A Proposal for a New World’s Fair in America

Hosting a new World’s Fair in America may be just what the doctor ordered

Picture from the 1964 New York World’s Fair (Wikipedia)

Why a World’s Fair?

The last World’s Fair hosted on US soil was the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. A reasonable question may be asked then why after almost 35 years would we want to host another one? Isn’t the World’s Fair a relic of the past? Isn’t a World’s Fair a financial disaster? Afterall, the 1984 fair was the only World’s Fair to file for bankruptcy while it was still operating. Not to mention previous American World’s Fairs that had similar financial woes like the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair. So why a World’s Fair? The answer to that question is optimism for the future.

America and the world are currently in an odd moment. For one of the few times in our history, we have a mixed outlook on the future. Ever since the Great Recession of 2008–2009, there’s been a feeling of trepidation and pessimism towards the future. With rising challenges like climate change and technological disruption, people are beginning to feel a sense of panic we haven’t felt in a long time. With partisan politics driving us apart, we feel helpless in creating solutions.

The problem extends beyond our borders as well. No longer do the other countries of the world look to the United States to take leadership and guidance on international issues. The rise of China as a world power has been a great benefit to its people and the world at large but has made many Americans feel uncomfortable. We’re the ones used to having the rest of the world look in amazement at our growth, ingenuity, and progress. Now we share the spotlight and, as time goes on, it’s increasingly moving away from us.

There’s also a rise in isolationism throughout the world. Nations are beginning to turn inward and put up barriers rather than look to others for help. This is not a trend we should be encouraged by. The great economic success the world has seen in the past two centuries came from breaking down barriers and trading with each other on a global scale. By turning inward, the world may be risking reversing this success. It’s also a trend that goes against the values of America and what has made us so successful in our history.

A U.S. World’s Fair presents an opportunity to put America back in front and championing our values. It’s an opportunity to showcase both a current and future world that is not only better for Americans but also for the rest of the world. A World’s Fair gives us the opportunity to once again be the country that defeated evil at its height, helped tear down that wall, and put a man on the moon. America is the land of optimism. A World’s Fair gives us a chance to display it again to the world. It gives us an opportunity to lead the world to a better future, one we can all be excited about.

Return to Moonshot Mentality

It’s hard to argue that there wasn’t a more exciting time to be an American then when we put a man on the moon. When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in Houston, Texas, there were probably few people who thought we could actually meet the ambitious goals he laid out that day. But one thing that was undeniable was the excitement and inspiration that speech had on the American people. It allowed us to believe we were capable of achieving ambitious goals, that the future was going to be inspiring.

We need to return to that mentality, the Moonshot Mentality. A World’s Fair gives us an opportunity to so. The optimism for the future in the 1960s was shown by hosting three World’s Fairs, the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, and the 1968 San Antonio World’s Fair. These fairs inspired generations of Americans to think big. It’s time for us to inspire again.

America as Center of Innovation and the Future

In 2018, if you ask someone outside the United States what America represents to them, what kind of answers will you hear? There are the answers we want to hear and then there are the answers we might actually hear. Within the answers we hear, what are the chances the person says America represents the future? If it’s not 100% then we’re doing something wrong.

America still holds the title as the land of innovation but it is quickly fading. There’s new and better competition than ever before for the title. If we continue on our current path, we risk losing it. A World’s Fair presents an opportunity to solidify America with the future. It’s our chance to show the world what we think the future should be like. It’s a chance to champion our core values and beliefs. It’s a chance to ensure we are the center of innovation and the future.

Establish a New Hub of Innovation

One of the consequences of change is the disruption it causes. This has been felt strongly in many parts of the country, especially in places that relied on industries for their residents’ livelihoods that have all but disappeared over the years. Cities that heavily relied on old economy industries such as coal, steel, and automotive, are still trying to figure out how they can reinvent themselves to save their people.

