Q&A with CPD: Dimitri S. Kerkentzes

In this series, CPD interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. Dimitri S. Kerkentzes is Secretary General of the Bureau International Des Expositions (BIE), the intergovernmental organization in charge of overseeing and regulating World Expos.  

The World Expo began in 1851 at the height of the industrial revolution. All major industrialized nations have hosted the event. In recent times, the event is garnering growing interest beyond the Western world. For instance, the five candidate countries to organize World Expo 2030 are Russia, South Korea, Italy, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. How do you explain the broadening appeal of the Expo in the 21st century?

The five candidatures received to organize World Expo 2030 attest to the strong and shared desire for nations around the world to come together to shape a common vision for peace and human progress. The interest and engagement around the opportunities offered by World Expos demonstrate the compelling global will to (re)connect and to build a better future through innovation and cooperation. World Expos are one of the oldest forms of inclusive and multilateral international cooperation, and in the current context in which people from different countries increasingly feel that they are confronted with the same challenges, Expos are a compelling tool to form and execute concrete responses to these challenges.

With growing global concern for issues such as the pandemic, climate change and inequalities, to name just a few, Expos have increasingly become focal points for international concertation and discussion. They are venues for inclusive multilateralism, where countries and a broad range of other actors can truly engage with each other to address pressing issues and work together, in a long-term way, to shape global debate. It is, after all, only by fostering exchange between governments, civil society, companies and the public at large that we can create a world that is ready to embrace the future.

What does public diplomacy look like to you in the World Expo?

World Expos are by their very nature inclusive and universal events that gather a multitude of nations and cultures in pursuit of progress for all; they constitute a unique platform that directly addresses global and interconnected challenges. 

By creating a public venue where a theme of international relevance is at the center of discussions, Expos provide the host nation and participants with a valuable stage on which they create, develop and project their image on a global scale as well as discuss and work with each other. They are given an opportunity for political and economic cooperation and are provided with an ideal framework to promote their identity, their achievements, their ideas and innovations, and ultimately, their image. Each participation is carefully designed around a message that reflects both major issues at the top of the global agenda and a particular vision of the country in question. The result is a unique combination of remarkable pavilions, which creates an ensemble that is unrivaled in its capacity to inform, inspire and amaze.

To sum, Expos allow for the expression, on an equal footing, of voices from the whole world. They are an opportunity for countries to present and refine their cultural influence and to distinguish themselves in a peaceful and non-confrontational setting, all while reaching out to engage with others in the construction of a better future for all.

As with the Tokyo Olympics, Expo 2020 Dubai was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally opened on October 1, 2021 and has become the largest in-person public event as the world began to emerge out of the pandemic shutdown. What’s the most surprising thing you learned while organizing this particular Expo?

The time we have spent apart during the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly shaped the Expo 2020 Dubai journey and led us all to reflect on the importance of being together. It has reminded us in an abrupt manner that even in the digital age, shared experiences are the essence of our humanity. The road toward Expo 2020 Dubai was punctuated by this unprecedented global health crisis, and while this has shaken communities and laid bare social fault lines, it has also demonstrated impressive resolve and unity of action.

In the road toward the Expo, I was particularly touched by the response of international participants along with the organizers of Expo 2020 Dubai to this crisis. The UAE showed its dedication to global unity and solidarity in seeking the postponement of the Expo, and the resounding expression of support by the international community to postpone Expo 2020 Dubai, expressed at the BIE’s General Assembly, demonstrated the strong bonds that tie us and the shared commitment we all have to delivering a truly inclusive World Expo.

I am now heartened to see that at Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE and over 190 countries—a record for a World Expo—are demonstrating the power of collective effort to deliver a truly remarkable and inspiring event. In troubled times, the UAE and all international participants have genuinely worked together to overcome the hurdles and to persevere in their commitment to realizing a truly transformational event. This is a lesson that we can all take to heart.

Persuade someone to visit a World Expo in 50 words or fewer.

An Expo is a unique experience that stimulates the senses, broadens horizons and serves as a cultural and educational awakening. Gathering countries and showcasing innovations, Expos are interactive venues for being immersed in a theme, for stirring the imagination, for mobilizing ideas, and for forging meaningful connections with the world.

What advice would you give to students who wish to engage in global initiatives such as the World Expo?

Through World Expos, it is possible to trace the evolution and trends not only in public diplomacy, but in the evolving perception of global priorities and in the public’s engagement with different challenges facing the world. The sheer scale and diversity of content offered is a rich testament to the multiple visions and projects that will shape the future of countries and the whole world. 

For students of public diplomacy, my advice would be of course to visit World Expos and observe what is on display, but above all else, I would suggest engaging and exchanging with participants, volunteers and other visitors to truly understand the broader picture of what the Expo is: in many ways a snapshot of the whole world and its ideas at a given point in time. 

The beauty of an Expo is that there are a multitude of ways that this form of engagement can be achieved. You can work for the Expo Organiser, serve as a volunteer or contribute on the team of an international participant, whether on site or in the preparation and conception of the pavilion. You can also take part in the many events and thematic forums, talks and conference that take place in the run up to the Expo and during the Expo itself. Being involved in any of these ways is a truly special opportunity to take part and bear witness to public diplomacy in action, and to be on the stage of face-to-face international exchange and cooperation.


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