All the world’s a stage: are international expos relevant today?

Guest article by Dan Nicholls

Back in 2015, I was lucky enough to attend Expo 2015 in the elegant city of Milan alongside an Indonesian Investment Forum I was in town for. It was the first international expo I had attended, and it didn’t disappoint. I spent the best part of a day wondering the expansive site, visiting the pavilions of countries from all around the world, taking in a wonderous array of art, music, dance, design and food.

As I left the site that evening, my stomach and soul were more than content: I’d feasted on everything from Malaysian satays and Spanish cheeses, to Lebanese wine and Italian gelato. Elsewhere in the expo, I’d been treated to a unique rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on a set of angklung (an Indonesian bamboo instrument) and a surprise appearance by U2’s Bono. But the same questions kept going around in my mind – what’s the purpose of these expos, and are they worth it?

Milan’s Expo 2015 was one in a long series of world expos that goes back more than 160 years to The Great Exhibition of London in 1851. Its full name – the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations – gives more insight into the event’s theme, which was apt at a time when the UK had arguably led the world in the industrial revolution. The 1851 exhibition showed the world how host countries and cities could take a leading stance on international themes and paved the way for many more world expos and fairs across Europe, the USA and other countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In a pre-internet age where cruising or jetting off to distant exotic lands was the preserve of a privileged few, global expos and fairs offered a much broader tranche of society the chance to become better acquainted with the curiosities and delights of places they’d probably never get the chance to visit. These fairs brought a lively, added dimension that could not be found in those dusty encyclopaedias and textbooks in libraries and schools.

Today however, more people are travelling than ever before, with low-cost airlines flying an ever-growing number of both short- and long-haul routes. The internet, video streaming and social media are transforming our understanding of – and engagement with – the world, while young people place increasing importance on experiences over material investments (which in the case of housing, they find increasingly out of reach in many parts of the world).

There’s also no denying that expos are hugely expensive undertakings: Milan’s Expo 2015 apparently cost more than €2.2 billion (although it also reportedly delivered a net profit of more than €20 million). And it’s not just the host cities that have costs to bear – the exhibiting countries have pavilion costs to cover, and some might question the value poor nations get for spending money on pavilions on the outskirts of a wealthy European city. That said, in Milan it was good to see a variety of pavilion designs and styles on display, from the opulent to the modest. For many of the poorer countries attending, less ornate, uniform pavilion structures were being used, and yet many of those countries managed to design their pavilions beautifully and pack them with national cultural treasures and customs.

But does the global expo remain a relevant concept for the 21st century? Were they to have some siloed singular objective either to inform, educate, spur curiosity or entertain, then probably not – our interconnected world offers many alternatives that are cheaper for governments and consumers. And yet it is the combination of all these laudable aims that continue to make the expo a hit for many.

In Milan, the expo was dedicated to food and its future, and I remember the pavilions of the USA (which displayed American innovations in food and agribusiness), the UK (which focused on the role of the bee in the global ecosystem) and Switzerland, which smartly addressed the global issue of food sustainability by having four towers full of local food products which visitors could take away for free. These products were limited however, and so the obvious implication was that by taking too many products, you would be depriving future visitors.

In short, I found my first world expo to be thought-provoking, entertaining and fun. I believe they enable countries to display some of their proudest national brand assets and treasures – and some of their most unknown and unusual ones – without the need for vane one-upmanship on their neighbours. I believe these expos can make us think in a connected way about the world that few locations in isolation can do, whether travelling for business or pleasure.

The next world expo will take place in Dubai in 2020, adopting the broad theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ – probably an apt theme for a city which has gone from dusty desert outpost to a global cosmopolitan hub for commerce, innovation and travel in less than 30 years. While the UAE wouldn’t be my first choice for a mini-break, I’d certainly think of visiting the expo if I were in town over the six months it’ll be running and would even consider making a stopover.

Image: The US pavilion, themed ‘American Food 2.0’, at Expo 2015, alongside pavilions from more than 140 countries.