The End of the World’s Fair

Or, why don’t we gather as a globe anymore?

Hero image
Illustration by Maxwell Churchill
Hero image
Illustration by Maxwell Churchill

Perhaps most strikingly, the 1962 World’s Fair brought this city its singular icon, the Space Needle. I have the privilege in my role as the Head of Strategy at Hornall Anderson to work with the Space Needle as a client, as dramatic next-generation renovations are now underway, so my point of view is perhaps semi-skewed. However, the magic of the Space Needle has always been its feminine structure, an architectural marvel equal parts spaceship, hourglass, and spire reaching through the clouds to the unknown. Despite all the recent and ongoing construction and massive changes in Seattle’s contemporary architectural landscape, which includes Amazon’s Spheres, the Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, and even the Frank Gehry MoPOP, it is the Space Needle which remains the defining image of this city.

Lest the reader think this is a tribute to a pioneering landmark, ever since a conversation years ago with a brilliant friend, I have become fascinated by the event that spurred the building of the Space Needle. World’s Fairs were elaborate gatherings of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, all seeking a glimpse of the future. They were equal parts inspiration and innovation; science fair meets science fiction. I have lately wondered, “Why don’t we have World’s Fairs anymore?”

The short answer is that we do. They now go by the name “Expos” (short for Expositions) and take place every 2 to 3 years. But they are rarely publicized, and their discoveries and innovations are of a smaller scale than the legendary moments of World’s Fairs past. Gone from the recent public record are astonishments like the telephone, the monorail, the zeppelin, and mainframe computers. The innovations that have been touted in the Expos since 2000 are hardly seismic. The achievements and innovations that make up the legacy of Shanghai (the largest Expo of the past 50 years) are largely techniques and best practices for more sustainable urban living, and a summary document published by the Bureau International des Expositions(BIE, the governing body in charge of World’s Fairs) known as the Shanghai Declaration, a list (more or less) of the aforementioned practices and beliefs.

There is a fine line of distinction to be made here between important outcomes and significant outcomes. It would be hard to argue that the Shanghai Declaration isn’t important — it is, very much so. Learning how to improve urban living is critical to our survival. But a pdf as the great legacy of a global event is missing weight, and impact; the staples of significance. When people saw the telephone in 1876, nothing like it had been conceived of before. The same could be said of the gas-powered automobile, controlled flight, atomic energy, and heck, even the ice cream cone.

The World’s Fair has undergone some evolution. In their early years, 1851 through 1938, they were about technological invention and advancement. This was the World’s Fair’s era of Industrialization, showcasing diesel engines, outdoor electric lighting, elevators, escalators, and talking films. The next iteration of the World’s Fair came in the mid-20th century, a move from Industrialization to Cultural themes. This is best represented by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and its premise of “Building the World of Tomorrow,” or the return to New York in 1964, and that year’s theme, “Peace Through Understanding.” These were cultural fairs, looking at massive systemic changes rather than primarily focusing on technological innovation.

Perhaps that’s revisionist history. Perhaps the world will look back and attribute greater significance to a panel discussion from Yesou 2012, or a model made of bubble-sand from Zaragosa in 2008. And I say that genuinely. Time and perspective have a funny way of creating importance. They also have a way of erasing moments of the trivial. We shall see.

The longer answer is that, even though the world continues to have Expositions, they barely register as the massive global events they are, and they simply don’t leave a dent on culture the way they ought to. And this is the fascinating part to me — the world is missing out on the opportunity to solve massive challenges, to wonder together about what might be, to gather with hope and just the right touch of naiveté in the spirit of ‘what if,’ and, to inspire transformative change from its most creative and visionary citizens.

So why? Why are we no longer interested or capable of creating the kind of spectacle that the turn of the 20th century saw?

I offer up that the reasons can be broken down into a series of societal shifts. And while the themes below help explain the ebb of World’s Fairs, they feel important enough that businesses should take heed of the lessons, to prevent extinction through inconsequentiality.

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Advertisement for Inspo Network featuring a group of laughing young women
Inspo Network

One of the more obvious shifts is the advent of the internet, cell phones, and social media. As we all carry phones in our pockets, each with a top-of-the-line camera and the means to send images, thoughts, videos, and sketches around the world in the flick of a thumb, we’ve all become content creators and broadcasters. And the on-demand culture we live in means we can check the news, or our feeds, or what’s “trending” at any moment and then again a moment later.