Silicon Valley is often the sought after model for many cities of the world. And for very good reason. The San Francisco Bay Area has brought massive amounts of wealth to its people by being the center of innovation for the world. But as much as other cities want to be Silicon Valley, there’s only ever going to be one Silicon Valley. Copying the same model just ensures this will continue to be true.

But what if you could establish a new hub of innovation? One that perhaps took a lot of the values that make Silicon Valley great but instead focused on another industry different than software.

That’s what the cities that have been struggling to reinvent themselves need to do. And being the host of a new World’s Fair gives them a great platform to do it. An American hosted World’s Fair presents an opportunity to reinvent one of the cities that have been most affected by change and disruption. It gives one of those cities a chance to be similar to Silicon Valley in that it can establish itself as a place where the future is being built today.

Evidence from Amazon HQ2

Further evidence that many cities desire to become hubs for technology and innovation come from Amazon’s quest to build its second headquarters¹. Last year, Amazon launched a Request for Proposals to cities desiring to be the location of their second headquarters. More than 200 cities in North America submitted proposals.

Part of the desire to host Amazon’s second headquarters comes from being host to a company that is said to employ over 50,000 people at its new location. In addition, Amazon claims that over $38 billion was invested in the city of Seattle as a direct result of the company’s presence². Who wouldn’t want to host that?

Imagine if you could attract not just one Amazon to locate to your city but many Amazons? That’s what being the host of this World’s Fair offers. It offers an opportunity to an American city to not only to be seen as an innovation hub but as a result of being the host of a World’s Fair, it would reap the benefits of large amounts of capital and infrastructure investments as well.

Boost to the Local Economy

World’s Fairs a offer a unique chance for a city to bring in lots of new investments, which can help bring a boost to the local economy. These investments include capital investments, from admissions, concessions, and hospitality, to infrastructure investments, like buildings, transportation services, and public parks.

Many past World’s Fairs hosted in America saw large investments in these areas, including some of American cities iconic landmarks like the Space Needle in Seattle and the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio. Hosting a World’s Fair would also bring a boost to the local economy by increasing tourism and tax revenue.

List of Potential Locations

The fair can only be hosted in one city, so where should it be hosted? The most appealing candidates, as noted at the beginning of this section, are ones that are either in need of a revitalization or are in the midst of one.

A list of potential cities that fall into this category include:

  • Detroit, MI
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Columbus, OH
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Cincinnati, OH
  • Baltimore, MD
  • Houston, TX
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Milwaukee, WI
  • Raleigh/Durham, NC
  • Charlotte, NC

Size Matters

One important element to consider when thinking about where to host this World’s Fair is size. Based on research done by the Stanford Research Institute for prior World’s Fairs, the attendance for a World’s Fair largely depends on the size of the local and regional population³.

Contest to Host

One of the takeaways from the Amazon HQ2 contest is that contests may be a great way to pick the host of the fair. Prior World’s Fairs were initiated by local people who typically formed a committee to plan and organize the event. In addition, cities often ended up competing with one another because the US federal government would select only one to appropriate resources to.

This model has a few advantages. The first is that by creating a competition, cities are incentivized to create the best proposal. This means much of the difficult work of deciding on how to fund the fair, where it will be located locally, and who is going to design it, is already done by the time one city is selected.

By adopting a similar model for deciding what city will host this fair ensures not only the best city will be selected but also the most prepared. Since this model would not involve the decision to be made by the federal government, the idea is to form a national World’s Fair organization to do the selection and to help with the planning and funding once selected. In addition, the competition will be publicized to not only market the event but also to further help bring in funding by getting local residents involved through a modified version of crowdfunding. Further details about this are provided below.

Inspire Current and Future Generations

One of the biggest reasons to do a World’s Fair is to inspire people. Just like the Moonshot, a World’s Fair is a great chance to inspire both current and future generations to think big. Inspiration can go a long way. Past World’s Fairs played a major role in inspiring future generations to create the future we are now living.

