attitude towards international cooperation and a determined pursuit of better quality of life in a cooperative and entertaining atmosphere. At the same time, it reflected how China as a country was seriously engaged in addressing its internal urban challenges and therefore committed to provide the necessary support for an Expo on this theme.
As I look back upon these initial brainstorming sessions, meetings, discussions and analysis, I see one of the most interesting parts of the development of an Expo project. It also reinforces my conviction of how important it is to get this part of the process right. The definition of the theme prepares a fertile ground for the roots of the Expo project to attach and enable a healthy, growing, flourishing event.
The Theme in Action
During the entire time in which the Expo is organized, the theme continues to evolve. I believe that a large part of the success of the Expo depends on the ability of the organizers to view the theme in a dynamic way. Shanghai 2010 embraced this dynamic perspective and used the theme to constantly enhance and support the bigger picture.
Better City, Better Life enriched the overall communication strategy and the different campaigns; it guided the organizers in finding ways of innovating in the form and content of exhibitions; it generated sufficient political interest to attract major international organizations and political bodies and finally to embrace different domains of scientific and technological innovation to attract private companies, experts and innovators amongst civil society.
The continued exploration and development of the theme represented a parallel track in the organization of the Expo and a constant resource for content development. The organizers continuously listened to the heart-beat of the world and to the challenges of the cities by ensuring that permanent feedback would reach the Expo.
Not only experts from different sectors of urban planning, culture, policy, environment, etc. have contributed to provide input on the development of the theme, but, they have drawn ideas, inspirations and practices to enhance their own work. In other words, through its theme, the Expo has supported a city-wide development process that has enabled a leap forward in the implementation of new solutions for quality of life. The result of the Expo has proven to be much bigger than the sum of its parts. In this sense, I feel that the organizers have truly been able to turn the theme into action and make it a living, practical aspect of their educational campaign.
The Theme in Practice
Within an Expo, the concepts of “exhibition” and “display” cannot be taken as simple passive showcases. Quite the contrary. Exhibiting in an Expo means being an active part of the event in order to engage visitors into true experiences. The city theme inspired Shanghai to introduce innovations that perfectly fit with this requirement. I am referring here to the “Urban Best Practices Area” (UBPA) which has established a new form of exhibition strategy and a new opened the event to new types of participants, i.e., cities.
Thus, Shanghai 2010 recognized the key role of cities in identifying and creating the solutions to global urban problems. To this end, it created the UBPA, an exhibition and communication platform showcasing the practical contributions of cities and supporting new forms of international cooperation led by the cities themselves and focused on urban projects.
In so doing, Shanghai 2010 introduced a way for Expos to materialize the theme. At the same time, it elected “best practices” as an ideal framework to support a complementary form of cooperation alongside that of countries, i.e. the cooperation between cities. Best practices have proven to be an important way to support city development by creating the opportunity for cities to establish lasting and sustainable commitments to cooperation.
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.
The Multiple Axis of Communication around the Theme
The theme is like a glue that, through the Expo, connects education and urban
transformation. In this sense, the ability to communicate the theme along the many axis enabled by the Expo and to link them is essential.
As I said earlier, because of the nature of the theme “Better City, Better Life” and the ability of the organizers to launch many different communication platforms, the theme was strongly incorporated into different modes of communication targeted to different publics. Let me provide a few striking examples.
The theme was the centrepiece of a series of Forums that started before the Expo and continued with the Summit and the Shanghai Declaration. What is interesting to note is the cohesion between theme development and city development. In particular, the Public Forums held over the whole city of Shanghai, across China and in a number of foreign countries where opportunities to mutually support three goals:
1. To continue to improve the development of the content
2. To inform the public about the Expo while educating them about the theme
3. To use the forums as opportunities to engage other cities and regions of China in the preparation of Expo while educating local leaders on the solutions to many existing urbanization challenges.
