Q&A: Bureau International des Expositions

Responses prepared by Antoine Bourdeix, Paris, France 

The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) is the intergovernmental organisation embodying the commitment of its 170 Member States to lead, promote and foster International Exhibitions. The BIE oversees four types of International Exhibitions: World Expos, Specialised Expos, Horticultural Expos and the Triennale di Milano.   

World Expos, also known under their official denomination International Registered Exhibitions, are discussion platforms aimed at finding solutions to universal challenges of our time, such as quality of life in cities (Expo Shanghai 2010) or nutrition (Expo Milan 2015). Expo 1967 Montreal was a World Expo.  

Specialised Expos, known officially as International Recognised Exhibitions, can take place in the interval between two World Expos. They can last up to three months and are designed to respond to a precise challenge facing humanity, such as Water and Sustainable Development (Expo 2008 Zaragoza) or Oceans and Coast (Expo 2012 Yeosu). Expo 1986 Vancouver is considered as a Specialised Expo.  

These categories are important not only in terms of focus, duration, size etc. but also, in terms of constructions. For a World Expo, participants themselves can design and build their own pavilions, while for a Specialised Expo, the Organiser makes available to participants the pavilions’ modules free of rent and charges. 

Canadians still primarily view Expos through the positive lens of Expo 67, a World Expo that both profiled, defined and promoted a city, a nation and a broader optimistic future. Similarly, Vancouver’s transportation Specialized Expo (1986) – also well regarded – both redefined the city’s core development and sowed the seeds of the region’s future Transit Oriented Development (TOD). So, how has the core objective(s) of Expos changed over the last two decades? (For example, one person involved with the Toronto proposal told me they were now often more focused on forward looking trade and business; elsewhere, sustainability, the environment and related themes are reported as now playing a key role.) 

Expos embody the spirit of their time. They help us make sense of the many facets of a world that faces new challenges, that sees the emergence of new actors and that discovers new products and solutions. Expos help visitors understand the scope and the implications of cultures and of innovations that they encounter for the first time. Indeed, throughout their 166 years of history, Expos have strived to facilitate the understanding that citizens have about nations and future opportunities. 

Expos build bridges that connect different spheres of society. As such, they help promote ideas and initiatives with new publics, they foster the development of new forms of cooperation and, last but not least, they introduce a degree accountability for the actions of governmental institutions and civil society alike, as we are all called to contribute solutions to our common problems.

World Expo 2025 banner, image via BIE
World Expo 2025 banner, image via BIE

Since the year 2000, there is a strong connection between the selection of Expo themes and the main agendas established by the United Nations, through different programmes and agreements such as Agenda 21 from the 1992 Rio Conference, the Kyoto Protocol, the Millennium Goals and most recently the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

These have inspired World Expo 2000 Hannover, Humankind, Nature and Technology: A New World Arising, World Expo 2010 Shanghai, Better city, Better Life, World Expo 2015 Milan, Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life as well as Specialized Expo 2005 Aichi Nature’s Wisdom, Specialized Expo 2008 Zaragoza, Water and Sustainable Development and Specialized Expo 2012 Yeosu, which focussed on the environmental protection of oceans and coasts.  

Specialised Expo 2017, which currently takes place in Astana, Kazakhstan, under the theme “Future Energy” is helping to promote the Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. 

Over the last two decades, Expos have become key assets for governments and international organizations in their effort to communicate to the public the major issues at the top of the global agenda. They are therefore a unique platform for multilateral public diplomacy that contribute to fill the existing awareness and knowledge gaps and enhance the connection and the involvement of citizens. Expos are at the service of the ideals of our global society and function as powerful instruments that engage the world’s citizens to contribute to the efforts of our international community. 

Are there new expected trends that will emerge over the next decade?   

In the Expos of twentieth century, technology was understood and designed in terms of its direct impact on productivity. In the twenty first century, Expos have looked at technology and innovation differently. They have demonstrated what kind of impact technology has on the use of resources and therefore, on quality of life. Expos are now looking more and more at enhancing cooperation and understanding among nations concerning the use of technology as a tool for achieving an improved standard of living for all, where the impact of new technologies is regarded in terms of improvement of tomorrow’s quality of life.  

As cities and regions have increased their roles as powerful engines of the surge in innovation, creativity and problem solving, their increased participation is also foreseen. With greater use of technology, cities are accumulating data, delivering innovation, and enhancing lives of citizens. Therefore their role is expected to be expanding in this pluralistic world system. This is also the case for non-state actors incl. citizens, whose broad and deep engagement is sought to be part of the solution to the challenges ahead.  

What are the key components/attributes that ensure success of a World or Specialised Expo?  What are the main pitfalls to be avoided?     

Amongst the many factors that lie behind the success of an Expo, the theme occupies a pivotal place. By choosing a timely and engaging theme, and implementing it in many innovative ways, an Expo can demonstrate how powerful the educational capabilities of an Expo can be.  

As indeed stated by the first article of the BIE Convention: the purpose of an Expo is the education of the public by exhibiting the means and achievements for meeting the needs of civilization, for demonstrating progress and for showing prospects for the future.  

The reputation of the event is ultimately affected by the ability of the Expo to generate international interest based on the theme itself.   

For a city, Expos have always had a place in city planning as strategic instruments for urban, economic and cultural development/renewal. They can form a major part of strategies to facilitate change as cities try to respond to changes and look to energize their economies. Expos’ successful long-term impact nevertheless depends on the ability to manage their sustainable integration in the city and to align it with broader goals.   