Role of a World’s Fair for Inspiration

If you ask anyone who’s ever been to a World’s Fair, you constantly hear how inspirational they were. World’s Fairs have served as a kind of Disneyland for the future. They were places where even your own imagination had a hard time keeping up. Anyone who went to one never forgot their experience of it.

This is what we need more of in the world and especially in America today. We need to dream big again. And a World’s Fair presents an opportunity to do so on a huge scale.

Display of Innovation in the World of Atoms

Another benefit of hosting a World’s Fair is the ability to showcase important industries. Today, most of the technological innovation is happening in the digital world. The innovations, however, in the physical world fall far behind. This is problematic. While the world of bits continues to accelerate, the world of atoms has slowed.

The good news is a World’s Fair presents a great place to reinvigorate the physical sector. Because it is an event that is best experienced in person, it provides a platform to display innovations in the world of atoms in new ways.

In addition to just being a place for exhibitors to display their latest innovations, a World’s Fair also creates an opportunity for the host to create new infrastructure. To the creative host, this could mean showcasing the latest innovation in infrastructure that not only can be used for the purposes of putting on the fair, it could also be used for improving their own infrastructure. Some of the best past examples of this are the installation and use of the monorail in Seattle and the many impressive buildings from Chicago World’s Fairs. This is just another way the innovation in the world of atoms can be on display.

Jobs and Educating for Tomorrow

Finally, this proposal would be remiss to not include how a World’s Fair might help employment prospects. There’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges today in America is equipping our children and current workforce with the tools necessary to do the jobs of tomorrow.

One way a World’s Fair may help in this regard is by creating interest in children that they might not otherwise have had. Imagine being a child and riding in a Hyperloop for the first time. Or tasting your first burger made entirely in a lab. These things may spark a new interest a child never realized they had before. A World’s Fair is our opportunity to inspire the next generation of artists, scientists, and engineers by showing them what kind of work they might want to do in the future.

And it’s not just for children either. Adults can be amazed and inspired all the same. Perhaps half the battle is evening finding out what’s available. A World’s Fair helps with all of this. The future workforce will be required to be self-learners and there’s no better way to create a self-learner than inspiring them to learn more about something their interested in. The fair is an opportunity to create that interest.

Where will the funding come from?

A question that inevitably arises for a project at this scale is who’s paying for it? It’s believed that money for the fair would come from a mix of private and public funding. There are five main sources of funding that the fair will likely be able to lean on: exhibitors, the federal government, the local government, private investment, and crowdfunding.

Exhibitors

What may surprise a lot of people is that the majority of the costs of hosting a fair, such as this one, are typically paid for by the exhibitors. Exhibitors, foreign governments, and concessionaires largely assume the costs of building, serving, and hosting their exhibits. It is expected that the fair will require exhibitors to support their own exhibits largely on their own. Utility services such as electricity, water, and garbage collection will be provided.

Federal Government

Another source of funding for the fair may come from the federal government. Although the federal government passed a law in 1999 that prevents funding an exhibit at any international exposition registered by the Bureau of International Expositions, it does not prevent the government from funding a US hosted one and/or a fair not registered by the BIE⁴. The assumption will be that the federal government will provide little funding for the fair, but it should be noted that in the past it has appropriated millions of dollars for US exhibits at World’s Fairs hosted by other nations. Another positive indicator that the federal government may be willing to foot some of the bill for a World’s Fair is the passing of the bipartisan U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act in 2017⁵. Therefore, it can be assumed a World’s Fair hosted by the United States may garner more funding in the future.

Local Government

A more reliable source of public funding for the fair would come from the local government of the city and state chosen to host the fair. As mentioned above, one of the main purposes of this fair will be to create a platform to establish a new hub of innovation in one of our American cities. Because of the many benefits the host city would receive in hosting the fair, it will be expected that the host city contribute funding to make the event happen.

