Let's Bring Back the World's Fair
A conversation with World's Fair Co. founder Cam Wiese on Walt Disney, EPCOT, Dubai's museum of the future, why the World's Fair died, and why big in-person events matter now more than ever.
You’re reading Startup Cities, a newsletter about startups that build neighborhoods and cities.
This week: an interview with Cam Wiese, founder of World’s Fair Co.
Why physical events matter more than ever
The role of the World’s Fair in the history and design of cities
Why optimism is so unpopular
The many “eras” of World’s Fairs and how its business model changed over time
How EPCOT might have destroyed the World’s Fair
Cam’s vision and design process to build a 21st century World’s Fair
As with all these interviews, my goal is to give innovators a fair hearing.
ZC: Who are you and what are you building?
What’s the World's Fair?
The World’s Fair is a physical mega event like the Olympics or the World Cup that runs for six months and hosts tens of millions of people and immerses them in stories and experiences about the future.
Do we really need a physical event? We have the internet and video and Mark Zuckerberg says it's all about the Metaverse now.
Yeah, we do.
When COVID hit, everyone was prevented from going out and gathering with their friends and their families. The minute they could go out again and do things in person, they did... en masse. This is testament to human nature and the human desire to get together in person.
There’s something that you can’t get virtually.
If you’ve been to a World Cup or you’ve been to a concert, you feel the undefined energy in the air. That’s not something you get sitting at home behind a laptop.
But, Cam, Wikipedia says that there's still a World's Fair and it's called Expo. It's in Dubai right now!
Yes. I was fortunate to make the trip out to Dubai for the Expo. It was a grand, beautiful event. You had hundreds of thousands of people who were there on the days that I was on-site and they were all happy and excited to be there.
They wanted to be a part of this big thing that was happening. The thing that I was most surprised by was the grandeur and that this mega-event had popped up out of the desert from nothing, over the course of five years.
But the thing that it didn’t do for me was tell stories about the future. All the references to technology innovation were very corporate. It was like McKinsey-esque slides. The future looks like big data, AI, smart cities, urban mobility!
But those are future-oriented ideas, right?
Yes, but even with those concepts, there’s no underlying idea of how we actually get there. I remember walking into the Spain Pavilion. It was cool. They had this great film. There’s some cool art. And in their lobby they had a Hyperloop pod. And that was it. It was like: “Hyperloops! Spain!”
There’s no sense of plan.
There’s no: here’s who’s building this. They just thought “this would be cool!” “Hyperloops seem futuristic. Let's put one here.”
That's one of the key differentiators we need to focus on with the [new World’s] Fair.
How do we talk about the future and technologies and give people the pathways to see how these things come to fruition?
A lot of modern museums seem to have this problem, too. It’s a very superficial “look at this! And look at this!”. Something about this feels unpersuasive or kind of lame, even when it’s positive and about the future.
Are you suggesting a World’s Fair should focus on how concretely we get from now to the cool thing?
Yeah. The countries were clearly focused on their own self-promotion. If you look at the Wikipedia article, you’ll see that, World’s Fairs have kind of gone through a couple of eras and the Expo Dubai era is part of “nation branding.”
All the countries are showing up, trying to promote their own goods and services, promote economic development, promote tourism. And when you step into their pavilions, you really feel like, “Oh, this is an ad to come invest in this country.”
And experiences are designed not for you and I as attendees, but for the political or corporate class who are going as a way to do deals in the the VIP rooms. The architecture and the art and the experiences are just a facade.
So you're saying it’s a cool kids club?
Yeah. It's like that Steve Buscemi meme where he’s got the skateboard saying, “Oh, look at me kids! I’m a cool kid too!”
It sounds like you’re focused on process: the how we arrive to the future.
Yeah. I think all these technologies and all these possibilities need to be supported by story.
How do we go from where we are today to this future? But also, how do we give people a behind the scenes look at what it takes to develop supersonic jets? How does CRISPR actually work?
What are the implications of this? There’s the details about how it works, but there’s also the story of what this is going to do for the lives of everyday people around the globe.
