Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
November 22, 2010
Speech by Amb. Ole Philipson, former BIE President
Within the world of great events, World Expositions occupy a prominent place. For more than one and a half centuries, ever since the Great Exhibition took place in London in 1851, these great events have marked their times.
The impact on the world stage of World Expositions has been significant with each and every one of these events. Each exposition has been the product of its time and has pointed the way towards the future, each in its particular field and geographic location.
Thus, the trajectory of World Expositions as international and cultural events highlights their unique history and global relevance and their ever-present power to attract and fascinate millions of people all over the world. A true test of longevity. However, not everyone is familiar with the importance and history of this great event though most people have heard about one of these expositions. An overview of the history of these great expositions and a study of their character are therefore necessary.
The History of EXPOs at a glance
The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was held inside a palace of glass, the Crystal Palace, which in itself was extraordinary at the time. The exhibition became immensely popular as a showpiece of the industrial revolution that was taking place then in England and in the other big powers of the time. The exhibition received 6 millions visitors.
The EXPO was all about showing the public the advancement of England's industrialisation, and with time that of other countries. This is what characterized the contents of the EXPOS of the 19th century: they showed industrial progress. London was host to two great exhibitions that took place in 1851 and 1862, but Paris followed quickly hosting not less than five great EXPOS in the 19th century; the Great 1900 Paris Exhibition received some 50 million visitors. The Paris Exhibition of 1889 is particularly memorable with the emblematic Eiffel Tower as its main attraction. Many countries have since tried but no yet succeeded in creating such a durable legacy. The Eiffel Tower is known and loved all over the world.
The BIE is born
Up until 1928, each organizing country only had to declare its intention to host an EXPO and invite participating countries and establish its own rules. International rules or preconditions for hosting an exhibition did not exist. This led to a chaotic situation that could only be resolved through the regulation of World Expositions. Thus, the Convention for the creation of an international organization that would regulate World Expositions was drawn up and signed in Paris in 1928 by 31 countries. With the passing of the Convention, the basis for the BIE, Bureau International des Expositions, was laid. Though the Convention has been modified in the course of time it still basically adheres to the original principles.
The BIE member states constitute the General Assembly where all important decisions and votes are taken. The President of the BIE, who is elected for a period of two years, heads the General Assembly, and the Secretary General is in charge of all day-to-day activities and heads the administration. In order to attend to the specific needs of the institution, four committees are created: the Executive Committee, the Information Committee, the Rules Committee and the Administration Committee. All members of the Committees are BIE delegates. Since its creation, the BIE has been at the centre of the organization of World Expositions regulating and setting down rules necessary for the hosting of successful expositions, and protecting the interests both of organizers and host countries as well as the participating nations.
Amongst the BIE rules that can be mentioned is the span of five years between the Registered (big) EXPOS, their duration of 6 months and the rule that the theme must be of a general nature. The hosting of a Recognized EXPO is set to take place between two Registered EXPOS and must not exceed a duration of 3 months and occupy a space larger than 25 ha. Each member country appoints one or more delegates to the BIE who participate in the General Assembly and the work of the organization. The selection of the host of a Registered or Recognised Exhibition is done on the basis of "one country one vote", the voting being by secret ballot.
The EXPO is defined in the BIE Convention as an exhibition that has as its main purpose the education of the public.
The educational and non-commercial nature of an EXPO is the basic principle for understanding the nature and longevity of this event. One word of explanation is needed here. Being an educational and non-commercial event does not mean that economic nor commercial interests or relations do not develop. Not at all. Any EXPO will have sponsors, corporate participants and commercial backing from many sides. Only the contents of the EXPO itself must remain non-commercial. This distinction between financing and contents is basic for the understanding of the inner workings of an EXPO.
Thanks to the BIE Convention, World Expositions became more regulated after 1931. The Second World War interrupted the hosting of these events but interest started peaking up again after the war, first slowly, then growing more and more. We are now experiencing a true and continued interest in the hosting of EXPOS resulting in more countries joining the BIE and in more candidates for an EXPO.
At the start of 2011, the BIE had 157 member countries making the organisation not only one of the oldest international organisations but also one of the largest in terms of member countries.
The birth of an EXPO candidacy
The reasons for wanting to host an EXPO can be many but in most cases it is because of a desire to attract the world's attention and promote a country, to improve the urban environment of a city and to unite the people around a major challenge. Yet another factor has been playing increasingly a significant role: Globalization.
