An iPod or Xbox world's fair?

Not yet. The world still likes real-world expos, and two nearby regions, the Silicon Valley (with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the way), and Edmonton, Alberta, are hoping to host a world's fair by 2020.

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The Vancouver Pavilion in Shanghai emphasized density and urban life.

Not yet. The world still likes real-world expos, and two nearby regions, the Silicon Valley (with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the way), and Edmonton, Alberta, are hoping to host a world's fair by 2020.

The largest world's fair ever held, and the first in a developing nation, closed on Oct. 31 in Shanghai, China. The favorite topic of conversation for the true expo nerd? Where's the next one?

There are two short answers to that. In 2012, our Pacific Rim neighbor South Korea will host a three-month, specialized expo in the seaport of Yeosu with a focus on coastal issues, a topic of great relevance here in the Northwest. The next universal expo, the big, six-month kind like Shanghai, is slated for Milan, Italy in 2015. Expos are ephemeral and forward-looking, and the traditional closing ceremony ends up with a symbolic hand-off from one country to another. In a kind of recapitulation of the culture exchange between Marco Polo and the Orient, the Chinese concluded their fair by handing an exposition flag to a representative of the next host of an equivalent-sized event, the mayor of Milan.

The Italian fair is already generating buzz. The theme is feeding the planet. Who'd want to miss a fair about food in Italy?

But there are also some intriguing prospects a little further out and closer to home. We could have an expo on the West Coast along the southern Bay Area border of Ecotopia in 2020, or even sooner, in the northern reaches of the Cascadia economic zone, namely Edmonton, Alberta. 

The last true Pacific Northwest fair, and the last in North America, was in Vancouver, B.C. in 1986. That expo brought lasting changes to the city, ones that set the stage for the hosting of the Olympics and the continued evolution of False Creek as a cornerstone of the "Vancouver miracle" combining urban growth and sustainability. The impact of expos can be significant for regional cities, but also larger regions.

Century 21 in Seattle in 1962 was a boon for tourism, bringing millions of dollars to the Northwest by appealing to suburban car-campers. The result was a kind of grand-tour by station wagon as moms, dads and their baby boomer kids flocked to see Mount Rainier, Victoria, Crater Lake, even Yellowstone, enroute to the Space Needle.

So, close-in expos can snag tourists, promote regional trade, and gain visibility even for those not at the center of things. Nearby states, for example, might have their own pavilions, as Washington has had at earlier expos in San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver, to name a few. Expo city bidders can actually influence the trade agenda, and certainly Northwest-based corporations will be prime targets for expo sponsorships, from Microsoft and Amazon to Starbucks, Boeing and Nike.

Sparked by his visit to the Shanghai Expo in September, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the Silicon Valley would bid for an expo in 2020. The idea is backed by the business group, the Bay Area Business Council, whose members consist of the 275 largest employers in the region, including Yahoo, Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Chevron, and Wells Fargo. Members are reported to be very supportive of the concept. 

A Silicon Valley bid is intriguing for many reasons; one is that no expo has been held in the U.S. since 1984 (New Orleans), and the last in San Francisco was on Treasure Island in 1939-40, so it could be argued that one is overdue. Second, the Silicon Valley concept comes with a specific piece of land in mind, 800 acres of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale between San Francisco and San Jose. The idea is to transform the former Naval Air station, once known for its airships, into a into higher education facility for the University of California, expand the Google campus, which shares the site, and allow NASA to develop a new high-tech campus. NASA already has facilities there.

It is difficult for mature cities to find enough exposition space unless, like the Chinese, you are willing to use bulldozers freely. But Moffett Field is a tempting, developable site along major highway and rail lines. A hub for cross-Bay ferry service is already slated to open there in 2020. If expos are nothing else, they are globally attractive local urban redevelopment projects.

While expos invite the world, the legacy they leave behind is usually very local. Without a local goal, and the willingness to spend state, county and city money on new infrastructure and support, they are DOA. Too, they require deep pockets and support in the business community. The Silicon Valley bid alone will cost around $8 million, according to early estimates. The bid process is not for those who aren't serious.

The bad news is that California is struggling financially. The good news is that there is a major opportunity right in the middle of an economic zone (the Silicon Valley) which is on high-tech's cutting edge. The theme isn't set in stone but is coming into focus, emphasizing sustainability, innovation, and space (doesn't every high-tech entrepreneur have his own spaceship company these days?). The valley has big corporate resources who could help fund a fair, that is, if they don't see expos as old hat. 

A frequent suggestion is: Why aren't expos just done online? One reason is they are about the real world, especially real estate. As long as people need office parks, housing, bridges, trains and subways, highway improvements, and sewer systems, expos will be a way to leverage resources to accomplish the mundane with an inspiring, utopian gloss. An iPod or Xbox expo era is not in the offing. Another reason: Expos are great consumer showcases for cutting edge technology, like 4-D multimedia, better than digital devices can offer. Plus, lots of people still come to world's fairs.

