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The world of tomorrow, today

A former professional life brought me to New York City every couple of weeks. Routinely flying into LaGaurdia Airport in Queens, (no, this article is not about the horrendous state of the terminal Air Canada is located in) I was afforded a wonderful view of the New York World’s Fair location as we approached the runway. The skeleton globe, the monolithic structures, and the tree-lined paths remain an iconic reminder of a time when the world would gather with pilgrimage fashion to be awe-struck by the grand possibilities of the future.

During its heyday, the fair held a sense of wonder and aspiration for its visitors. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, in 1893 the world was introduced to the Ferris Wheel in Chicago, and in 1939, broadcast television was inaugurated in New York. Expo ’67 held in Montreal left the city with iconic architecture and, for a time, a Major League Baseball team named after it. Themes such as “The World of Tomorrow”, “Dawn of a New Day”, and “Peace Through Understanding” captivated the world with the promise of unimaginable spectacle. But today, with the proliferation of the Internet, there is less need for the Expo. Our present inundation of information about new technologies, new designs, theories, advances, and plans for the future are readily available in an endless stream of images, articles, tweets, websites, and data.

Today our pilgrimage has been reduced to a drooling stare into an LCD screen. And so, I wonder whether there is still value for cities to host the World’s Fair?

Held every five years, the World’s Fair (or World’s Expo as it’s also known) is a six-month long showcase of trade, innovation, and products from around the world. The Expo was held in Milan last year and the next one will be hosted by Dubai in 2020. Lately, and most likely in part because of the success of the Pan-Am Games, there have been rumblings about Toronto bidding on the 2025 World Expo. It is a chance to once again showcase our city on the world stage while continuing to push our mandate as a place rich in innovation, financial stability, and livability.

But still, is it worth the cost? Toronto Mayor John Tory, while not opposed to the idea, has intelligently taken a cautious approach; there are many unanswered questions related to cost and effort – questions that must be ironed out before any sort of decision is made.

Now, cost and effort aside, the other question that must considered revolves around theme. What grand proposition will be used to inspire the world to once again care about the World’s Fair? How are we going to put our stamp on an event that’s become largely irrelevant? How can we harken back to a time when the world of tomorrow was not so easily available through a few clicks? And most importantly, how do we balance the need for commercial capital without an overly branded marketing experience for the companies that foot the bill?

Here are a few areas of inspiration that may help:

  • Apple and Tesla Product Launch Format: the ability to keep new product designs and details under wraps from the media, while driving excitement and anticipation, is the fuel that powers both company’s marketing-driven sales. If the Expo could showcase things that were truly ground-breaking with a hotly-anticipated reveal, it would certainly help drive buzz.
  • Influencer Participation: gathering the best of the best in all fields to not just showcase their ideas, products, and plans, but to buy-in to the World’s Fair concept will help spread the word by association. If the most influential people in their fields participate, the rest will follow.
  • Integrated Projects: gather experts and leaders from a variety of industries to create conceptual works that fit into their unique visions of the future. Don’t worry about feasibility, worry only about inspiring people’s imaginations.
  • What Happens After: when the Expo is complete, what will be left? What types of architecture will remain permanently that future generations will look at with awe and wonder. Let’s build something that lasts.

Regardless of whether or not we bid on the Expo, the process of discussion should provide a valuable template for how we aim to push Toronto into the future as it relates to innovation. The notion of the world of tomorrow is still very much alive today.