Nostalgia for an Innovation Era Long Gone
For centuries, the World’s Fair has brought innovation from industry into the view of the common people. In United States, the most recent World’s Fair was in 1964 in New York. It was on the verge of the space age technologies and computers that our world takes for granted today. It exhibited several innovative technologies that we use today and concepts that didn’t quite cut the mustard (10 Innovations From the 1964–65 World’s Fair That Didn’t Work Out (and 5 That Did)).
Often times, when people think of the World’s Fairs of the past, they become very nostalgic of an “ideal” time and event that, truthfully, was more of a pissing contest between countries and cities, much in the way hosting the World Cup or Olympics is today. Here are a few sobering facts the about World’s Fair:
- Everyone loves the event, but almost every country and city that hosts it, loses money.
- Money, time, and resources are spent building many structures that have no use after the event ends.
- The focus tries to engage the “common” person and inspire them, however, often times the average American household would consider it expensive to attend.
- The process and execution are fraught with politics and big egos.
One only needs to look back at the issues that plagued the 1992 World’s Fair that was to be held in Chicago to jog their memory about the issues that faced the event in the US. To be clear, that event was canceled by the City of Chicago merely three years after winning the bid. According to the New York Times, the Chicago fair was to be 5 times as big as the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, which was a financial disaster. Chicago politicians and business people must have come to their senses in time before making the irreversible blunder of going through with an event that could not possibly have lived up to its hype.
Joanne the Scammer reenacting the City of Chicago canceling their World’s Fair.
Back to the Future
“Nostalgia feels good, but it can distract us from where we need to go.”
Fast forward to the recent past, I find myself committed to the subway rides between Harlem and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to head to the World’s Fair Nano. For context, I’ve been avoiding Greenpoint for the last 3 years because it’s relatively inconvenient to get to, but I spent $90.24 for a two day pass, so it’s too late to back out according to my wallet.
The World’s Fair Nano is an organization that is creating several “nano” versions of the World’s Fair as proof of concepts to bring the World’s Fair back to the United States. While there were parts of the World’s Fair Nano I was dazzled by, such as the TED style talks, there were other pieces that were lacking if they are looking to scale to the level of having an international exhibition for 6 months as their website touts. The lines one hour into the event were daunting, and almost all the exhibits were virtual reality (VR). The exhibits skewed heavily towards entertainment applications, which isn’t really new, as Disney had its own VR arcade in the 90s called DisneyQuest, which is now closed (though due to loss of investors, not due to lack of interest). The exhibitions felt a bit out of touch with the innovation going on in the world now.
Surprisingly, with the exception of a robot that I was too tired to interact with, AI in the exhibition space was nowhere to be found. Blockchain, one of the hottest emerging technologies being developed today with events on the topic selling out across the city, was confined to one, 20-minute talk in another building separate from the exhibitions.
While the talks were the strong point of the event, pulling in speakers from a wide range of industries like vertical farming, to AI and Blockchain, there was an awkward moment that underlined who wasn’t at the event (which turned out to be far more telling than the people were at the event). Eric L. Adams (@BPEricAdams), the Brooklyn Borough President, took the stage for a presentation on the Future of Brooklyn. When he enthusiastically asked the audience, “Who here is from Brooklyn?!” only 20 hesitant hands went up in the air.
For an event that was in Brooklyn (which is also where the event organization is headquartered year-round), the crowd was overwhelmingly and oddly not from Brooklyn. The audience was primarily privileged people who work in tech and creative careers (myself included, to be fair), rather than a culturally and socio-economically diverse crowd. This is not necessarily a horrible thing if that is your target. But to put on a public event focusing on innovation for THE People, you need to invite THE People — not just some of the people (the ones who are already in your network who are most likely to attend). And especially those who live IN the community.
The part of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the event was held was all warehouses and trendy, expensive shops. Not sure how much of Greenpoint’s original Polish community is still around these days, but they were nowhere to be found. The event itself wasn’t cheap to attend, especially when you consider the median income per household in NYC is $50,711. The median income for Greenpoint drops below that. It’s concerning that an event that wants to run the next World’s Fair in the US wouldn’t make sure to include the world of communities that live in the city, much less in Brooklyn. Community engagement within the community you are holding an event is crucial. Perhaps the event did engage the community and they just didn’t respond positively to the event. If that’s the case, perhaps there’s a bigger lesson here for everyone involved (and a bigger question: What does it take to engage the non-techie, general public in events focused on innovation and the future?).