This funding will likely come in various forms and not just capital funding. For example, the local government would likely be relied on to provide the utility needs of the exhibitions on display at the fair, like electricity, water, and garbage removal. In addition, the local government may be involved in providing funding for any buildings or transportation services that will be built for the fair and used by the city afterwards.

Additional funding supplied by the local government may fall out of the desire to compete to host the event as detailed above.

Private Investment

Another source that may be able to be tapped for funding of a World’s Fair in the US is private investment. Here the prospects for significant funding look promising. Because of the previously mentioned law put into place in 1999, the federal government has not been able to provide funding to host exhibits at a World’s Fair since then. This, however, did not prevent the US from having exhibits at 5 of the last 7 World’s Fairs, largely in thanks to private funding.

Crowdfunding and Bonds

The final source of funding will come from citizens through the sale of bonds and through crowdfunding. The sale of bonds is the more traditional way of funding a major public event such as a World’s Fair. It’s been used as a common source of funding for many of the past World’s Fairs hosted on US soil. The details for the bonds sale will need to be worked out but it’s very possible citizens and investors alike will be interested in buying some bonds to support the first World’s Fair in the United States in more than 35 years. They also will be interested in the bonds as they could promise better returns than what’s currently available in the low yield markets today.

Crowdfunding is also a great way to raise money for the fair. Though a relatively new source of capital funding, crowdfunding presents a lot of advantages over the more traditional sources. One advantage of crowdfunding is that it can provide a more realistic outlook of interest in the event before the event even takes place. It also provides the advantage of having the people who will be attending the fair participate in its funding directly. The crowdfunding model could be done in a number of different ways but the one that probably makes the most sense is to attach it to a presale of tickets to the event. Other perks that may be offered to those who support the event through crowdfunding may be V.I.P. access to special exhibits, concession credits, or having their name etched into one of the pavillion buildings. This form of funding is the most innovative and likely the one to draw the most excitement from the public.

Preliminary Financial Outlook

The discussion of funding naturally leads to the question of what the financial outlook for the fair looks like? While we’re still in the early stages of planning the fair and a lot of details will still need to be worked out in order to provide a more thorough and accurate assessment, we may still be able to get a better sense of what’s to come by estimating what the costs and revenues at the fair may be.

Estimated Costs

The costs of the fair will likely include a number of different items with the large majority of the costs coming from running, developing, and marketing the event.

Here’s a list of likely costs for the event, in order of their assumed expense (largest first):

  • Operations & Services
  • Site Development, Construction, Equipment
  • Public Relations/Marketing
  • Event space management
  • Concessions/Food
  • Housing

Estimated Revenues

The revenues for the fair will likely come from a few sources, with the vast majority coming from admissions. Here are the estimated sources of revenue:

  • Admissions (including special exhibit admissions)
  • Space Rental
  • Concessions
  • Usage fees/taxes
  • Donations

Financial History of World’s Fairs

Once specific locations are considered for the event a better estimate with actual numbers can be considered. Unfortunately, it is still too early to determine what the actual numbers may be and without any accurate numbers any estimate would be fruitless. However, we can turn to history to give a better idea for what we might expected.

The history of World’s Fairs present a kind of mixed bag financially. Some fairs such as the recent 2015 World’s Fair in Milan and the 1984 New Orleans Fair end up in financial disaster. And some fairs such as the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai and the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair end up as a financial success. Based on the examination of past World’s Fairs, the most important consideration when estimating the financial outlook is attendance. Fairs where attendance beat estimates ended up financial successes a majority of the time and ones that underperformed ended up failures. Avoiding financial mistakes like those in the 1964–65 New York’s World’s Fair is also helpful in ensuring financial success.

Why Now?

According to the US Department of State, the next opportunity for the United States to host an officially endorsed World’s Fair is in 2027 or 2028⁶. Though this proposal is not based on having to create an officially endorsed World’s Fair by the BIE, if doing so would increase support and funding then planning for one now is important since selections for a host happen many years before.