Story is an overlooked piece. Most people don't think it’s important, but you have to contextualize all of these things for people.
You and I, and probably the people who are reading this are familiar with a lot of the technological advances that are going on. We’re plugged into the information streams where we see what’s happening. If I say “OpenAI,” “Stable Diffusion,” or “DALL-E,” you and I and probably most of the readers of this newsletter know what that is.
But the vast majority of people don’t. The point of the Fair is: how do we translate these ideas that are niche to our world and communicate them to the broader public in a way that's compelling and understandable?
The point of the Fair is to inspire hope for the future. We need get people en masse excited about what could be rather than fearful and pessimistic. Stories, through the vehicle of Fairs, is one way we get there.
Why does it seem like optimism about the future is so unpopular?
I don't have a brilliant answer for this. It drives me crazy, because you’re right. It’s everywhere you look. Movies are dystopian. Books are dystopian.
It’s easy to hate on the future. I think a lot of it though comes from a lack of imagination or lack of creativity. It’s hard for people to think about how this technology, this innovation, positively transforms humanity.
It’s easy to look at the negatives. As someone on Twitter once said, “Pessimists sound smart but optimists, you know, build the future…”
“Optimists make money.”
Yes, optimists make money. If you don’t have any imagination it’s easy to find the flaws and things. You have to think a little bit harder about how [a technology] might actually be of benefit.
There’s that beautiful article written in the New York Times in the 1910s, 1920s, where they’re talking about flight. And they’re like: “this is never going to work. It’s impossible. This is a joke. They’re wasting all this money on trying to get this flying contraption up. They just need to go home and work on something else. We have bigger problems to solve.”
How’d that turn out?
Why did the World's Fair die?
If you ask different people, you get different answers.
There’s two or three pieces at play. One is that in 1984, you had a shift. Los Angeles hosted the ‘84 Olympics. For the first time there’s innovation in the business model.
Peter Ueberroth, the organizer, sold the broadcasting rights to ABC for ~200 million dollars. This gave a business model to the Olympic games. It made it exceptionally profitable for the host city. Before it was kind of a drag.
The International Olympic Committee was like, “Oh, hey, Los Angeles, you proved the model. Now we’re going to take the broadcast rights and we’re going to profit from it!” So they took the value out of it, out of the city.
The city saw the Olympics as a positive model for economic development. Cities used to see the Fairs this way. But in 1984, you had the Louisiana World’s Fair, which ended in bankruptcy due to a variety of factors including some corruption and poor modeling and forecasting.
You had this flip. In the past, cities loved hosting World’s Fairs. If you look through Wikipedia, every couple years there’s a different city. Just in the US you had New York, San Antonio, Knoxville, New Orleans. But then people are suddenly like: this actually isn’t as profitable. The Olympics are the next shiny object. Let’s go do that.
The second aspect is the incentives.
You know what opened in 1982? EPCOT. And EPCOT was designed to be kind of a semi-permanent World’s Fair. At the time, it was the place where you could go see the future.
You had the countries. You had the different pavilions on energy and food and transportation. It captured the sentiment that some of the great World’s Fairs had captured for people. Disney’s marketing engine drove a bunch of people to go visit, which diminished demand for hosting World’s Fairs elsewhere.
The third aspect is the stagnation thesis, which many readers have likely already heard of. It’s that we have stopped building the physical world. Today it’s so much harder to create things. And a subtle cultural shift played a role in our innovation pipeline.
As things moved to the world of software and hardware or microchips and semiconductors and software, there were a lot fewer things to show off. This made it hard for people with limited imaginations to think the future and to tell the stories of these things in a way that’s going to be compelling to people.
Is there, is there a reason that the World's Fair is so often associated with the Cold War and the 1960 space race?
I have a theory about how important the Fairs were — and even the role of Walt Disney — in kind the cultural movement around the space race.
In 1962 you had the Seattle World’s Fair. It was a “Century 21” exposition, which highlighted the space age of humanity. It’s a backstop to Kennedy’s “we’re going to go to the moon.”
