I attended the Milan Expo last Monday, visiting three pavilions (Japan, Italy and the U.S.). The Expo is expected to draw 20 million visitors in the course of the coming six months, nearly half of them from China. It is the fulfillment of the dream of former mayor Letizia Moratti who wanted to reinforce the role of Milan as one of the preeminent commercial centers in Europe.
The theme of the Expo is food and sustainability. That vision is expressed in the central visual of the fairgrounds, a gigantic tower made of steel and wood that spirals to the sky, adjacent to the Italian pavilion. Given the imminent launch of the new sustainable development goals for the UN in September, there is no better time to explore this topic.
I began in the Japan exhibition, which is frankly the most impressive of the three I visited. You walk into a dramatic, multi-media presentation of Japan’s landscape, from the wooded mountains to the sea. You have calligraphy and images of farmers from ancient days floating on the screen. The sensibility is that of being an astronaut in space. The next room imitates a rice paddy, with white pieces of nylon stuck onto metal. As you progress through the room, images are projected from the ceiling onto the nylon, as if you are in the midst of a farm. All of this feels in slow motion, languid and gentle. The final part of the exhibit was the Japanese restaurant of the future. Frankly, I found this part of the exhibit bizarre, with an Italian male and Japanese female singing and dancing around the room as you pretend to order food from the 22nd century.
The U.S. exhibit was slightly disappointing. Funded by the private sector as mandated by legislation, I found it to be a bit ineffective. You are greeted by a video featuring President Barack Obama, who is not a credible spokesperson for Food 2.0. There is a game where you are to try to get all parts of the food invention chain to work together, from universities to companies to retailers. I found the game ineffectual. There was a food bar that offered t-shirts, not food. Then there was a seven-part video showing off the food from each region of the U.S. It begins with the Southeast, showing a slab of ribs being thrown onto the griddle, spitting fat and generally turning off people.
The Italian exhibit was a thoughtful presentation of environment, heritage and food quality. It begins with a depressing review of degradation of natural resources (the problem). You then walk in to a room with Italy’s gorgeous mountains, rivers and sea. The next room is a visual treat with mirrors, depicting the architectural legacy of the country. Then finally you get to the subject, food, from pasta to processed meat. There is a lovely restaurant on the top floor, which was the only place to get food in the exhibit building. In fact, the Italian presence at the Expo is dispersed into exhibits from its regions and leading companies (Lavazza, Martini, plus the Parma region).
The Expo is a very worthwhile undertaking. My bias for more private sector participation in the work is reinforced by the experience. The American exhibit would have benefited from the active participation of the brands, instead of just writing a check to the Government. Similarly, the Italian exhibit would have been much more effective with presence of brands. Imagine Barilla pasta being cooked in front of you, with smoked meat samples passed out as you wait. Oh well, a man can dream.
This article originally appeared on 6A.M., Richard Edelman’s blog on trends in communications, issues, lessons and insights.