This is the first of a two-part series dedicated to answering the question “Do we need a new World’s Fair?” It is an honest question that I do not have an answer to. What I aim to do here is share my thoughts on the subject and present historical data on what these sorts of events have done in the past. In the first part, I explore what previous World Fairs have accomplished and what we must certainly avoid. The second part will investigate what a new 21st century fair might look like, and how it would help our economy. Part 1 is here.
Yesterday we looked at the last few World Fairs that were held in the United States. Those 20th century fairs demonstrated technologies that today we take for granted as common-place. Everything from Juicy Fruit gum to fluorescent lighting has been introduced to the world through these massive fairs. World Expos still take place, but are now found in China, Japan and South Korea. The 2012 expo will be held in Seoul, South Korea. The latest World’s Fair, Expo 2010, was held in Shanghai, China and set historic records as the largest and most well-attended expo. But the success of the Shanghai Expo doesn’t quite translate to America’s shores. As The Atlantic’s Adam Minter wrote last year:
To American ears, the concept of a World’s Fair sounds archaic, and when applied to Shanghai, a contemporary symbol of all that is new, vibrant, and even threatening, it’s disconcerting. But in Shanghai, where the future is an obsession, this reported $46 billion hat-tip to the past makes perfect sense: just as New York once announced its global pre-eminence via World’s Fairs in 1939 and, again, in 1964, the organizers of Expo 2010 view the six month event as nothing less than Shanghai’s coronation as the next great world city.
Iron Man 2 opened with the Stark Expo. It might be the only exposure younger Americans have had to the concept of an expo or World Fair. It is strange when you think about the press and excitement surrounding Apple keynotes, E3 conferences, SXSW, and Science Fiction conventions that a World Fair has not already been proposed. It might have something to do with the Gingrich congress making it extremely difficult to participate in expos overseas. By not participating at a global level, it has been extremely difficult to keep Expos in Americans’ minds. But it is also has to do with how we think about technological innovation. Apple is well-known for its secrecy, and Google seems to be picking up similar habits. Displaying what the world may look like in 30 years, means showing your hand to your competitors.
More popularly, among consumers, there is a sense that technological innovation follows linear tracks that are defined by market selection of “the best” technology and access to the hardware and software necessary for making goods and providing services. In reality, technological innovation is a social process that is constantly shifting based on wholly socio-cultural and political influences. Technology is socially constructed, and the process of innovation can be steered if the proper amount of directive force is applied. It is as simple as goal setting. If there is a goal that most of us find useful, or even exciting, we can achieve it in a collaborative way.
Typically, these sorts of grand schemes get increasingly boring when you get to particulars. But I find the particulars even more exciting. Future World Fairs may be held in Houston or San Francisco, but I’m in Atlanta right now (attending a conference) so I have Georgia on My Mind (sorry). Let’s say the new American World Fair is held in Atlanta, Georgia in 2014. Billions of public and private dollars are brought to a region that recently hit a new low in job rates. Because these are such big ventures, building and preparation takes years and can employ thousands of people. When the Olympics are held in a city, the city is often left with enormous athletic facilities that need to be reengineered into different buildings. But with a world fair, the infrastructure is much more useful. You leave office parks, labs, and other facilites that are useful for the very industries that the fair helps incubate. Building a regional high-speed rail line to funnel visitors from other major population centers would have the added benefit of leaving a much needed infrastructure improvement for the region.
Like I said yesterday, a 21st century world fair would offer the opportunity for a break-out small business to be globally recognized almost overnight. GM was able to control the vision of the future, because no one else had access to the media outlets that drove visitors. Having an Augmented Exposition means the crowd decides what the future looks like. If a twitter backchannel can help organize entire revolutions it can unseat the visions of big corporations in favor of the little guy. If you read tech blogs as regularly as I do, you will notice a reoccurring theme in tech conference coverage. There is always a story about the unexpected breakout success. Twitter itself was a break-out success at the 2007 SXSW festival Since then, Quora and Foursquare have followed similar trajectories. If the 21st century American world fair is structured to foster small business discovery, we could see an increase in economic activity many fold above the initial investment cost of the fair. This is a big if. Corporations have the power and capital to preemptively keep small business out of the process. It is important that the expo organizational committee come from the public sector, not the major corporations. The planning needs to be an open process with citizen’s oversight committees at all levels. The Augmented Exposition could be the way forward, if we are ready to do the hard work of building our own future.