This is one of many examples concerning the ability of an Expo to leverage the theme andcreate synergies between different communication formulas. Today, as we find ourselves in a position to look back and evaluate the results of this strategy, we can confidently say that it was effective well beyond our expectations.
I have personally witnessed the impressive results of a visionary education-driven communication campaign. Local leaders across many provinces of China have not only started to understand the importance of tackling the challenges related to urbanisation, but have embraced the cause with great passion and commitment.
A Virtuous Cycle of City and Country-wide Education
Theme pavilions, thematic Areas, theme plazas, theme facilities, theme paths, forums, events, Urban Best practices Area, Expo Online are all concrete and tangible embodiment of “Better City, Better Life”. Amongst them, two initiatives in my opinion stand out as examples of how China has chosen to challenge its society through the theme of Expo.
The first is the Pavilion of Citizens’ initiatives which provided a way to enable an actual presence of the citizens and the general public in the Expo. This is yet another case where the organizers have tried to introduce the concept of “active exhibitions” where citizens could give advice and share ideas. This reinforces the importance of the Expo message,whereby active citizenship creates better cities.
The second was the Life and Sunshine Pavilion dedicated to disabled community. This is the first of its kind in an Expo and fully resonates with the universal aspiration of Expos to be accessible to everyone and to make the city better for everyone.
In my opinion, these are essential presentations that contributed to give additional credibility to the choice of theme. Indeed, since China was awarded Expo 2010 by the BIE General Assembly, it has demonstrated a genuine commitment to the theme by stretching presentations, exhibitions and forums well beyond its basic comfort zone.
My experience has been that China has engaged in a genuine massive national and international educational effort that has also involved neighbouring cities and faraway provinces in promotional and discussion platforms.
The Legacy of the Theme
Just like the site leaves a physical footprint, the theme must leave intellectual and social ones. In keeping with the BIE Convention, the legacy of the theme should advance progress by creating or enabling a framework that will continue to foster and promote a better understanding of the vision and of the core message of the Expo.
The BIE hopes that, during the post-Expo stage, the organizers will explore how the creation and the management of the theme legacy can fulfil the objectives of education and progress of Expo 2010 in the area of Better City, Better Life through Sustainable Urban Development.
Establishing the intellectual legacy means developing effective and concrete initiatives that can continue to benefit the public in the host city and country as well as in participant countries much beyond the closing date of the Expo.
We have initiated this process by articulating the vision in the Shanghai Declaration, which is the best expression of the core message of the theme. Not only it summarizes the common aspirations of all participants in the Expo, but makes a proposal for carrying forward the theme legacy.
In this sense the BIE would expect the future steps to be consistent with its goals of innovation, education and cooperation. In the future, the legacy of the theme should help support the education and training of urban managers by creating opportunities to learn and exchange on urban best practices in diverse areas of city management. It could create opportunities to continue to transfer new ideas and projects amongst cities that can help improve their quality of life. Finally, it should identify options to support global cooperation in terms of monitoring areas that need critical attention and international support.
Shanghai 2010 is a project that enables the BIE to talk with great pride about what Expos can achieve in this new century. We will speak with gratefulness about the visionary and often courageous initiatives that Shanghai 2010 has chosen to stay true to the theme and to maintain a fundamental intellectual honesty.
I have personally witnessed how the content of public discourse has changed and advanced as the result of the Expo theme and how the Chinese have commitment their commitment to it throughout the many years we have worked together. I can confidently say that this is one of the greatest satisfactions of my career as we have seen how Shanghai 2010 has contributed to advance policies, strategies and cooperation efforts at all levels within the country and beyond in all matters related to urban quality of life.
I believe that one of the major educational achievements is also how Shanghai 2010 has also broken down many walls of stereotypes that too often separate us, thus fully realizing the meaning of the Expo.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people involved in this extraordinary project for their work, their commitment and their inspired willingness to introduce new ideas and practices that will support the relevance and the importance of Expos for many years to come.
Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales
THE SECRETARY GENERAL
OF THE INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITIONS BUREAU