Making an impact: The power of World Expo

World Expo offers compelling benefits to host and participating nations alike. As the race to qualify for Expo 2020 gets underway, Vision explores the history, legacies and cultural and economic impact of these ambitious global events

The countdown has begun. Brazil, Russia, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have all officially bid to host the World Expo 2020 and no more submissions can now be placed. A decision will be made by the Bureau International des Expositions’ (BIE) member countries at the General Assembly in 2013.

The World Expo is one of the largest global, non-commercial events in terms of economic and cultural impact, after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

But what exactly is an Expo?

Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, Secretary-General of the BIE, sums it up thus: “An exhibition is a display which, whatever its title, has as its principal purpose the education of the public. The Expos are unique events of international cooperation dedicated to the communication of innovation and promotion of a global dialogue on themes that engage the entire world community.”

Since the first Expo, the Great Exhibition of 1851, hosted at London’s Crystal Palace, innovations have included telephones, elevators and geodesic domes.

“Inventions that debuted during the Expos became indispensable daily tools,” points out Loscertales. As for the benefits an Expo can deliver both to its host nation and those that choose to exhibit, these range from tangibles such as economic gains to less quantifiable, but no less significant, advances in areas such as cultural relations and soft diplomacy.

The 1928 Paris Convention, which created the BIE and established the rights and responsibilities of both organisers and participants of an Expo, applies to all international exhibitions held by governments, except for exhibitions lasting less than three weeks, fine arts exhibitions and exhibitions of an essentially commercial nature. The BIE today categorises these international exhibitions into two main types: World Expos and International/Specialised Expos, with the two types of Expos differing principally in the size of the Expo site, the duration of the event and the scope of the theme.

Three epochs

World Expositions have, of course, evolved since the mid-1800s. Analysts have identified three distinct epochs: the era of industrialisation (1851-1938), when inventions including the telephone were first shown; the era of cultural exchange (1939-1987), the most famous of which was in Montreal in 1967; and the era of nation-branding (1988-present) when Spain, for example, used Seville in 1992 to demonstrate its commitment to modernity and democracy post-Franco. More recently, countries incorporate elements of all three eras, with Expos used to showcase new inventions, to facilitate cultural exchange based on a theme, and to drive city, region and nation-branding.

An early-day example of the latter is the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889, it has become both a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognisable structures in the world. Named after its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. Another notable example is the Space Needle in Seattle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair.

Sustainable architecture

The UAE pavilion, designed by Foster & Partners, was on display for six months at Expo 2010 Shanghai, showcasing exhibitions that highlighted the history of the UAE. Comprising two dune-shaped peaks – the highest reaching 20 metres – its stunning design attracted almost two million visitors. Now located in its permanent home beside Manarat Al Saadiyat, the pavilion will be a new landmark exhibition and events venue, hosting some of the country’s most important cultural functions. The UAE pavilion has also made a key contribution to developments in sustainable architecture. The project received praise for its sustainable design, which ensures a large reduction in external heat gain, and won prestigious awards from the Illinois Society of Structural Engineers and the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, while also achieving a 2 Pearl Rating under the Estidama sustainable design programme.

Expos have also proved pivotal in the infrastructural development of host nations and cities. Expo 67, for example, led to the construction of infrastructures that were essential to host city Montreal’s growth, such as the Décarie autoroute and the Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine bridge and tunnel. That Expo even inspired the name of baseball team the Montreal Expos.

Since 1995, the interval between two registered Expos has been at least five years. The most recent Expo – Shanghai 2010 – lasted from May to November.

Shanghai 2010

Shanghai 2010 was regarded as a benchmark in terms of showcasing what a modern city it had become. The theme of the Expo, on both banks of the Huangpu River, was ‘Better City – Better Life’. It involved the largest number of countries (192 countries and 50 international organisations) and was the most expensive in the history of World’s Fairs.

By its end, more than 73 million people had visited, beating the previous record of 64 million in Osaka in 1970, with as many as 1.03 million on just one day – 16 October, 2010. Six new subway lines were opened between 2008 and 2010. Four thousand new taxis were bought. It was a monumental opportunity to capitalise on tourism, and overall revenue in this sector rose 13 per cent year-on-year during Spring Festival to 2.1bn yuan (US$332.7m).

The Chinese have shown that it is possible to build an impressive legacy from an Expo. All eyes will now be on Yeosu in South Korea from 12 May to 12 August this year, on Milan in 2015 and then on the winner of the 2020 bid.