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Where Innovation Happens: The World’s Fair

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Could you imagine that the computer, car, telephone, IMAX, condensed milk and hundreds of other substantial inventions were first presented at an international exposition, or ‘world’s fair’?

The light bulb was demonstrated at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris; then came radio (1893 in Chicago), ice tea (1904 in San Luis), ice-cream in waffle cups (1905 in Louisiana), TV, color photo and air conditioner (1939 in New York City)… Clearly world’s fair or ‘international exposition’ events have a long history of being launch pads for inventions and innovations – but just what is an exposition?

What is an exposition?

Prince Albert, a great-grandfather of the present Queen of Great Britain, Elizabeth II, is credited with coming up with the idea of the first international exposition, commonly known as a ‘world expo’ or ‘world’s fair’. The first world’s fair – "A Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" – took place in London’s famous Hyde Park, 163 years ago and was a great success. More than 6 million guests visited this first international exposition in 20 weeks – about twice as many as the resident population of London at that time.

Nowadays, one and half centuries later, the International Exhibitions Bureau (Bureau International des Expositions/BIE) coordinates the organization of modern world’s fair events, making decisions on which country will host the next major international exposition. There are two main types of world’s fair: international specialized expositions and world expositions. The first is a three-month long event, taking place in the period between two world expositions, which are held once every five years and usually last half a year.

Notable world’s fairs, past and future

Below are two examples of past world’s fair events, and two upcoming world expositions that could be of interest to budding student entrepreneurs looking for somewhere to share their brilliant ideas and discoveries with the rest of the world…

Expo 1998, Lisbon: International specialized exposition – “The oceans, a heritage for the future”

Europe’s smallest capital city, with just half a million citizens, Lisbon managed to host more than 10 million guests from all over the globe in four months at Expo 1998. This specialized exhibition brought not only fiscal profit, but also left a number of useful and practical facilities to the city. Among these are a new metro line, a new bridge (the longest in Europe, by the way), a funicular, a new terminal for buses and trains, an Oceanarium (again, the largest in Europe), the Park of the Nations and a huge shopping mall named after a famous discoverer, Vasco da Gama.  The whole of Expo 1998 was dedicated to the great ‘century of discoveries’, the golden age of Portugal, and celebrated the 500 year anniversary since Vasco da Gama`s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498.

The symbol of Expo 1998 was created by Portuguese sculptor Artur Moreira and painter António Modesto. The name for this mascot was chosen from 765 suggested options. Guess whose idea won? José Luís Coelho’s, a high-school student, suggested the winning name. The mascot was named Gil, after Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes.

Expo 2010, Shanghai: World exposition – “Better city – better life”

While Lisbon’s exposition deserves note for its legacy of urban constructions and benefits for city residents, Shanghai’s Expo 2010 caught my attention for its theme, which was about urbanization and environmental issues. During the eight years of preparation for the event, organizers took on the task of cleaning up Huangpu River and transformed the city itself to be the main and biggest “pavilion” of the exhibition. The Meng-Qing Park on the bank of the river continues to illustrate methods applied to purify the waters.

The biggest world’s fair in history, Expo 2010 was fruitful for local citizens not only from an aesthetic perspective. A whole series of innovative and futuristic construction projects included six new metro lines, a new airport terminal, new entertainment venues and the renovation of the central ‘Bund’ area, which with its skyscrapers and iconic TV tower is the symbol of Shanghai. The city is aiming to become an international financial center by 2020, and Expo 2010 was a clear checkpoint in that journey, providing the catalyst for Shanghai to solve fundamental environmental problems and push through a flurry or redevelopment works.

Students and alumni of Shanghai’s Tongji University were among those who worked on the construction of the six new metro lines, and were also counted among the 600 experts and engineers involved in building the longest sea bridge in the world, Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which shortened the distance between Shanghai and Ningbo port by 120km.

Expo 2015, Milan: World exposition – “Feeding the planet, energy for life”

The topic of this world exposition seems to be pretty clear from the headline. However, the topic of food sustainability is very complex and interdisciplinary. Milan’s Expo 2015 will concentrate on problems of both quantity and quality of the food in diverse parts of the world. Areas such as agriculture, education, business, food security and innovations in food production will be discussed. The purpose is to raise awareness attention, gather ideas and increase efforts in order to prevent hunger.

Moreover, successful practices in preventing diseases, the issue of unhealthy food and interdependence between nutrition and illnesses threatening society in 21st century will all be covered at Expo 2015. Food will also be explored as an art and cultural tradition. Different cuisines, combined with innovative technologies, will be demonstrated in Milan between 1 May and 31 October 2015. To ask questions about how to participate in the event, contact the organizers or the Expo 2015 committee in your own country.

Expo 2017, Astana: International specialized exposition – “Future energy”

To be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, EXPO 2017 takes a creative approach to the issue of theme. Organizers have decided to take US economist Jeremy Rifkin’s idea of a ‘third industrial revolution’ based on internet technology and renewable energy. The plan is to make the Astana expo area a model of a sustainable city, sustainable from all aspects and particularly in terms of energy. Buildings capable of generating and even transmitting energy to other buildings, smart houses and offices, electric cars, vehicles run on biofuels, and new ways of preserving and storing energy – all of these will be discussed and presented between June and September in 2017.

Among the aims of Expo 2017 are tackling the problems of climate change, energy efficiency, energy security, public access to renewable sources of energy and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. To ask questions about how to take part in the event, contact the organizers or the Expo 2017 committee in your country as around 130 countries have already confirmed their participation.

Although today the Earth’s inhabitants seem to be skeptical and hard to surprise, world expositions have long recommended themselves as an event worth seeing and, beyond doubt, worth participating in. It’s interesting to think, how far will we get by the next exhibition, where will the progress curve turn? What is the next great innovation coming our way? Maybe you have an idea?

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Written by Aliya Sagandykova

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About Smart Cards and Electronic Health Records insured!

Good short overview of the history of World EXPOs.
It will be interesting to attend the event in Astana!


Great article! Very informative!