Project Management Institute

Fairground for the world

working with 140 countries, a project team recognized the limits of its power in order to execute Expo 2015




Tree of Life installation at Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy



For the program and project teams behind Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, a global financial crisis turned up the pressure from the very beginning. With the country's economy thrown into a recession near the start of the seven-year program, which was funded by a €1.3 billion investment by Italy's national government, sponsor oversight of the budget was strict. Project managers were constantly engaged in cost-control reviews with the national government and Paris-based Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE), which governs all Expos.

With 140 participating countries, including 52 that agreed to build elaborate pavilions on the event's 110-hectare (272-acre) site, project managers walked a budget and stakeholder tightrope from start to finish.

“In my experience, the only way you can manage a project with this many steps is to collaborate as much and as often as possible,” says Stefano Acbano, PMP, self-built pavilions and BIE liaison manager, Expo 2015, Milan, Italy. “Strong collaboration with so many stakeholders involved facilitates a mutual understanding and strong communication.”


62 Visiting heads of state


140 Participating countries


184 Days the event lasted


28,000 Journalists


36,000 Volunteers during the event


21.5 million Visitors


€1.3 billion Italy's total investment in site infrastructure


Staying within budget required nonstop monitoring, occasional adjustments and taking the long view from the very start. The initial budget was created as an impassable threshold, Mr. Acbano says, but some restrictions weren't set in stone—in part because the scope and duration of the project presented too many unknowns that led to inevitable adjustments.

With 140 participating countries, project managers walked a budget and stakeholder tightrope from start to finish.

“To improve our estimates, we adopted a rolling wave planning methodology because it allowed us to further detail those aspects of the project that couldn't be defined years in advance,” he says. “Reviews of all the elements of the project were made at least once a year, and in a limited number of cases, this helped us identify cuts.”



2006 Italian government proposes to Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE) that Milan, Italy host Expo 2015

2008 BIE selects Milan

2009 Project team presents design concept to public

2010 BIE approves Expo 2015 plan

January 2011 Expo 2015 sends invitations to all United Nations member countries asking them to participate in the Expo

October 2011 Switzerland signs the first pavilion contract

2013 Expo 2015 starts assigning pavilion lots to countries so construction can begin

1 May 2015 Opening day of Expo 2015

31 October 2015 Closing day of Expo 2015

The program also included a dedicated team of budget controllers for each division. The controllers performed long-term budget reviews, sometimes as often as three times a year, which allowed the team to adopt budget changes quickly and with confidence, he says. During the first two years, short-term reviews happened every four months, he says.

“Reviewing the budget constantly provided us with a very detailed knowledge of the costs and all the activities taking place,” he says. “We were able to see the final objective and, at the same time, focus on the immediate detail.”

As a result of its vigilant monitoring, the team wasn't rattled by budget crises. For instance, in November 2011, three years after Milan secured the winning bid, the Expo 2015 board of directors sliced €300 million from the initial budget, which led to cuts in expensive infrastructure works, most of them slated for outside the exhibition site, Mr. Acbano says. “The cut was made to concentrate the resources on what was essential to the project and did not affect the essence of the event,” he says.

While keeping a close watch on the budget, the Expo team was also on guard for potential corruption relative to high-profile contract bidding and execution. The Italian government made sure the team was focused on bid accountability. For instance, a judge from Italy's Court of Accounts attended each of the Expo's board meetings to ensure the €1.3 billion in funding from the Italian government was properly spent. The team also worked with Italy's anti-corruption authority to develop a mechanism that reviewed important bids before they were issued to Expo 2015.

Thailand pavilion


“Transparency helped prevent corruption,” Mr. Acbano says. “The anti-corruption team and the review mechanism control was inestimable in preventing further risks that could impact time and cost.”


The signature attraction—and greatest project puzzle—was a village of pavilions and a surrounding cluster of smaller cultural exhibits (see “Global Attractions,” page 51). Although each country was responsible for planning and building its own pavilion, Expo 2015 project managers had to ensure each facility followed national laws and met Expo 2015 regulations after BIE approved each country's designs.

For instance, pavilions and exhibits had to follow size limits, and designs had to adequately represent the event's theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” However, there were very few other requirements, because Expo 2015 wanted to allow each country to showcase its individuality.

“We were very careful in supplying countries with only a limited number of rules in order to allow for the maximum degree of freedom in their interpretation of the theme,” says Matteo Gatto, visitor experience and exhibition design director, Expo 2015, Milan, Italy.

The team ensured effective communication from start to finish by assigning each country that participated to an officer who served as a liaison between the country and the project office. All primary officers met almost daily to exchange status updates on design, construction and even needs during the actual event, Mr. Acbano says.

“Our continuous discussion allowed us to see any potential scheduling conflicts or technical problems,” he says.

United States pavilion


Italy pavilion


“We were very careful in supplying countries with only a limited number of rules in order to allow for the maximum degree of freedom in their interpretation of the theme.”

