Skip links

Romas Jankauskas: Lithuania Invites to Co-create Sustainable Synergies

The first world Expo took place in London in 1851, during the reign of Queen Victoria and was referred to as the Great Exhibition of the works of industry of All nations. it was organised by Prince Albert and members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The prime purpose of the exhibition was to introduce the Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland as the European state in the lead of industry and culture with a long and glorious history. The event went down in history as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. The exhibition took place in a grandiose and, at the same time, particularly elegant cast-iron frame and glass structure, based on the project by Joseph Paxton, located in London’s Hyde Park for nearly half a year, attracting more than 6 million visitors and an impressive amount of money. The construction of the Crystal Palace and the vibe of the first international exhibition was subtly described in a novel Lands of Glass by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco.

This year, as the world Expo celebrates its 170th anniversary, this extraordinary event is hosted by the united Arab Emirates – a very young state on the Arabian Peninsula in south-western Asia, celebrating its 50th anniversary. with a motto of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, it promises to impress the world with latest technology, based on the most ancient Eastern wisdom.

Lithuania is one of the 192 participants of the event, taking a joint effort with the business sector to introduce itself as a modern, growing state with a great scientific potential, intelligent technology, reliable business, favourable investment climate, which appreciates the value of natural resources, traditions, culture, art and integrates this complex heritage into a global aim to connect minds and create a better future for all.

We discussed Lithuania’s experience at the world fairs, the aims and goals of the exposition at this year’s EXPO 2020 with Romas Jankauskas, head of the EXPO department at the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Lithuania and the Commissioner General of the Lithuanian Section at the world EXPO 2020.

Mr Jankauskas, do you have any information, if the first world fair in 1851 was attended by Lithuanians?

Throughout the 19th c. following the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Lithuania was occupied by the Tsarist Russia (a little part of it also belonged to Prussia). The period, when London was preparing for the first international exhibition, was especially grim in Lithuania – it was the period between two suppressed uprisings (1831 and 1863–1864), when the Tsarist authorities ravaged the country, closing its university, applying Russification policies and attempting to erase the name of Lithuania altogether. I do not know if any of the educated or wealthier Lithuanians of the time took part at the first EXPO. And Lithuania taking part at this event as a state back in the day was unimaginable.

When did Lithuania start taking part at the world’s fair?

Lithuania’s first time was at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Although a part of the Tsarist Russia at the time, which had even banned Lithuanian press, the Lithuanian intelligentsia and expatriates in other states (France, Switzerland, the USA) did everything they could to ensure that Lithuania had its own stand at the world’s fair in Paris. And it worked: in the thematic Pavilion of Ethnography, Lithuanians had an opportunity to introduce the national costume and the banned Lithuanian press – newspapers and books, printed in Lithuanian language in Latin alphabet, released abroad. Perhaps this excess also contributed to the lift of the ban on the Lithuanian press by the Tsarist government after some time. Later, after the restoration of its statehood, Lithuania officially and quite successfully took part at the world fairs in Paris (1937) and New York (1939).

Being the Commissioner General of the Lithuanian Section and organising Lithuania’s introduction at the world fairs, you have accumulated an enormous baggage of experience and knowledge. in what countries have you worked and under what conditions?

As you know, in the 20th c., Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940–1990), yet, since the restoration of independence, Lithuania has not missed a single chance to take part at the World EXPO, from Seville in 1992 to Dubai. I have no doubt that Lithuania will remain an active participant of the World EXPO 2025 in Osaka too.

My personal first time was at EXPO’98 in Lisbon, where I was working on a film about Lithuanian nature (I used to work at the Lithuanian national television at the time) and had an opportunity to visit the fair. When I came to work at the Ministry of the Environment in 2002, the Ministry was preparing to introduce Lithuania at the World EXPO 2005 Aichi (themed Nature’s Wisdom). I was appointed as the Commissioner General of the Lithuanian Section. Later I went on to organise Lithuania’s introduction at EXPO events in Spain, China, South Korea, Italy, Kazakhstan and now – the United Arab Emirates. Different continents, economies and cultures. Yet EXPO is the same everywhere and so are the people that we get to know thanks to this event. At first, my visits to the host countries were very frequent, but very short – I went to Japan nineteen times, with the longest stay of two weeks and the shortest stay of two days. The beginning is difficult everywhere, but, eventually, you get to the wistful farewell and lots of wonderful memories.

