I'm often called upon to explain what world's fairs are and what kind of impact they can have on a city, a region, or a country. Here in North America, that can be a daunting task because generations have now grown up not having had the chance to experience a world's fair firsthand.
Not surprisingly, people focus on the economics of world's fairs. Do they make money?
Well, that's a difficult question. It depends on what time frame you're looking at. An expo might not make money if you look at the three or six months it operates, but if you take a broader view, it can transform communities. It creates public spaces, transportation infrastructure, a greater awareness from outside the city, and yes, it transforms the people who attend and a city's perception of itself.
International expositions offer insight and inspiration. A city is never quite the same after it hosts an expo. It's hard to imagine Paris without its expositions in 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900, and 1937. Chicago is hard to picture without 1893 and 1933-'34. Osaka and Japan are indelibly linked to the year 1970 thanks to the first world's fair held in Asia.
Perhaps it's too soon to say how, but Shanghai and China were clearly transformed by the experience of hosting the world in 2010. As I walked around Expo 2010, I saw China's youngest generations engaging with the outside world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a few decades ago. That experience will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Recently, when trying to explain this to a friend in my usual long, drawn-out manner, he suddenly cut me off. "Oh.... So, it's like the whole city goes to college."
I practically jumped up and hollered. "Yes! That's it!" When a city hosts a world's fair, it's sending itself to college. It's an education. It's an experience. It's fun. And yes, it can certainly get you noticed.
When we send children to college, we don't judge their success by how much money they made before graduation. We focus on what they'll learn and how they'll grow as people. Sure, we might have an expectation that this experience will prove valuable in their careers, but an education isn't just about making money. It's about discovering who you are and what your passions are. That is what propels you forward in life. College isn't just about attending classes. It's also about discovering other people. Some of those people might be very different from yourself. And yes, it's about having some fun while you do it.
In some ways, going to college can be a gamble. You don't know exactly what you'll be like when you leave, but you know you'll be transformed. Similarly, a city can never quite know what it will become after hosting an expo, but it's a safe bet it will never be the same again and they'll forever cherish that time.
Who knows? Perhaps they'll want to do it again someday. Just ask Paris or Chicago.