Expo Voices: From Chicago to Dubai – knowing an Expo legacy, seeing an Expo in the making

Construction on the site of Expo 2020 Dubai

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is often referenced as one of the most successful Expos in history. Its theme celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Particularly for those from Chicago, including myself, it is unanimously considered that the Expo left a positive legacy in our great city.

Having recently moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), seeing Dubai prepare for Expo 2020, both on a professional level with my work in economic development and internationalisation, as well as on a personal level, I see some immediate similarities between Chicago’s legacy of Expo 1893 and Dubai’s upcoming Expo 2020.

Dubai’s remarkable growth has created a city of now over 3 million people – impressive because not too long ago, Dubai was mostly desert. The UAE is an incredibly multicultural country – people are attracted to its opportunities and growth. This is evident with the demographics: more than 80% of the entire population in the UAE are expats.

Chicago, during its early days, was in a similar position. It grew out of nowhere, being a strategic central point by Lake Michigan and relatively close to the Mississippi River, when the United States was expanding to be the powerhouse it now is.

Innovation is a key aspect in creating a strong Expo legacy and this was certainly the case with the experience of Expo 1893 Chicago. With Expo 2020 Dubai coming up, there are strong similarities between the two Expos in culture, new products and services, and branding.

Expo 1893 Chicago

Cultural Innovation

Dubai’s fast economic growth has been accompanied by the development of cultural activities and attractions. Of course, the UAE has its own heritage - the region has a rich history of trading, which is reflected in its souq markets and ports. Prior to oil and gas, it was trading and the pearl industry that dominated the region.

But today, most people hear about Dubai’s newer attractions. From the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to the Dubai Mall, theme parks and other attractions – Dubai and the UAE plan to develop even more. These include a new branch of the Guggenheim Museum in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the impressive Museum of the Future in Dubai, and a tower even taller than the Burj Khalifa – the Dubai Creek Tower. These come in addition to recent openings of cultural and family attractions such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Opera.


Chicago saw a similar journey. From its humble beginning as a trading post, it quickly grew into a major business and transport hub. The Expo in 1893 not only strengthened Chicago’s commercial status, it also propelled Chicago to be an epicentre for culture and learning.

For instance, several of Chicago’s iconic museums were actually built for Expo 1893, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. Built initially as part of the wider reclamation and development of the Chicago waterfront to be the main area of Expo, the buildings were so popular that they were repurposed after the event to be what they are known as today. Additionally, the way Chicago redeveloped the lakefront for the Expo proved so popular that it led the way for urban planning, prioritizing civic space across American cities in the 20th century.

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, built as the Palace of Fine Arts for Expo 1893

As with Dubai today, Chicago was in a huge construction boom in the run-up to Expo 1893. First, due to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, much of the city was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. Second, immigrants from across the world were flocking to Chicago to live “the American dream.” Chicago was growing quickly, and people were attracted to the various job opportunities the city provided; the Expo of course helped further boost the construction renaissance.

In fact, many regard Expo 1893 and Chicago’s growth at the time as leading the world in modern architecture. Walking around Chicago’s downtown and surrounding areas, it is evident just how much of an impact Chicago has had on modern architecture. Remember – the world’s tallest tower for many years was Chicago’s Sears Tower (now named Willis – although most Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower). And the city’s know-how of modern and innovative architecture is one of Chicago’s greatest exports. Fun fact – the Burj Khalifa was designed by Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.

New Products and Services Innovation

Dubai has built a reputation around the globe of building mind-blowing infrastructure – from the tallest this to biggest that. However, Expo 2020 has a powerful and important theme and message of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, along with its three subthemes: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. Everyone will be looking forward to seeing the innovations in products and services the various exhibitors will be showcasing, as well as importantly, those of the host country.

When Chicago hosted Expo 1893, a long list of innovative products and ideas were showcased, many of which continue to be appreciated today. For instance, Columbus Day as an American holiday stemmed from the Expo, and well as having the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Electricity was also introduced to the masses – which helped America and the world embrace this innovative technology. The debut of consumer products which are so familiar today also happened at Expo 1893, such as Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum. The Ferris Wheel also appeared for the first time in Chicago, proving to be the Expo’s most popular attraction and helping the Expo turn a profit.

To note, with the latter, Dubai is also in the process of building the Ain Dubai, which upon completion, is expected to be the world’s largest Ferris wheel.

Ferris Wheel

Branding Innovation of the City

Dubai is a major hub for the MENASA region. In sectors like transportation, logistics and tourism, it is already a global player. And with the rise of tech, healthcare, financial services, and sustainability, particularly in agriculture, Dubai, with the rest of the UAE, aims to be a global innovator.
In Chicago, Expo 1893 showcased to the world that the city was more than a backwards transport hub; it proved itself to be an innovator, a trendsetter and a major player on the global stage. “The Second City” nickname of Chicago remains to this day, even though technically Chicago by population is now the United States’ third largest city after New York City and Los Angeles.

Today, Chicago still has that iconic global city status. For instance, the GaWC Roster of World Cities ranked Chicago an “Alpha” world city in the second grouping just behind New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles. Other rankings like in the AT Kearney/Foreign Policy reports has Chicago in 6th place while the Economist Global Cities Competitiveness Index has Chicago ranking 9th (2012).

For many years, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was the world’s busiest international airport, today surpassed only by the likes of Dubai international Airport. Chicago still is a major railway hub in the United States (both passenger and particularly in freight), as well as for transportation and logistics in general.

Expo 2020 Dubai's legacy plan, District 2020

Organising an outstanding Expo and showcasing not only the world’s innovations but also its own, Chicago built its reputation as a major player in the global stage. Almost always referenced as an Expo with one of the most outstanding legacies, it is no wonder that Expo 1893 has such an important place in Chicago’s city. Even though Chicagoans like myself did not live around that time, the impact Expo 1893 has had not only in Chicago but across America remains to this day. Seeing similar parallels with my current base of the UAE, I see the same Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability for Dubai to host an impactful Expo in 2020.

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