Everyone was talking about space. Seattle themed their World’s Fair around that and seeded the cultural zeitgeist with ideas and concepts about humanity’s exploration of the galaxy.
Then, in 1964, you had arguably the largest World’s Fair up to that point in New York. It also told stories and promoted ideas of humans exploring space.
You had NASA sections. You could go see the Mercury rocket. They had some of the concepts of Apollo. It got American people thinking “oh, we should go to space!”
I think it serves as a cultural backstop to the administration’s objectives to get to the moon and to win the Cold War and to one-up the Soviets. It’s not explicit or a core strategy. But it just served that purpose at the time.
Are there particular ideas or technologies debuted at the World’s Fair that had a big impact on cities? And how did the World’s Fair affect the host cities?
The most like concrete example is from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was designed by the great Daniel Burnham, who most people may remember as one of the more famous architects of that era.
The design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair ultimately inspired the City Beautiful Movement because you had 27 million people who got on trains, boats, horse and buggy, to make their way out to Chicago where they saw this beautiful ornate architecture illuminated by electricity for the very first time.
That architectural style inspired the millions of guests who went there and the architects who were involved in the planning process and to develop out this architectural movement known as the city beautiful movement.
These fairs have also been used to accelerate technologies that are already working, but aren’t widely adopted. So in the 1933 Chicago Second World’s Fair they used experimental building technologies and materials that everyone thought were too risky or too expensive or hadn’t been publicly accepted.
By demoing at the Fair and having some of those building materials used in construction, they showed it was possible to build with these things.
You’ve probably heard of this strange phenomenon around, for instance, the four minute mile. Everyone believed the four minute mile was impossible, right? Then one person breaks the four minute mile. Suddenly, many people break the four minute mile.
Do you see anything between the kind of dynamic that you’re describing about the World’s Fair and the “four minute mile” effect?
Absolutely. People just don’t know what’s possible.
If you can show people and allow them to experience some of these things, it expands their awareness of what could be. If you can make these things concrete for people and they can see them and, even better, if they can experience them, it closes the gap in their minds. They start by thinking “it’s a pipe dream, it’s impossible.” And they end by thinking, “This could be very real. I see it and I want to be a part of it.”
That’s the arc of the Fairs. How do we take these things that are ideas or pipe dreams for folks and make them concrete so people think “this is what I want”?
What has the World's Fair gotten the most wrong about the future in its history?
There’s an exhibit in the 1939 New York World’s Fair called Futurama. This was a pavilion designed by GM to showcase what a car driven future would look like.
You’d sit in this vehicle and it would give you a narrative tour of the future as a result of cars. It made you aware of highways and some of the groundwork for the Interstate Highway Project of the 50’s and 60’s.
At the time everyone thought car driven cities are going to be the best possible thing. Yes, we want cars and highways. Look at all the opportunity that's gonna open up for people. And, in a way, it did.
Now we’ve come full circle to where having car-centric cities and having to drive everywhere actually is inconvenient. It’s frustrating. It’s expensive. We’ve unlocked all this opportunity and prosperity as a result. But what do we want moving forward?
So the Fair didn’t necessarily get it wrong. But it painted a vision for the future that didn’t think out the second and third order effects that we are now starting to consider because the first order consequences have played out.
Has something debuted at the World’s Fair that you think undersold itself — that was a way bigger deal than people believed that it would be at the time?
In 1915, you had the Model T make a debut in San Francisco at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition.
To get the Model T there Henry Ford’s son and one of his friends drove from Dearborn, Michigan, all the way out to San Francisco. They did this road show with the Model T and they would stop in cities along the way.
When they got there, they set up an assembly line and actually manufactured the Model T at the Fair. You had people who had never seen cars in person now seeing them being manufactured in front of their eyes. I think at the time that seems that's one of those technologies that seems kind of cool. But people had no idea this is going to become the primary mode of transportation for people just like 30 years later.
Imagine seeing the assembly line for the first time!
Let’s say you get to build what you want. What’s the experience for the person who shows up at Cam’s ideal World’s Fair?