Considering I paid $90 to attend both days (of which I only attended one day because of the long trek to Greenpoint), I expected a bit more. I decided to do some more research on the organization behind the event. As stated earlier, the organizers hope to bring the World’s Fair back to the US, and make it a private run event. Part of the thought is that the event can actually turn a profit, which, if you’ve ever worked in events, you know events as a business are difficult to run and make money on.
As many articles will tell you, including the one on Bloomberg Business they put front and center on their website, the person at the center of this event is one, 25 year old man, Michael Weiss (founder of Worlds Fair USA). As it turns out, his venture is a crowdfunded company that aims to raise $16 billion in funding to bring the original fair back to the U.S. There are plenty of young, male founders in and outside of Silicon Valley who have managed to be successful, but even they are supported by advisors who are battle tested, grizzled veterans of their respective industries. Michael Weiss seems to be a lone wolf without without advisors. When asked who his backers are in the above-mentioned Bloomberg article, he demurs and responds, “I have more than ample high-net-worth people in my immediate network.” But does he have advisors who work with the meaningful innovation featured at his Nano Fair, or who know how to engage socio-economically diverse communities, or who can guide him on the basics of producing and scaling an event even the size of World’s Fair Nano?
In an age where we are combating anti-intellectualism, and we’re seeing cuts to science, we need something like this to be successful and inclusive if it’s going to happen at all. Nostalgia feels good, but it can distract us from where we need to go. One could argue that part of America’s issues with innovation today is that we are trapped in a nostalgia of pasts that never existed (our own president wants to “make America great again” — taking us back to a past that wasn’t so great for a lot of people).
The World’s Fair USA and World’s Fair Nano were born out of nostalgia, but we need to move out of that fog to see our true potential and to define the future as clearly as possible. The World’s Fair Nano website hosts a lovely video of several Baby Boomers recalling their memories of the 1964 fair. It’s really feel good stuff, however, this is an age group that will most likely be retiring with Alexa or, perhaps, a robot nurse as a companion rather than a human being, yet this generation as a whole was absent from the event. The world is changing rapidly, and the common person who will be at the mercy of the changes and the new technologies, deserves to see that future as clear as possible rather than reminiscing about a long-gone past.
At Tech 2025 events, we have a fairly diverse representation of the population in attendance across the socioeconomic spectrum. One of our regular attendees, Michelle, is a Baby Boomer from Bay Ridge who travels quite a distance to attend our workshops that not only focus on the future, but that gives her a platform to participate in discussions and problem-solving about the future. Michelle, pictured below, is not interested in romanticizing the past. She wants to launch a tech startup and community to address the many problems we need to solve that will arise in this accelerated innovation phase we are in. Are innovation events doing enough to reach out to the Michelle’s of the world?
Overall, there is a lot of potential for World’s Fair Nano. But a few things that would make it a far more engaging, inspiring, and inclusive experience:
- Start with getting the content of the exhibits right. I’d take a page from EDIT DX, a fair in its own right, run out of Toronto. The strength of EDIT DX is that it showed how this emerging tech is solving the problems of the world right now from emergency medical drones, solar powered medical kits, to pre-fab housing made of environmentally friendly materials. The World’s Fair of the future should help us answer questions that will help us define humanity in the century to come. How can drones be used in rescue efforts (not just for the insurance companies) in places like Puerto Rico and Texas? How can solar power help medical professionals in remote areas give emergency aid with tools they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use?
- Step outside of that VR helmet and unplug from that smart phone and plant some vertical gardens. If you’re going to use VR at all, limit it to two exhibits: one for entertainment, the other for therapy or medical simulations.
- Make an effort to invite the community where you’re holding the event. Give them discount tickets.
- Make a big effort to invite educators. After all, they will be a big part of giving the future generation context for all of this emerging tech. And obviously, give them a discount too (they spend enough money on their students). And educators are always looking for ways to engage students on how to think about the future.
All of that said, these are just a few suggestions, from my personal experience attending this event and similar ones, that would make the event better, bigger, and more forward-thinking. More thought and research would need to go into it to make sure a national fair would be inclusive and successful and not just a temporary amusement park.
What do you think? Would this event draw you, your family and friends? What should we be doing to engage diverse communities in conversations about emerging technologies? And what vision of the future should we be exhibiting to audiences at a world’s fair?