With the arrival of globalization, the perception of a country's identity has become more blurred in the mind of the public. Therefore, there is a growing need among many countries to promote themselves abroad and to show the world what they are, what they stand for and what they are capable of. For this purpose, many countries choose to compete for the hosting of a great event that can achieve all these objectives. This new situation has increased the interest in hosting a mega event in order to "place one's country on the world map". The hosting of a World EXPO has become a prime choice for this goal. Before settling on a World EXPO, a country has probably also considered hosting one of the other two mega events: the Olympics or the World Football Cup - and then settled on a World EXPO.
The three events are fundamentally different in contents and legacy. Whereas the two sport events are shorter in duration and have very specific contents, an EXPO lasts longer and has broad cultural contents – whether it is a Registered or Recognised EXPO. Therefore, an EXPO usually leaves a larger imprint on the host city both in terms of urban renewal and development of new social patterns. The legacy of an EXPO is palpable. From the very start of an EXPO project, it is evident that a key to the selection of the project lies in the message chosen for the EXPO, which is the theme of the exposition.
Another factor of vital importance is the ability of the candidate country to gather votes. In short the international weight of the candidate country.
The theme has not always had the importance it has now. In the past the event in itself was often enough to attract votes - and subsequently visitors. However, with the growing awareness of values such as sustainability, the world at large is more conscious of the message and the contents of an EXPO, and the theme has come to play an important role in the selection of an EXPO. The visitors have also come to expect a meaningful content of the EXPO. Any candidate country today is therefore acutely aware of the importance of the theme and a great deal of preparation is done in order to pinpoint the best possible thematic contents. When a member country of the BIE decides to be a candidate, a long and difficult process begins in order to convince a majority of the member countries to vote for their project.
A successful campaign
Once the candidate country has placed a bid with the BIE, the campaign begins. Depending on the field of competitors, this campaign can be most demanding and complex. A majority of the 157 member countries of the BIE have to be convinced that their bid is the best. The effect of the campaign will – as explained above - in part depend on the candidate country's international weight.
Therefore we often see other factors than the strictly objective aspects come into play, but this is a situation that arises in the case of all the great events in the world - be they in the realm of sports or culture. The successful country, the winner, will immediately start preparing for the event and creating the administrative apparatus to carry through the challenge that an EXPO is.
The organization of an EXPO
The BIE schedule for the selection of an EXPO project and its organization allows the organizer to start the preparations for an EXPO many years before the event. The organizer will therefore dispose of ample time to prepare both the physical aspects of the EXPO such as infrastructure and building and the other non-physical actions at home and abroad. One of the first tasks will be to attract the participation of countries.
This not an easy process as many countries need to take into account budget considerations before deciding to participate in an EXPO. However, experience shows that even the most sceptic countries in the end – and often at the last minute –join the EXPO anyway! The task of creating an air of expectation both in the host country and abroad is another big challenge, where the participation of all sectors is needed.
Also at this stage a careful weighing of the commercial and non-commercial interests will take place – all within the framework of the BIE rules. All in all, the stage of organizing the EXPO is a major challenge for the host country and is dealt with according to each country's own tradition and capacity.
The EXPO itself
The running of an EXPO is a complex operation. First of all, the rules and regulations concerning the rights and duties of the host organization and the participating nations must be approved by the BIE within a fixed timeframe.
Then, it is the goal of every organizing entity to create that feeling of expectation that will permeate the whole event. Each and every prospective visitor – local or foreign – must feel that she/he will be visiting a very special event, making this a unique trip to all the world's countries within the space of the exhibition site. Experience from past EXPOS indicates that a high quality and diverse cultural programme is essential to the success of an EXPO. Without entering into details, the success of the EXPO will also depend to a large extent on the smooth operation of the exhibition and the pavilion content and atmosphere. Interestingly enough, almost all EXPOS have been successful.
The mere concept of an EXPO, a one and a half centuries old event, almost guarantees their success. The host city's attitude and that of its citizens is also important. Most host cities and their inhabitants have been happy to "receive the world" but the degree of enthusiasm and positive attitude towards the EXPO can influence the success of the EXPO in terms of the number of visitors.
The media also plays understandably a very important role in how the EXPO is perceived both at home and abroad. A well-conceived and well-organized EXPO will inevitably be well received by both the local and the world press.
The benefits of an EXPO
EXPO-sceptics have and will always question the value of an EXPO. This is legitimate and should be easy to answer – but it isn't. First, it is important to note that the benefits from any EXPO will depend on the expectations of the host country. The results will be measured against the expectations. Common for most host countries as to their expectations is that they gain exposure internationally. In short, they expect that their country and the host city will be more recognizable and better known after the EXPO. This alone is such an important result that it is often enough to consider the EXPO as a success.