Shanghai hosted over 73 million people, a record (even if some attendance was state mandated). No one expects numbers like that in the jaded, media saturated USA, but still, tens of millions of people turn out for these events.

A major hurdle for the Silicon Valley effort: to bid and host, the U.S. would have to rejoin the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based organization that oversees expos. The U.S. dropped out during the George W. Bush era. I was recently a guest of the BIE's in Shanghai, and getting back in good standing might be complicated for the U.S. It would require about $300,000 in back, current, and future dues to get through the bidding process for 2020, but it also might (or might not) require an act of Congress. 

John Grubb, senior vice president for external affairs for the Bay Area Council, says they have a strategy for resolving the BIE issue. It has several prongs. One is to pass legislation, during the lame duck session of Congress if need be, to lift federal prohibitions limiting U.S. involvement in world's fairs. That isn't required for the bid, but it signals that the U.S. is prepared to take seriously the expo movement, whether we host a fair here or not, and it opens the possibility of future federal support for pavilions here and abroad.

A possible helper in this process: the freshly re-elected Sen. Barbara Boxer, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Second, the Silicon bidders are offering to pay with private funds the BIE dues so no federal appropriation would be required. They hope their plan will be a bipartisan effort: Another city very interested in an Expo in 2020 is Houston, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, is reportedly an expo enthusiast.

However, there is no strong domestic political constituency for expos. Liberals tend to think money should be spent on other stuff (rail, healthcare, poverty programs); conservatives and xenophobes worry about costs and having anything to do with something run by the French. Some, like the late Sen. Jesse Helms, view expos as a pernicious form of globalization, a fairground for the evil United Nations (where were the Black Helicopter rides in Shanghai?). But Hillary Clinton went strongly to bat for the U.S. presence in China, an act that was seen as a possible recommitment to public diplomacy.

Sadly, the pavilion wasn't very good, so it did't necessarily win hearts and minds, though its presence helped avoid major insult to the Chinese. Quietly, though, China was none too pleased with the U.S. showing, and neither were many I talked to in the greater expo community. According to the Shanghai Daily, the USA Pavilion was picked as "most disappointing" in a survey of Chinese expo visitors. That said, if getting back in the BIE is nothing more than catching up on dues and sending a letter or two, and if fees can be paid by the private sector, there's little for anyone to complain about.

And at the very least, the flawed U.S. participation in Shanghai did help awaken leaders in the U.S. to the idea of expos. The size, scope, and benefits of Shanghai excited Schwarzenegger and Perry. Still, there are skeptics who think it's foolish to imagine Shanghai can be repeated in California, in part because of the state's dysfunctional politics.

The other nearby bidder has no BIE problem: Edmonton, Alberta. The province, which benefitted from the Calgary Olympics in 1988, wants an expo, and after some arguing between Calgary and Edmonton, the latter city, the provincial capital, got the green light. Edmonton had a high-powered team in China last week to "twist arms," and it is common for future bidders to check out current fairs, learn the process, and gauge the competition. Canada is in the BIE and has a history of strong pavilions and participation in expos.

Edmonton is looking to host a specialized, three-month fair in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canada. The proposed theme is "Harmony of Energy and Our Future Planet" and certainly oil- and gas-rich, energy-boom cities have the capital to invest in a major event. It's no accident that Alberta, often called the Texas of Canada, is thinking about an expo, nor Houston. Edmonton is emphasizing innovative energy solutions, promising the smallest footprint of any expo, and pledging to make it transit-friendly. 

They envision a split site with two sections connected by water taxi and a new bridge across the North Saskatchewan River river. The main site would be the South Campus of the University of Alberta, and just as fairs like the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle left the legacy of the University of Washington campus, the Edmonton expo is expected to do the same. The university has the stated goal of becoming "one of the top 20 public universities in the world" by 2020 and the expo would leave behind green structures and research facilities to boost it toward that goal.

Fueled in part by the oil sands boom, some see Edmonton as the emerging power of the north, with industrial strength and a decade or more of accelerating economic growth ahead. And regional rivalry with Calgary is certainly part of the equation: Edmonton does not want to be eclipsed and saw the boost their rival got from the Olympics (expos are the world's largest non-sporting event). As a writer recently noted in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "If you stacked up all of [Edmonton's] warehouses, fabricating shops and industrial facilities on top of each other, you'd end up with something that easily rivals downtown Calgary in size and scope — just with fewer cappuccino bars." The headline on the piece: "Alberta's big mo shifts north."

No one knows yet if any expo mo will shift to North America again. A decision on 2017 will be made at the end of 2012; a decision on 2020 probably in early 2013. The phenomena that left our shores is globalizing elsewhere, with potential sites buzzed about for Turkey, Central Asia (Kazakhstan), the Middle East (Dubai), and South America (Brazil). Even China would like to get back on the bandwagon, with cities like Guangdong showing interest. BIE bylaws prohibit a host country from hosting again for 15 years, so a Chinese encore will have to wait until 2025. Meanwhile, there are plenty of cities that want the world to come to their fair. Some are very close to home and bear watching.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.