What has been the trend in the level of involvement of nations participating in Expos.  Is it more or less regional; dependent on theme or location; smaller or larger in terms of pavilion size, etc.? 

Each new Expo brings a new location, a new theme, a different set of participants and exhibitions. 

The numbers of countries participating at Expos have been increasing over time. The participation of cities and regions and more generally non state actors including citizens have also increased as for example, cities and regions have become an increasingly important force in world affairs, developing international strategies and making the most of opportunities to build international ties.  

Expos are not only an event that cities are vying to host but also to participate in. Regarding the level of involvement of participating nations, this varies according to numerous factors notably the appeal of the Expo theme and the bilateral relations between the participating and the host countries. 

Regarding sizes of the pavilions, these are regulated for each Expo.  

We are in a time of far-reaching disruptive technologies that are ushering in a 3rd or 4th industrial revolution with enormous economic, social and cultural implicationWhat role can/will your organization and Expos (World and Specialised Expos) play in facilitating a progressive transition toward this new world? 

Expos are a huge urban, regional and national development project. As such, an Expo or the Expo site itself can be a test ground for new technologies. Whether it is architecture, new services, exhibition content, performance, new technologies and so on, each Expo is built and showcases inventions and new approaches. Innovation is the hallmark of Expos.  

But Expos have changed the way in which they encapsulate and communicate innovation, by shifting from a view of innovation driven by materials and products, to one driven by solutions and practices. Expos are an important instrument for sharing practices and fueling global debates for solutions around the challenges they address as well as for engaging the society at large in becoming part of the solution to the challenges ahead.  

In the build-up to Expo 2020, Expo 2020 Dubai launched Expo Live; an innovation and partnership programme with an allocation of USD 100 million. Expo live is designed to make the Expo a centre of innovation and partnership creation by funding, accelerating and promoting creative solutions that improve lives while preserving our world through grants, challenge prizes and knowledge-sharing events.    

What has been the impact of major, annual events showcasing new technologies, etc. been on the role of your events? 

Progress and innovation proceed at a faster pace and communication is more immediate and specialized than Expos. People learn about new products from different and numerous flexible stages and approach world cultures and destinations through mobility, television or the Internet. Expos as unique public diplomacy platform, evolved to showcase this diversity of information by creating a uniform platform for the international community to communicate to the citizens of the world.  

In this new context, Expos must be capable to inspire and connect the actions of governments and civil society in their common endeavour to face universal challenges with available resources. To this end, at the macro level, Expos have changed the way in which they encapsulate and communicate innovation, by shifting from a view of innovation driven by materials and products, to one driven by solutions and practices.  

This is why Expos have elected the theme as their central core and organising principle. In so doing, Expos have come to support a double goal of public diplomacy. On the one hand, they represent key assets for governments and international organisations in their effort to communicate the major issues they have placed at the top of their global agendas. At the same time, through the Expo, the host city and country take the lead in catalysing global attention on 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.  

Impact studies:  

An Expo must be evaluated as an integrated system with repercussions on long-term infrastructures –building and transport –culture, society, innovation and branding, amongst others. We do not have specific reports addressing globally and on the long term the impact of Expos.  

In fact, the economic benefits are manifold in both the short and long term; direct impact from capital investments, operational expenditures, tourist expenditure as well as indirect and induced effects. 

The impact of such an event cannot therefore be measured or quantified precisely. Most studies focus on the short-term impact subsequent to the organisation of the event (increased activity generated by the expenses stemming from the event and the expenditure of visitors to the event and area).  

These studies do neither take into account the deferred impact that the Expo has, nor the attractiveness generated from the event (and thus the increased activity generated by this attractiveness), the effect of experience, the exploitation of structural facilities built for the event, the concentric development (i.e. creation of an industry sector) and the impact in terms of strategic positioning. 

Economic growth is probably the most important legacy of Expos, the role of Expos as catalysts for new industries and talents in the host city.  

Most common benefits consist in:  

  • The acceleration of the construction of various types of infrastructure such as subways, highways, airports, MICE facilities and hotel accommodations, thus promoting regional development. 
  • General increase in the attractiveness of the host city which translates into the city becoming a chosen future destination for tourists and businesses 
  • The creation of new jobs in the order of hundreds of thousands per Expo 
  • The combination of the Expo, the theme and good communication can help establish the city as an attractive global reference in a given domain 
  • The stimulation of tourism towards the host city, but also towards participant country from the host nation 
  • The creation of new industries, such as the meeting and exhibition industry, that will create future permanent revenue 
  • The development of new real state of high value 

Studies in the past have shown for example that the World Expo 1970 Osaka contributed an additional 2.1 per cent of GDP growth in Japan. More recently, the World Expo 2000 in Hannover brought more than 12 billion euros in economic benefits to Germany. As for Shanghai, if one looks only at the tourism impact of World Expo 2010, the direct revenues from tourism during the exhibition amounted to over 12 billion euros and the foreign exchange earnings of visitors amounted to more than 33 billion. The Expo increased air traffic by 34 per cent, and the hotel occupancy rate by over 16 per cent. As for the revenue generated by the World Expo 2010, it amounted to over 218 billion euros. Although we have not yet received the final report on World Expo 2015, the tourism data indicated, for example an increase of over 27 per cent in the number of tourists, + 9.4 per cent in hotel occupancy rates, + 19.3 per cent of the average daily rate, and an increase of over 30 per cent in revenue per available room and more than 50 per cent increase of the attendance of the 14 largest museums. 



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