Thursday, September 23, 2010

Around the World in a Day

Almost every country in the world has a pavilion displaying their country’s greatest achievements in Shanghai this summer, for an audience that will rank in the several tens of millions. As I write this, 55,368,100 people have visited the Shanghai World Expo according to their website, and with a month and a half left to go, close to 70 million are expected to have visited before the end. When measured by the number of visitors and duration of the event, the Expo easily surpasses the 2008 Beijing Olympics as China’s largest international event in history.

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So what is the World Expo?

Remember the World's Fair that was hosted in New York in the 1930s and 1960s? Well, it’s kinda like that. Except rather than being dominated by corporations, each country has its own building (or in some cases groups of countries have one big building housing all their pavilions) which contain everything from miniature movie theaters playing videos about the country, to commercial and cultural exhibits, to interactive activities that help you learn about the country. Some of the pavilions have really cool interior and exterior design – you can see some really good pictures here.

Because the vast majority of the people coming to visit the Expo during its six months of operation are probably from what Tufts alumnus Dan Loeb identifies as China’s 100 million person ‘consumer class,’ most of the pavilions are designed for an audience that is well off, but not quite as worldly as most foreign travelers visiting the expo might be. As a result the material in the pavilions is a little basic, and many of them failed to follow the “Better city, better life” theme in favor of advertising their country’s best tourist destinations. I was lucky enough to get this and many other perspectives on the Expo before going to tour it from Scott and the many other students Ambassadors for the US pavilion. So when I finally went to the Expo, I knew what was worth seeing and what wasn’t (I was also able to cut a lot of the 2-3 hour lines when Scott showed his staff badge at the entrance – thanks Scott).

Outside the massive "theme" pavilion
Scott and I ended up spending most of our time in the “theme pavilion,” the largest pavilion at the Expo, where a number of thought-provoking exhibits and videos told the story of urban living, pollution, and the path to sustainability. The first section had an exhibit focusing on the lives of six families from different cities around the world (Phoenix, AR, US; San Paulo, Brazil; Johannesburg, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia, Amsterdam, Holland and Lijiang, China). The exhibit included life-sized wax status of each family, and a short video documenting their everyday lives. The goal was to show how similar the lives of people are in cities around the world, despite all our cultural differences. 
A cool idea but a bad translation
The second portion of the pavilion had some very provocative displays demonstrating the problems of urban sprawl, urban waste and pollution. There were 50-foot tall models of apartment buildings made entirely out of beer crates and other urban structures constructed from materials that would otherwise end up in the trash. There was a mural depicting an urban landscape with famous buildings from every city in the world in the background, and mounds of trash in the foreground. Later on we came upon a room with a dome shaped ceiling playing a video depicting the evolution of a Chinese cityscape. It began with a small town in the countryside that quickly sprouted high-rises, skyscrapers and a concrete jungle of highways and overpasses. The sky turned dark and mounds of trash began to pile up. Then, out of the trash began to grow flowers. The buildings began to sprout solar panels and wind turbines grew out of a hillside that was previously lined with apartments. The sky turned blue again and a river flowing through the center turned from brown to blue. It was a very powerful image that I hope began to captivate the imaginations of the millions of Chinese people coming through the pavilion.
Vision of a better future
The “Better city, better life” theme of the World Expo is a great indication that the Chinese government has realized that it will have a serious problem on its hands if it doesn’t begin to address urban pollution and climate change. This is also evident in the many eco-city projects that have begun to sprout up around China. Whether this goal will be achieved and these projects will be successfully implemented however is another question.

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