Encompassing connections between aesthetics and functionality, culture and politics, tradition and innovation, entertainment and diplomacy, utopia and reality, World Expos are an inimitable phenomenon. For two centuries, World Expos 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 always been part of the DNA of these events since their inception in the 18th century, when France took the initiative to organize a national exhibition in Paris. The exhibition was meant to showcase the country’s industry and establish a new platform to inject novel ideas into society and engage citizens in the events of an emerging nation.

By adding an 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 hallmark 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, new materials, and new nations.

Although the concept of an 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 these early Expos. 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 other 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 the link between traditional diplomatic activities and public diplomacy and connects the multiplicity of players that now engage with foreign publics. Alongside governments, the BIE increasingly reaches out to a variety of international organizations, non- governmental entities, corporations, and cities. In this landscape of diverse global communicators, these actors are all searching for opportunities to catalyze the world’s views and energies.

The real challenge is to create a setting where this can happen in a way that is non-confrontational, with approaches that are innovative and with the conditions that allow for the bridging of high-level public institutions and civil society. World Expos provide precisely this setting. Within an Expo, the host country, the invited countries and other 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 a historical period focused on creation and projection of the identity of nations, it is no surprise that today, in light of new world dynamics, we are experiencing a renewed and growing interest in World Expos. The fabric of societies is increasingly shaped by economic and communication revolutions, with nations—and now cities—competing for relevance and attractiveness on the world stage. As nation and city-branding become strategic priorities, 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. More than 250 participant countries will be present at the upcoming Shanghai Expo 2010. The number of cities bidding to host World Expos is increasing and their cultural profile is diversifying. Additionally, Expos continue to be the single most visited event, averaging 15-20 million visitors over six months. Shanghai 2010 is expecting a record 70 million visitors. From a content point of view, Expos offer a powerful stage for cities and nations to both meet and 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 these events can no longer be the default presentation stage for new products. Product innovation now proceeds at a faster pace than the staging of Expos and communication is becoming more immediate and specialized. People learn about new products from other more flexible platforms and about world cultures and destinations through mobility, television and the Internet.

In order to fulfil their role as platforms for education and progress, Expos must be able to inspire and connect the actions of governments and civil society in their common endeavours, in order to match available resources to the global challenges facing the world. To this end, Expos are changing the way in which they encapsulate and communicate innovation by shifting from a view of innovation, purely driven by materials and products, to one supported by solutions and practices.

Recent Expos have placed greater emphasis on selecting a specific theme as their central core and organizing principle. So, Expos have come to support the dual goals of public diplomacy. On the one hand, Expos represent a key asset for governments and international organizations in their efforts to communicate the major issues at the top of their global agendas. At the same time, the host city and country can serve as a catalyst for bringing global attention to 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.

Expos provide a snapshot of the state of the world at a particular time in order to help the general public understand future perspectives. Therefore it is not a coincidence that the various themes of Expos, in this new century, 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 illustrate the current repositioning of World Expos as tools for public diplomacy, I would like to stress that the concepts of “exhibition” and “display” involve an active participation of players, who contribute means and engage in a dynamic exchange within the Expo. All the exhibitors, host countries and participants alike, make unique contributions to the urban and cultural regeneration efforts undertaken by the host nation.

In turn, the host country makes available to participants a unique stage that allows them to reach the national public as well as to connect with each other and with 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 practices. As a result, Expos support, at the more concrete level, a country’s strategic public communication goals or even the adoption of new policies and solutions.

Expos have identified “best practices” as a new form of exhibition that can bridge public policy goals and practical implementations and that provide a framework for cooperation between the diverse global players in their public education efforts. Best practices are a way to bring together the practical perspective of Expos, the central role of the theme and the educational responsibility of all participants.

Shanghai 2010 will be the first Expo to give true exhibition status to the concept of “best practices.” In doing so, it has made the Expo even more universal by inviting a new group of participants, i.e., cities, which, today, hold the key to the implementation of the 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 and exchange the concrete solutions they have adopted to address specific urban challenges.

