Five Reasons I Love the Shanghai Expo

Part U.N., Part Walmart, the 2010 World Expo Exposes China's Diversity and Its Challenges, Says Jigsaw's P.T. Black

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SHANGHAI ( -- I admit it. I'm excited about the World Expo. I love it all...the absurd scale, the ridiculous mascot, even the seeming uselessness of the event. So in honor of the Expo's official opening in Shanghai this month, here are five things to get you excited about the Expo too.

1. Technology for living

I've always found Expos' historic obsession with technology disappointing, just a futuristic legacy of useless monorails and soulless suburban kitchen displays. Didn't they promise us flying cars by 2010?

P.T. Black
P.T. Black
But the technology featured at this year's Expo is inspiring, because it showcases what's being done right now. There's a strong emphasis on everyday, behind-the-scenes marvels.

Technology that reshaped the developed world a decade ago has been reconfigured to reach the developing world. The result is powerfully humanist and it's all on display at the Expo.

The coolest trick by far is at the Netherlands pavilion, where their water purification tech is pushed to its limits turning Shanghai's muddy river muck into potable water. (They claim it's potable, that is. I haven't tried it.)

2. 70 million Chinese meeting the world at once

Most visitors turning up at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai will be domestic travelers. The organizers expect more than 50 million curious tourists from Shanghai's surrounding provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui.

For many, it will be their first time in Shanghai. They will marvel at the city's European-style architecture and we can expect a fair amount of "marveling" at the European-style residents as well.

Most of the national pavilions are designed with marveling in mind. They are competing against each other for the attention of tens of millions of future tourists, business partners, and investors.

The result is a mix between the U.N. and Walmart, with a combination of stripped-down brand messaging and frantic promotions.

Belgium's pitch is typically terse: Belgium is chocolate and diamonds. How do they communicate it? By giving both away at their pavilion. Likewise, to showcase its craftsmanship and attention to quality, Italy is regularly raffling luxury leather goods. Nothing says luxury like a lucky draw!

Even the Chinese provincial pavilions are getting in the act. Remote Southwestern Guizhou has built a replica of its most famous waterfall to encourage tourism. In a flash of inspired cross-branding, they have enhanced the waterfall by adding copious amounts of Mao Tai baijiu (distilled spirits), one of the province's biggest brands. A waterfall of Mao Tai. Take that, Willy Wonka.

My award for clarity of message, however, goes to the French pavilion. We all know France is for romance. But now there's proof -- the French pavilion is performing weddings for lucky couples. Why fly to Europe when you have Paris in Pudong?

3. The world meeting 70 million Chinese at once

Although in the minority, there will be a lot of international faces at the Expo as well. For many, it will be their first trip to China. Between Shanghai's modern metropolites and the masses of provincial tourists, they will be exposed to China's diversity, and maybe sense the size of the challenges ahead.

The cultural learning is already under way. The good folk at the Cuban pavilion are no longer as frustrated that they can't get Chinese visitors to dance to blasting salsa. International visitors will take their hard-earned experiences back with them around the world. Those who are working at the Expo may find their time in China quite valuable in the future.

4. Better City, Better Life

This year's Expo is themed "better city, better life." It's a highly relevant topic in the developing world. China alone is building hundreds of cities from the ground up over the next two decades and its urban population is expected to swell by hundreds of millions.

But what kind of cities are they going to be? How will they optimize the lives of their residents? What makes a city work? How can the developing world learn from the experience of those who have already urbanized?

The biggest disappointment so far with the Expo is the lack of a strong American voice on these topics. Where are the displays of urban farming, reclaimed green spaces, and lessons from suburbia? America's presence is underwhelming at the Expo in general, but the silence here is especially frustrating.

5. Progress

The World Expo stands for progress, without apology and is a beacon to the idea that we can improve our lives and our world, through technology and communication across cultures. The glorious tackiness and unashamed love for progress of the Expo is a fresh breath of air. It comes from a simple belief that we can do better.

Don't believe me? Check out the restrooms. They are clean and plentiful. Any event that can bring clean toilets to China has got my support. Ah, the sweet smell of progress.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults.

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