My ideal World's Fair will be an experience unlike anything anyone alive today has ever seen. The moment you step into the transportation station that takes you to the Fairgrounds, things will be nothing short of magical.
When you arrive, you’ll step out onto an expansive welcome plaza and be flooded with sounds, smells, architecture, and visuals that work together to evoke the deepest sense of wonder you've felt in your life.
You’ll spend your day exploring over a dozen unique realms that are distinctively themed to tell a story about different aspects of the future. For example, when you walk into the space realm, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a bustling spaceport.
When you step into the food realm, you’ll feel like you’ve wandered into a tranquil garden. When you walk through the cities realm, you may find yourself in a small Italian hill village filled with technology that reminds you that you’re not in Kansas anymore…
In each of these realms, you’ll find large-scale immersive experiences called Pavilions that will pull you deeper into a story about certain facets of the future like vertical farming, rocket construction, or fusion energy.
You’ll also have dozens of unique (and themed) dining options alongside nonstop entertainment: shows, talks, and experiences. Together these combine to highlight the exciting future being built today, celebrate the people building it, and paint a positive vision for the future ahead.
Then if you’re feeling adventurous, you’ll have the opportunity to step into an imagined world and explore it — as if the world’s leading science fiction authors imagined the coolest possible future and then turned it into a place. You’ll be able to directly interact with the technologies of tomorrow, meet the people who helped create that world, and most importantly, see how all of the individual possibilities you explored in the realms combine to form a future more incredible than you’ve imagined.
So whether it’s the food and shows, the immersive experiences, or simply the space to step away from the strain of your day-to-day and be surrounded by possibility, there’s something you’ll love at the Fair.
You’ll also leave with a renewed sense of hope for the future — this powerful feeling that the future will be incredible and that you can play a role in helping build it.
Can you talk about your design and charrette process for designing Fair scenarios?
Last October with the help of some of our advisors who are former Disney Imagineers we started to reimagine this thing. It can’t be like it’s been in the past. This is not about nations. This is not about architecture alone. It’s about the future and the stories of our future that we could be living in.
You have to start with story. They introduced me to this concept that is famous from the Walt Disney Imagineering world, where you have a charrette. A charrette is a gathering where you try to quickly arrive at solutions and brainstorm ideas. Charrette is a formal term for a brainstorm or creative session.
We gather eight to 12 people in a room. We talk about what is the thing is that we want to explore. For the first one, it was “what is Main Street USA of the future?” We ask “what’s the opening, the entry experience to the next great World’s Fair?” We started hosting these online.
After a little bit of trial and error we had a good kind of thing going with Zoom and Miro, where we’d gather and we’d talk about what does each section of the Fair look like? What’s exciting about energy, about food, about transportation? It’s a way to generate ideas and stories for both kind of the aesthetic design of each of these pieces of the fair, as well as the stories and experience that we want to create.
The role of these is one, product design and development, and two, it’s how we create a space that captures the feeling of the Fair today, which is this optimism and hope and excitement for the future.
By creating these informal spaces where we can talk freely about being taken on a tour through history by, you know, an AI Einstein, or walking through a model city of the future, or having coffee in the year 2100, we come up with these ideas and concepts that capture the feeling today.
They give people hope and then kind of inspire the development of the Fair.
What’s the deal with Disney’s EPCOT and its relationship to the World's Fair?
There's a really important short film that's put together by DefunctLand on EPCOT.
After building Disneyland, Walt Disney always wanted to dream bigger and do more. He had this vision for the “experimental prototype community of tomorrow.” The idea is how could you build a place that is always on the frontier, with the latest in technologies being researched and developed and deployed?
His vision was to have a city that people would fly into. They would stop by this city of the future on their way to the theme parks. The vision was to create a place where the future was built all the time. Then those ideas would be shared with the rest of the world.
The project was called EPCOT. But after Walt Disney died, the leadership and the vision for that faded. It’s a big project and requires a lot of money and a lot of risk. The only person capable of actually leading that project would have been Walt Disney.
The Imagineers decided, well, what can we do instead? What can we do to respect Walt’s vision, but in a way that’s not crazy and absurd?
