The USA Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal was a Buckminster Fuller-designed enormous geodesic bubble still standing in skeleton form. The “Air Up” inflatable USA Pavilion at Expo ‘70 Osaka was another technological innovation, then the largest ever built and covering 100,000 sf without obstructions.

    And those are just the pavilions. Virtually every marker of modern life – Bell’s telephone, Otis’s elevator, RCA’s television, Edison’s electrical outlet, ATT’s video conferencing, the x-ray machine, touch screens, the Ford Mustang and Cherry Coke – all debuted at an American pavilion at a World’s Fair. Expo’s have traditionally been opportunities for America to celebrate its technology, culture and innovation in a global context.

    The periodic hosting of Expo’s by US cities was once assured, starting in New York in 1853 and later including the legendary Chicago Exposition of 1893 as well as the later New York World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964. Between 1962 and 1984 there were six Expo’s held in the USA. Since then, none.

    Subsequent Expo’s evolved into highly branded affairs in which participants sought a revivified international identity as nations (or corporate nation-states) and did so with increasingly bombastic pavilions. Today America’s participation in any Expo is at the mercy of corporate donations, relegating the US Pavilion--along with our national identity--to the vagaries of the commercial marketplace; only private funds can be used and this outsourcing of the US Identity has had uneven results.

    This works for the Olympics and the World Cup (the only international events larger than Expo) both driven by billion dollar broadcast fees and the commensurate advertising.
    But an Expo is an act of global diplomacy. Since a 1999 Act of Congress, America has been funding participation exclusively with private donations. The results have not necessarily reflected the national pride of earlier pavilions.

    Imagining the presidential candidates take on this conundrum is an interesting exercise: positions might range from “100% Federal Funding” to “100% Private Funding” to “Let the host country pay for our wall Pavilion”.

    Expo’s now cost the host country billions of dollars (the last one was $2.5B), remain open for 6 months and are largely demolished afterward, constituting a massive waste of material and human resources. But building a small, temporary city doesn’t have to be a waste. The Bureau International des Expositions could easily require an afterlife for the Expo, so that every single Expo building would be upcycled to useful construction.

    Inevitably, objections are raised by those who feel a virtual Expo would be more efficient than a built one. But the provident accident of a US delegation running into an Iranian delegation, chatting with the Russian delegation, while on the way to the Vietnam Pavilion for lunch can only happen at a real, built Expo. These chance encounters are what every visitor experiences in the genuinely international assemblage of Expo, and the USA Pavilion usually receives record numbers of international visitors. And as an act of soft diplomacy they are unequalled.

    This has all become quite personal for us: we designed the latest USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015. It was by far the most visited pavilion at the Expo, welcoming more than 6 million visitors, double the estimate. Called the “best public diplomacy in the past 5 years” by Ambassador David Thorne, advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2015 pavilion represented American identity, ingenuity, openness and, inevitably, corporate power.

    Critically acclaimed, architecturally praised, programmatically envied, it was visited by First Lady Michele Obama, Secretary Kerry, Minority Leader Pelosi, Secy. of Agriculture Vilsack, Head of NASA Maj. Gen. Bolden and a nearly endless parade of celebrities, personalities and local and international political and diplomatic luminaries.
    The pavilion was an outstanding success in all ways but one: funding.

    The very late US decision to participate combined with meager marketing and a long delay in the appointment of a Commissioner General has left a debt of $26M out of the $60M needed to design, build, operate, program and staff the pavilion.

    Now, post-Expo, dozens of small private businesses are forced to foot the bill for America’s Pavilion. Assured by the pavilion’s Commissioner General that they would not be left paying for the pavilion, in the end they are. It has resulted in lost jobs and may bankrupt some small firms.

    Public diplomacy’s unintended consequences should not include the destruction of small businesses doing the heavy lifting. A year after the Milan Expo opened, and 6 months after it closed, it is time to remunerate the ‘coalition of the unwilling’ now footing the bill for the USA Pavilion.

    Fixing the future and repairing the past means changing the financial model to full (or matching) federal funding to insure that the USA Pavilion can truly represent the America to which we aspire. It means the federal government paying the current debt so that the small businesses who did the successful work on the pavilion are not punished for stepping up and doing a great job. And it means participating in future Expos as a nation, rather than as an ad hoc conglomerate of corporate sponsors. Finally, the BIE must revise the required demolition of Expo’s and create a sustainable model.

    The cost is small but the impact can be enormous.
    When a single new fighter jet can cost more than $1B, promoting a more positive US identity for a tiny fraction of that cost seems a very wise use of Federal funds and influence.

    If the US is ever to participate in a world Expo again we must fix the system now.