—Matteo Gatto, Expo 2015, Milan, Italy



When pavilion construction began in December 2013, things got more intense for the project team. Per the agreement, Mr. Acbano's team had no control over when each country's work would start. That created the risk that some pavilions wouldn't be ready when Expo 2015 opened on 1 May 2015.

“We had no power over these countries to meet certain deadlines,” Mr. Acbano says. “Once we got the contract and the lot ready, it was up to them to have their part ready in time. We could continuously monitor the advancement with the staff of each country and support them in case of need. But if a country needed more time because of technical or political problems, we couldn't control that.”





Name: Stefano Acbano, PMP, self-built pavilions and BIE liaison manager, Expo 2015

Location: Milan, Italy

Experience: 14 years

Other notable projects:

1. Auditorium Parco della Musica, a public music complex in Rome, Italy that opened in 2002. Mr. Acbano was a project manager for the opening ceremony.

2. The European Constitution treaty signing ceremony, held in 2004. Mr. Acbano was a project team member who ensured accreditation of all official delegations.

Career lesson learned:

“Where professionals with different backgrounds have to perform from scratch, careful and structured communication is a paramount success factor.”

Mr. Acbano's team strove to stay on top of progress by establishing a green-yellow-red status report system for each pavilion. For instance, when one country fell critically behind its construction schedule, its status was changed to red. To change the status to yellow, and eventually green, Mr. Acbano's team tried to support the country however it could until experts in the field could determine that the pavilion project was back on track.

“We were very understanding if something beyond the country's control came up that stalled their work,” he says. “If it was technical, or they needed space to install a crane in a common area, for instance, we'd try to help.”

Despite the team's best stakeholder management efforts, four of the 52 pavilions—the largest number of self-built national pavilions in the Expo's history—were not completed by opening day. But Mr. Acbano's team had a plan for that, too. For instance, it allowed Italy's pavilion project team to spend €1 million to build camouflage panels to conceal work until it was finished two weeks after the Expo opened. “Every Expo opens with some portion of the pavilions not finished,” he says. “So crews worked overnight to get things ready as quickly as possible.”


To ensure a positive experience for the 21.5 million visitors during the Expo's 184 days, the Expo 2015 team collaborated with the city of Milan. The Expo 2015 team helped Milan identify all areas of the city that would be impacted by the event so improvements could be made in advance.

Milan helped fund new infrastructure projects and upgraded ancillary services to prepare for the crush of tourists. For instance, the city built new hotels, ensured that trains ran more frequently to and from the Expo and added new signage to direct Expo visitors using public transportation. These improvements resulted from meetings in which project managers provided the city with detailed estimates about attendance, such as when to expect peak crowds, Mr. Acbano says.

“We met challenges so diverse and compelling—even during the event itself—that only after everything finally ended successfully did I start to feel the satisfaction.”

—Stefano Acbano, PMP, Expo 2015, Milan, Italy

Similarly, the Expo 2015 project team juggled requirements to make the event user-friendly for visitors from various countries. For example, it had to provide signs and translators who spoke French and English so visitors could easily navigate the Expo grounds. Milan also helped its taxi drivers communicate in other languages, including BIE's official languages, English and French. Some city signage also added translations.

Ultimately, Expo 2015 cemented Milan and Italy as a whole as a festive and engaging destination for international tourism—thanks to careful and constant management of problems both big and small, Mr. Acbano says.

“Years flew in a flash. During the different phases of the event, we met challenges so diverse and compelling—even during the event itself—that only after everything finally ended successfully did I start to feel the satisfaction.” PM


Global Attractions

Expo 2015 featured 52 pavilions, each built by a different country and inspired by the event's theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Here's what made three of those projects unique.



The finishing touch for the €50 million, 4,600-square-meter (49,514-square-foot) Land of Hope pavilion was a wavy roof—designed to mimic the contour of a mountain range—clad with 1,052 bamboo panels. The country's pavilion project team had to select a membrane underneath the bamboo that was both waterproof and transparent. It tested different materials, including glass and plastics, before determining that clear polyvinyl chloride (PVC) best met its requirements. Built on the second-largest Expo lot, the project took seven months to complete.




The €50 million Fields of Ideas pavilion was the largest by a foreign country and delivered a first-of-its-kind architecture project—the use of printed solar panels. Thin and flexible organic photovoltaic (OPV) plates were applied to so-called solar tree shelters. The shelters provided shade for visitors, and their OPV plates captured enough energy to power the entire facility.



With an eye on environmental impact, the €12 million Breathe pavilion was as much a landscaping project as a construction one. The project team created a lush 560-square-meter (6,028-square-foot) forest of bushes and trees—some of which towered 12 meters (39.4 feet) high. The vegetation generated oxygen for up to 1,800 people and cooled the surrounding air enough to eliminate the need for air conditioning inside the open-air pavilion.

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