Are Expos Still Relevant? Reflections From Milan 2015

Having recently returned from a scoping trip to the Milan Expo, I have given some thought to whether Expos are still relevant, and have concluded that the answer is yes. These huge trade fairs which bring the world together to show their products and services, where countries puff out their chests and display their plumage, are, even in this digital age, still relevant.

Since the invention of the telephone, the telecommunications industry has fundamentally changed the way we do business. However, even the growing prevalence of the video call has not killed-off the real-life meet-up. I’d bet that most business phone calls usually conclude with ‘ok, let’s meet up’. In fact the very first phone call was conducted and concluded for exactly that purpose, when Alexander Graham Bell instructed his assistant “Mr Watson - Come here - I want to see you”

Give us a Bell

Graham Bell issues the original ‘So let’s meet-up’ call.

Recent data from IBM on the expectations of Millennials for face-to-face meetings in the workplace suggests that physical interaction is as important as ever.

This is all part of the ‘Power of the Real’ in a virtual age, as identified by Dr Peter Higgins of Land Studio, a specialist in Expo design and Museum experience, who says that “we embrace real time and real objects as our lives become more synthetic and reliant on digital connectivity.”

The trend is apparent in search for the ‘authentic’ in the culture of every tech cluster on the globe from London to New York; the growth of Craft beers, male grooming and tattoo houses all celebrate the visual, the physical and the sensual. Sometimes labelled as post-digital culture, they are in fact very much part of the digital age.

But Expos? Aren’t they still a bit clunky? Behind the times? Well broadly yes, they are. In fact the Expo narrative for every nation - from America to Azerbaijan - can be boiled down to the following:

“We are very good at making things. Our men are strong and clever and our women are very good looking. We make the finest bread in the world as it is part of our original heritage, and our technical innovations and contributions to thought have advanced humanity in ways that are unimaginable to the uninitiated (such as you). For many years we ruled other places as our cultural prowess was so strong and in turn we too were once oppressed by brutish thugs and culturally ignorant vandals but we’ve all moved on now.

Our people are kind and their nature is open, interested and loyal. We value family, children and animals (especially horses) and have a strong bond with Mother Nature as so beautifully demonstrated in the visage of our leader - who can be seen here at a factory and on an agricultural plot teaching children to dance. We cannot emphasise enough how important dancing is in our culture.

We believe that everyone should be welcomed in our land especially those who have truly understood us, and for those that have not, we wish them no ill but neither can we be answerable for visa restrictions which may filter out certain groups.

Please visit, study and invest in our country and join us in our distinct way of life - EXIT THROUGH SHOP.”


“We’re very good at making things” - Barack Obama welcomes visitors at the US pavilion

The theme of Milan Expo 2015 is ‘Food’, ‘Feeding the Planet’ which unfortunately doesn’t really give much scope to show-off the real cultural and technical breadth of any contemporary culture, but that doesn’t stop some using their imagination and fighting to show themselves beyond the conceptual straightjacket of agricultural produce.

The Big Apple

“How do you like them apples?” David Adam visiting the Kazakstan pavilion

But where else in the world can you really get a quick snapshot of how the world thinks of itself? What other major event brings the world together under a great universal banner and celebrates cultural production. You could argue that the Olympics does this, but it’s not quite the same thing. The Games are ultimately a search for the fastest man on earth over 100 metres, in which culture makes a brief cameo.

Milan Expo is the latest fascinating insight into the carnival of humanity; the extraordinary displayed alongside the mundane; the opportunity for business to meet face-to-face and for people to dance each other’s dances and sing each other’s songs. As always with contemporary large-scale events, there was much scepticism as to whether it would be executed on time, and much cynicism as to whether it was necessary, but now it is underway, the event has great national support and pride. During my visit, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of domestic visitors clearly enjoying the show. Even many Italian friends based in the UK are making a special trip home to experience this 6 month extravaganza. Perhaps, in the end, one of the primary roles of World Expo is to stimulate that sense of national pride, which alongside the ‘power of the real’ has great value for modern economies. Ironically, the one thing on which most economists agree is the one thing that they cannot accurately quantify - ‘the feel good factor’.

Posted by David Adam on 29 Jul 2015


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