The problem here is that this is difficult to measure and that it happens over time. Usually there is an important urban renewal plan associated with the hosting of an EXPO. The results are striking and easily perceived in the form of new infrastructure, new living areas, new parks etc. Another benefit, but very difficult to measure, is a certain pride felt among the population after a successful EXPO. The inhabitants of the host city are proud of the success to which they have contributed.
Finally, the economic aspect cannot be ignored. Most expenses really have been investments, and very sound investments indeed, in the future of the city and country. Again the benefits only show after a number of years giving the sceptic food for criticism – but only for a limited time. With the passing of the years it becomes more and more obvious, that the EXPO has been an important factor in the development of the city and of the country. This has been the case in almost all host countries and cities; many former host cities actually talk of a "rebirth" of the city thanks to the EXPO.
Another important aspect of an EXPO is the benefits the participating countries derive from having participated in the EXPO. The aim of most participating countries is a wish to strengthen their image in the host country, give the visitors an idea of their country's profile and eventually make some commercial contacts. The National Days at the EXPO are an ideal opportunity for strengthening relations when heads of state or governments visit the Expo. It must be stressed that without the participation of countries there would be no EXPO. Therefore it is important to make sure that these countries are satisfied with the results of their participation, which has usually been the case.
The BIE has very strict rules concerning the plans for the post-EXPO. Detailed plans for the site after the EXPO must be approved by the BIE before the bid is accepted, thus guaranteeing the good use of the site after the EXPO. These rules have greatly contributed to the popularity of the EXPO as an urban event since the people know that the site will be a better place after the EXPO. A few examples of post-EXPO results can illustrate the importance of this aspect.
The first successful example is that of the Seville EXPO 1992. Here an empty plot of land next to the city was chosen for the EXPO, and plans were made for the creation of a scientific centre. Today, it is one of the most important scientific centres in Spain.
At Art EXPO 1993 in Taejon, the site was turned into a Science park, now famous all over Korea.
At Lisbon EXPO 1998, the site became home to a beautiful park and new living areas. A new rail line now connects the area to the city.
The Zaragoza EXPO 2008 has greatly improved the city as a modern and attractive place to live.
The site of the great Shanghai EXPO 2010 is now being transforming into an important and completely new part of the city. The recent history of World EXPOS is full of examples of urban renewal taking place as a result of an EXPO.
The longevity of the EXPO
Many times in the past have the EXPOS been declared a thing of the past. Many times has an EXPO been stated to be the last. A famous example is that of the EXPO 1900 in Paris. Because of its exorbitant costs the leading countries of the time said "never again". But history has shown proved this statement to be wrong. The time-honoured recipe for a great event contained in the BIE Convention has survived and is still growing stronger with many countries waiting for their chance to host an EXPO. There are several arguments as to the reasons for this extraordinary longevity.
* Most people agree that the format is ideal to mirror that time in history. Each organizer has to reinvent the EXPO. An EXPO cannot be a copy of a past EXPO. The EXPO will always mirror its own times, which is one of its greatest assets.
* Another reason is that people all over the world are attracted by an exhibition since they can meet people from all the countries in the world and since the cultural values – and not the commercial products – of each country are shown. The typical visitors – parents with children – have always flocked to such an event. They always will. It is a unique world market where the merchandise is not goods but knowledge and culture! In this age of cyberspace, the "real thing", the "hands on experience", the "live" people from all over the world exert a powerful attraction on us in this time when many of us spend too much time in front of a TV screen alone.
The future of EXPO
It seems likely that the EXPO will stay with us for a very long time. Countries that rise economically will wish to show their newly acquired status by hosting an EXPO and long- established countries will wish to renew their image in the eyes of the world. Consequently, there will still be candidates for hosting an EXPO, a situation that seems likely to continue as long as the world wants to know more about the world and its values – country by country.
EXPO 2012 YEOSU
Finally, a few words about the next EXPO: YEOSU EXPO 2012. The Republic of Korea has already hosted an EXPO. The 1993 EXPO in Taejon was held on the theme "The Challenge of a new road of Development" and received some 14 million visitors. This EXPO had a great effect not only on the Korean visitors but also on the country as a whole. During the EXPO many heads of state visited the EXPO and Korea and the EXPO was a great success – acclaimed from all sides at home and abroad.
The theme of EXPO 2012 is "The Living Ocean and Coast" and there are great expectations for this EXPO. This is due not only to Korea's leading position in the world of technology but also to its pioneering effort in the realm of sustainability. The theme is indeed most attractive and relevant in today's world. Therefore, this EXPO is expected to draw great international interest from all over the world.
There is a general consensus that EXPO 2012 will be a very important milestone in the long history of EXPOS. Its important theme and its location in the middle of a coastal area full of natural beauty make it a most attractive and exciting event.Everyone in the wonderful world of EXPO looks forward to this event.