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Universal Exposition, a window on the future

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The universal expositions (also called world’s fairs) are six-month, non-commercial events aimed at creating a platform for international dialogue among citizens, countries and institutions based on a relevant and universally significant theme.


The expos often leave behind memorable monuments: the eiffel tower in Paris, the atomium in Brussels and the space Needle in seattle. An expo also provides the opportunity to transform a city’s urban profile, to improve the quality of life and attract more tourists . The expositions in shanghai, Lisbon, Brisbane and in other host cities have left behind modern neighbourhoods, new infrastructure, parks and museums.

There is also a less tangible legacy that the expositions hand down. Compared with the first editions, the events have changed significantly. An expo remains a showcase for important innovations but its focus has shifted towards the study and understanding of important issues for humanity.

In recent years the expos in Zaragoza, Yeosu and shanghai focused respectively on the themes of water, the oceans and the quality of life in the world’s cities. The theme of expo Milano 2015 is “Feed the Planet, energy for Life” and will deal with the issues of nutrition and the protection of the environment, while the theme for expo 2017, due to be held in astana in Kazakhstan, is “Future energy”.

The expositions are governed by the Bureau International des expositions (BIe), an international intergovernmental organization first set up in 1928 based on the Paris Convention, signed at the time by 31 countries. today the member countries are 168. The BIe has organized over 50 expositions. Its mission is to guarantee the quality of the expo events and the rights of organizers and participants.

Between 1851 and 1928, the events were organised without any real guidelines. the idea of regulating the world’s fairs originated in Paris in 1867 but did not come to fruition until the end of the First World War.

Thanks to the latest protocol added to the Convention and implemented in 1996, the current classification has led to the creation of two types of expos. the universal expositions, which take place every five years and last for up to six months and for which participants construct their own pavilions, follow a general theme. these differ from the international expositions, which last at most three months. The organizer builds the pavilions that are then rented to participants. The international expositions follow a more specialized theme.

Italy has participated in the expositions since 1851 and has hosted various universal and international expos: the first in 1906 in Milan, followed by turin in 1911, Rome 1953, Naples 1954, turin in 1955 and 1961, and Genoa in 1992.

The world’s fairs began in 1851 as grand events for the presentation of new industrial products (the telephone, the typewriter, the lift) and to promote the image, culture and development of the host country. they were, in fact, intrinsically linked to the Industrial Revolution. since 1972, the expos have focussed on education and themes of greater concern to the international community. During the 21st century, the events have enjoyed a constant increase in visitor numbers: Hannover 2000 (19 million), aichi 2005 (22 million), and shanghai 2010 (73 million, of which 72 million were Chinese citizens).

Today the expositions have become a venue for international dialogue, public diplomacy and cooperation. the original objectives would now seem out of place. Progress and innovation proceed at a faster pace than the expos can keep up with and communication has become immediate.

An expo therefore provides more of a snapshot of the resources and the state of the world at a given time in order to help the public get a feel of what the future may hold. It’s not surprising then that the themes of the expos during the 21st century refer to priorities established by the international community. Since 2000, the UN agenda has guided the themes of the expo events: the UN Conference on environment and Development in Rio in 1992 inspired the theme of expo Hannover 2000, “Humankind, Nature and technology”; aichi 2005, “Nature’s Wisdom”; Zaragoza 2008, “Water and sustainable Development”; shanghai 2010 “Better City, Better Life”; Yeosu 2012, “the Living Ocean and Coast”. The theme of expo Milano 2015 is “Feed the Planet, energy for Life”, and the event is committed to promoting the UN campaign to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  

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