Walt Disney had a ton of involvement with the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s a Small World, for example, was built for the fair. The Carousel of Progress. You had the Ford Motor Speedway and a couple other experiences.
They thought: what if we take this idea of the city and this showcase of the future, and we turn it into an experience that’s permanent or semi-permanent World’s Fair? And that’s what EPCOT ultimately became.
This is some obscure history... but one of Walt Disney’s prime inspirations for how was thinking about structuring EPCOT — the city — was from this architect, Victor Gruen. Victor Gruen is most famous for the shopping mall developments and popularizing shopping centers. But he wrote this book called The Heart of Our Cities.
In it, he outlined a plan to host a World’s Fair in D.C. and convert it into a permanent city. In 1964, New York ended up being the city that was selected to host. So his plans never came to fruition.
It’s very clear that Walt Disney read this book. It was one of the things that he carried around. Victor was deeply kind of inspiring to him and his work and even the way EPCOT’s architecture was laid out was very similar to Victor Gruen's kind of “heart of our city” model.
There’s some interesting overlap between Disney, EPCOT, World’s Fairs, and startup cities. Bluntly, I think if we’re moving to a world where we want to see new cities be created and we want to experiment with different forms of governance we really want to see more and more of things like this produced.
The World’s Fairs can serve like an economic jumpstart to some of these places in some of these communities that may start start much smaller, but can eventually grow into the cities of tomorrow.
The coolest World’s Fair in history:
It’s a tie between the two in Chicago. I’m gonna have to say that the 1933 one takes the cake just because it was hosted middle of the Great Depression. Everyone needed some some optimism. They needed something to look forward to. And the Fair provided that for them in an incredibly scaled way.
The most important technology or idea unveiled at any World’s Fair was?
The X-ray made its debut in 1904, along with the infant incubator, which has since saved countless lives.
Thomas Edison was just a patent troll.
I don’t have a strong take on that one.
The most techno-optimist culture on earth right now is?
Startup Cities movement.
If Walt Disney hadn’t died so young, he would have built EPCOT into a real city.
Nikola Tesla is overrated.
I think he’s underrated. He’s a misunderstood genius. He didn’t have the PR that some of the other big geniuses have.
Due to its effects on climate and urban design, Henry Ford’s work with the automobile was a net negative for humanity.
I strongly disagree. The nature of progress is you do things, they cause problems, but they also cause immense growth and opportunity. And then you’re tasked with going to solve the new problems.
The best futurism in literature is?
This is a tricky one. I think Arthur C. Clark’s, Jules Verne’s kind of the story of the future from the last century.
The best futurism in film is?
This is also a tricky one. There’s not a lot of optimistic film, which we need to change.
The best exhibit museum or other experience on futurism is?
Museum of the Future in Dubai.
The person alive today that’s holding back the future the most is?
Whoever is the head of the NRC — the Nuclear Review Committee — preventing the development and deployment of new nuclear technologies.
Good answer. The person alive today that’s doing the most for the future is?
Elon’s the obvious take here but I’m going to give Sam Altman this one.
The growth of YCombinator and helping popularize startups and building Startup School and all that. I think that’s made going and doing the things we’re talking about way more accessible to way more people and is under-appreciated.
How can people support your great mission to bring back the World’s Fair?
First, we’re working on launching a series of in person events and experiences in San Francisco. If you’re in the city, I’d love to either have you come out to them or help create them. In either case, my DMs are open on Twitter (camwiese) or I can be reached at email@example.com
Second, I’m looking for our Founding Patrons. If any of readers are interested in supporting the mission, they can make a tax-deductible contribution to help us fulfill the mission of inspiring the future. We have a few different tiers of contributions and patrons will join the ranks of our existing supporters like Tyler Cowen and Packy McCormick.
Third, we’re always working on product! If you want to help brainstorm pavilions, experiences, or visuals for the Fair please get in touch and I’ll add you one of our working groups.
Other than that, I encourage everyone to follow along at worldsfair.co — we have a podcast that goes out and send a newsletter with the latest projects on a bi-weekly basis.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget: Startup should build cities!