Local and National Celebrations

Past fairs have also coincided with national or local celebrations. This is likely done as another reason to conduct a fair on a large scale and helps with promotion and drawing an audience. It also provides for another opportunity to theme the event around something to promote unity and celebration.

Without knowing where the fair will be held at the moment, it is hard to decide what local celebrations would work well for a fair hosted in 2027/2028⁷. However, we can draw up a list of potential celebrations on the national scale. Here are some anniversaries that correspond with a fair happening in 2027/2028:

  • 30th anniversary of Space Shuttle Launch
  • 100th anniversary of first transatlantic telephone service
  • 100th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic
  • 150th anniversary of Edison’s invention of the phonograph
  • 250th anniversary of the Treaty with Paris
  • 250th anniversary of the establishment of the Articles of Confederation

We need it

In addition to thinking about meeting outside timelines, a reason for hosting a World’s Fair in the US now is because the country and world needs it. The United States is in a crucial point in our history. Previously, the world looked to us for our leadership in areas like freedom, security, and technological innovation but that’s beginning to change. It’s changing because it’s difficult to stay on top, being on top leads to complacency. Internal partisanship has also begun to tear us apart despite common goals.

The world faces ever growing global challenges like climate change and technological disruption. In order to solve these global problems, it needs to champion cooperation amongst nations. The world needs a leader to put this vision forward. That’s why we need an American lead World’s Fair. We need the chance to put our vision of the future forward. One that is optimistic and cooperative.

It’s essential that we have a reason to put aside our differences and work together again on a big idea. A World’s Fair presents a unique opportunity to once again showcase our leadership in the world. It also allows us to join together as a nation and display our best qualities. The future of America and the world has never been brighter despite what some people may think. A World’s Fair can give us the chance to display this optimism for the future on an international scale.

Closing Remarks

On May 1st, 1851, London hosted the world’s first World’s Fair. Since then there have been at least 68 other World’s Fairs put on all over the world. But it is in the spirit of this first World’s Fair that this proposal is written. The goal of this proposal is not to copy what has been done before, especially considering the mixed results of past fairs, but instead embark on a new journey. One that once again showcases the creativity and ingenuity of the people of the world.

The United States has represented the pinnacle of this theme throughout its history. It is here that people from all over the world have come to seek out new opportunities and a better future for themselves and their loved ones. It is here that the future has largely been forged. From our music to our technology, no matter where you go in the world today, it’s impossible to escape our influence. Yet if we take this for granted, it may no longer be true.

The world has never been better off than it is today but if you ask people about their prospects of the future you get mixed results. This is not something we should be happy about or throw our hands up and say that’s just how it goes. Instead, we need to dig in our heels and change that prospective. To do this we need a platform to promote optimism for the future. To show the world there are still plenty of big ideas for the future and get people excited about its prospects again. A World’s Fair presents an unique opportunity to do this on a large scale. It’s only appropriate that an exhibition of the future is once again hosted in the land of opportunity.


Quotes from prior World’s Fairs

Another way to look at what a World’s Fair may be to the American people is to hear their experiences in their own words from prior World’s Fairs. Below is a collection of quotes from attendees of past US hosted World’s Fairs.

  • “It was like a child’s imagination”
  • “It was like children were in charge at last”
  • “I was introduced to Belgian waffles for the first time at the fair!”
  • “ EVERYTHING was cool, and futuristic.”
  • “There were hands on stuff in the Hall of Science that my brother and I spent a little too much time with (at least according to our parents).”
  • “The fair got people to think positively, that the future would be better. To get them out of the depression mentality.”

¹ https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/G/01/Anything/test/images/usa/RFP_3._V516043504_.pdf

² https://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=17044620011

³ https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/CityArchive/DDL/WorldsFair/Apr1958.pdf

https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/2452b

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/534/text

https://www.state.gov/r/expo/

⁷ Though it should be again noted that the fair should not be restricted to this timeline and could happen in other years. This section just outlines some potential upcoming celebrations. The same could be done for any other year.