With best practices, real-life takes a central role in Expos and contributes to enhancing its unique ability to educate the public through experience, experimentation and 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 providing 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 of an integral part of Expos.
In the effort to help societies understand the processes of globalization and to foster a public understanding of the interconnections in our world, Expos are one of the few instruments that can help fill the knowledge and awareness gap related to global problems. Furthermore, they provide 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 ways (architecture, urban planning, transportation) and intangible ways (culture and education). The desire to dream, the freedom to imagine and the inspiration to act have remained a constant characteristic of expos through the years, making them catalysts for urban and cultural regeneration.

For the numerous international players that successfully and productively come together in a city to build a multidimensional vision of the world, Expos are a new platform that allow for the expression of different voices on an equal footing. What is truly remarkable is that by marrying public diplomacy and cooperation, Expos provide a non-confrontational setting with a breadth of benefits— whether socio-economic, cultural, political, or environmental—that are second to none.

For the public, Expos are first and foremost an ephemeral microcosm that offers memorable experiences for the duration of the event. This short- term aspect is reflected in the usage of the term “World’s Fair” in the United States, which unfortunately misses the long-term impact of Expos. A renewed urban environment and a regenerated cultural setting have, in fact, a tremendous power to shape the future prospects of a city and its citizens. Not only do Expos have significant quality of life benefits but they help spark active citizenship and shape new behaviors. For instance, through the Expos of Aichi 2005 and Zaragoza 2008 citizens there 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 campaigns 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 host cities, 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, much global attention is focused on solutions that can improve existing major cities and enable smaller cities to grow in sustainable ways. The actions that will accompany urban renewal fuelled by Expos will involve, among others, the regeneration of certain areas, the overall or partial branding or re-branding of the city and the reconfiguration of the city’s operational systems, such as its transportation and telecommunication networks. As a result, cities will increasingly reflect and rely upon a culture of sustainable urban development with Expos as an important instrument for sharing “best practices” and facilitating global debates for 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 become a domain in international life where the struggle for power is not 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.

In fulfilling their duty to educate through innovation, Expos can also increasingly support activities in digital public diplomacy. Although the Internet has often been quoted as a threat to the relevance of World Expos, its capacity to reach an even bigger public actually makes it a critical asset for future Expos. Shanghai 2010 will launch a full virtual counterpart to the physical Expo, thus bringing the event to an even larger public that will be able to explore the site and the pavilions in a multidimensional digital environment. Shanghai 2010 Online will also further expand the modes of exhibition which, given the nature of the Internet, will be more dynamic and open. Participants will no longer be limited by the physical constraints of the pavilion space and will be able to enhance their presence in novel and richer ways. At the same time, by facilitating the online presence of all participants, the Expo will make its own contribution towards bridging the digital divide.

For the BIE, the digital Expo is a strategic initiative which embodies how physical expos can incorporate and be enhanced by the logic, the mediums and the trends of the 21st Century. The Internet is indeed a medium that provides both a natural and a necessary extension to Expos by connecting and engaging a bigger global public, especially younger generations.

As expos continue to foster their timeless and universal values of education, innovation and cooperation, they must also align themselves with the expectations and the tools available to the global community. Indeed, Expos are first and foremost at the service of the common endeavour of a multiplicity of actors engaged in promoting quality of life through progress and prosperity. To this end, today’s Expos bring together countries, global actors and citizens around a theme of universal interest—becoming a key, and possibly the broadest instrument for public diplomacy in the 21st century.

By Vicente González Loscertales

Vicente González Loscertales has studied in Spain, France, Germany and Mexico. He has a Ph.D. in history. He took up the post of Secretary General of the International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE) in 1994. Before that he was Deputy Secretary General of the BIE. Previously, Loscertales served as Director of International Participation at EXPO’92 Seville, Deputy Director General for Cooperation at the Spanish 
 Agency for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain and
Deputy Director General for Scientific and Technological Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain. He has also been a professor at the University in Madrid.