At the EXPO 2017, hosted by the capital of Kazakhstan, which used to be called Astana (currently known as Nursultan), you were appointed as the Chairperson of the Steering Committee of the College of Commissioners. The contribution of the participants of the fair was acknowledged with a BIE gold medal that you received during the closing event. what were your duties? was this experience different from other fairs?

International EXPO 2017 was dedicated to future energy. It took place in the post-Soviet area – a country in Central Asia, which is dynamically developing, yet less known to the Western world – for the first time. The preparations were smooth and, although the air temperature in winter dropped below -40°C (meanwhile, in Dubai we were introduced to +40°C), the organisers of the event were always full of enthusiasm and there were many unbelievable achievements. Of course, the number of visitors, particularly from abroad, was smaller, but everyone, who missed it, have truly missed something. The Committee that was under my lead during this event, coordinates the actions of the organisers and the participants of the fair, hosting regular meetings to solve various issues ‘here and now’. Sometimes I also acted as a sort of a bridge between the East and the West (the North and South as well). In Dubai, this role has been taken over by my colleague Manuel Salchli, Commissioner General of the Swiss Section and he’s doing a great job.

Could you say a few sentences about each fair, based on what makes it significant, or some other criterion?

The first world fair that I saw with my own eyes – EXPO’98 in Lisbon: although dedicated to the ocean heritage and its effect on the future generations, it had an enormous effect on Lisbon itself. It featured an impressive Vasco da Gama bridge over River Tagus, while the EXPO Site remains an attractive recreational location until now: for example, twenty years later, in 2018, it hosted the Eurovision song contest.

EXPO 2005 Aichi (Japan), themed ‘Nature’s Wisdom’, on the contrary – did everything to produce the least impact on the environment: it took less than a year for the Youth Park, where the event was hosted, to be completely deurbanised, replacing the enormous parking lots with rice fields.

EXPO 2008 Zaragoza (Spain), dedicated to sustainable development and the oceans (Lithuania had installed the House of Rain there), was a refreshing break before the most gigantic EXPO event to that day in Shanghai that followed. In half a year, the territory of five square kilometres was visited by more than 73 million people. Just like the fair in Dubai, it was participated by nearly all states of the world. Back in the day, the Lithuanian pavilion offered a virtual flight with a hot air balloon, attracting 6 million visitors, i.e. twice the number of its residents.

In South Korea (EXPO 2012 Yeosu) we introduced Lithuanian amber treasures and in Milan 2015, of course, food. I’ve already talked about our presentation in Kazakhstan, and you can check out our pavilion in Dubai yourself.

What could be the most distinctive feature, highlighted by Lithuania in these fairs?

Consistency and maturity. The fact alone that Lithuania has not missed a single EXPO event since the restoration of Independence, shows that this state is well-aware of the importance of these fairs, respects other participating countries and organisers, and, of course, itself. The choice of the exhibits and event schedules are usually dictated by a specific theme, city or country, which hosts the fair, but we always try to bring what we have and created best, sharing that with the world. It’s not only technology, history or culture – we realise that we must introduce our country as a whole.

Does our country have a general, long-term participation strategy or is it spontaneous every time?