2. Zeitgeist Creator to Zeitgeist Victim

New York World's Fair poster dated 1939
New York World's Fair poster dated 1939

3. Pursuit of the Invisible

So what happened? Well, the next shift moved away from universal themes, and became an exercise in promoting the host nation. A study of Expo 2000 revealed that 73% of nations involved cited “improving national image” as their chief reason for participating. There was also a thematic shift at play away from broader cultural themes and into environmental ones (e.g. Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy on “Feeding the planet, energy for life” and Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan looking at “Future Energy”). This makes sense given the context of the world’s problems, but probably played a role in diminishing interest, as unfortunately, there is dwindling universal enthusiasm, or perhaps even animosity from some factions of the United States, in working collaboratively to address these issues and ideas.

This means there is no need for a giant gathering to tell us what’s coming next. We just need to find the right network or influencer to follow, and we’ll get what we need. It would be interesting to see a change from the BIE that took into account citizen broadcasting and harnessed that power in some constructive way. Or a renaissance of the original spirit back to “Building a world of tomorrow” that wasn’t streamed or live-tweeted, but could only be experienced firsthand. There has to be a better way. But for now, there’s simply no urgent need to participate.

In 1962, Seattle hosted the World’s Fair. It was a tribute to Century 21; a moment in time capturing the global obsession with the space race. Its themes were of the big, bright, optimistic ilk — Future Vision, Modern Science, and Space Exploration. It brought a reputation to Seattle as the city of tomorrow, an aerospace force, a technology mecca; a reputation that still holds almost 60 years later.

Related to the rise of ubiquitous technologies is a societal shift away from the valuing of physical objects to the valuing of intangible things — processes, applications, services, ideas. Contemporary society has swung its great pendulum away from the mentality of “what can we do” as a collective, to “what can I do” on my computer/device.

Patent diagrams for the original design of the telephone
Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first US patent for the telephone in 1876
Patent diagrams for the original design of the telephone
Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first US patent for the telephone in 1876

1. Fading Ambition

Image featuring an array of Amazon Alexa-enabled devices for home
Image featuring an array of Amazon Alexa-enabled devices for home

4. The Neverending Event Circuit

This works on two levels. Firstly, there’s the fact that we no longer need, seek, or build large-scale exhibits or innovations (with some exceptions of course). There is no place for them, nor are they critical to future development the way they were in the Industrial era (somewhere Daniel Burnham is rolling in his grave). Secondly, the movement from public to personal takes away a key element of World’s Fairs, chiefly, the dependence on a mass gathering to get things done. Our focus is on small, even invisible signs of progress, and we tend to admire and celebrate those who display tremendous individual discipline and achievement.

That said, all evidential reporting on the next two generations suggests that the pendulum may be shifting back to empowering mass movements and action. And certainly, within the past few years, the world has seen a lot more collaboration, gathering, and public displays of common cause than it has in the preceding two decades.

We have TED now. And CES. And Microsoft Ignite. For a while there was SXSW, before it became a boondoggle to corporate-sponsorville. And the list of corporate events, conventions, and conferences goes on and on. The world has learned to gather annually, in likeminded groups, eliminating the need for a large-scale, come-one-come-all model to exist. There is no longer any incentive for people to pack their kids in the car and drive hundreds of miles for an in-person viewing.

We can now participate in weekly or monthly local events and gatherings. And they’re not bad. There’s content and conversation to be had at all of them. I am as likely to find fascination at my local meet-up as I am at 10 times the cost at an Eastern European Expo. I can watch all the TED Talks I want in the comfort of my cubicle or I can pay upwards of $10,000 for the chance to gather with other upper/middle managers to attend breakout sessions built around well-crafted jargon. While the world has gotten better connected, the opportunities for localized and smaller, more intentional gatherings have become normalized.

But please allow me to climb down from my high horse for a minute to ponder where that leaves us.

The world has shifted in multiple ways — societal, cultural, technological, and modular. My fascination with World’s Fairs will probably not die down. In their heyday, they represented a series of tremendous moments of imagination, possibility, progress, and wonder. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the blueprint is out there to design them back into relevance for tomorrow’s audiences. We just need to inspire those willing to try something new to change our world again.

Family gathered for vacation photo
Family gathered for vacation photo
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