Leaving out a certain degree of spontaneity seems to be impossible. It’s in the nature of these events. Each time, whenever the location of the future World Fair is selected, the government of that country sends out invitations to all other governments of the world, who (quite often newly-elected) must decide if their country should take part, who should organise it, etc. Differently from the Olympic movement, countries don’t have national EXPO committees or commissions. Without a structure like these, each country has its own ways of coordinating the issues of participating at the world fair. They are usually appointed to the ministries of the economy or foreign affairs, sometimes – institutions, responsible for promoting tourism, investments or business, while in our case – the Ministry of the Environment. In recent years, the matters of our state’s image strategy have been taken over by the Brand Lithuania Unit under the Office of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania. It has recently commissioned a strategy of introducing our state abroad, which has also helped to prepare for the participation in Dubai Expo.

Are the Lithuanian government and the society sufficiently aware of the purpose and meaning of participating at the world fair? does this show on the finances, allocated for the preparation of the pavilion and the public space? does this enable to include highest-level products, culture and art professionals into the programme, offered by the Lithuanian section throughout the half a year?

The fact that we’re here suggests all answers are positive. Our presence here is adequate to the size and capabilities of our country. Of course, the issue if we should take part or not and, if so, how, takes time to consider, which involves certain discussions, calculations and sometimes even doubts. Talking of the governmental decisions regarding participation at these events, a spoke in the wheel is that the frequency of the fairs and the change of governments is nearly the same: very often the responsibility and outcome of participating at the fair are carried by completely different Governments. Talking of business, it is not always easy to communicate why the World Expo, differently from some commercial fair, takes more than a few days, why the audience is so diverse and gathering a target group requires so much additional effort. To my knowledge, quite a few of the other states sometimes ponder that the EXPO format is outdated and that everything can be achieved in the virtual space under market conditions and with a full pay-off. Thankfully, live communication at events, which combine technology, science, culture and civic diplomacy, also has its own indisputable advantages, so EXPO events will continue to take place in the future.

What areas of business, science, culture and art is Lithuania introducing at EXPO 2020?

When we began our preparations, we thought that we should demonstrate our authentic, modern and open character as a country. Our authenticity lies with us being close to nature, natural, respective of our traditions, history and culture. Modernity, of course, refers to our achievements with lasers, life sciences and FinTech, our fast-growing startup ecosystem, the application of the latest technology in the food chain, etc. While being open means that we’re open to innovation, the world, nations and people. The architects that have designed Lithuanian pavilion got hooked on this idea and chose window shutters as the main symbol of the building. Although, once, people created shutters to protect themselves from scorching sun and strangers, here they are always open and demonstrate our openness. That’s about our main symbol. The structure was built using natural materials (wood) and modern technological solutions (modern solar panels). The same idea goes for the indoor exhibition, applying sustainable synergies whenever possible. When the majority of the design and implementation works was completed, Lithuania approved its image strategy, focusing on Co-creation. Thus, we’re introducing ourselves to the world as ready to create these sustainable synergies together with the entire world.

What team is working with you throughout the entire event in Dubai?

Our team is small but, I hope, very efficient. Besides me, the administration of the pavilion consists of two more people– the Pavilion Director Mantas Svečiulis and the Event Manager Austėja Brasiūnaitė. We’ve also hired twelve guides from Lithuania to work with the visitors. These young, multilingual people that love their country welcome the visitors to our pavilion every day, navigating them within its territory and answering questions – quite like myself now, except that they can provide even more details, because, before coming from Lithuania, they did a lot of homework, visiting modern companies, scientific institutions and meeting various prominent people. The pavilion also has a small restaurant and souvenir shop team, who guide our visitors through Lithuanian flavours and products. We are also assisted by several hired locals.

Having spent a significant part of your life in such an intensive international position, what personal experience do you value most? what are your expectations for this event?

Sometimes experience helps and sometimes – on the contrary. What I value most is the opportunity to work and create with the people from my own country, the host country and other participating countries, because this experience is invaluable. I hope that this fair will help get to know the EXPO from the inside even better and then I’d love (and should) share this knowledge with the others. We really need that. We know a lot about EXPO, yet, unfortunately, it’s still far from enough.

Thank you for the conversation.
Interviewed by Zita Tallat-Kelpšaitė

Article from magazine JURA