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What We Can Learn from the 1939 World’s Fair

World's Fair

1939 World’s Fair

Perhaps the greatest of World’s Fairs took place from 1939 to 1940 in Flushing Meadows, New York. The theme of the fair was the Dawn of a New Day and urged visitors to look at the world of tomorrow.

A pamphlet given out at the fair had this to say:

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.'”

As much of what I do is look at emerging technologies and trends, it is interesting and educational to look back at what other futurists saw and also to see what they missed. As an example,  General Motors created a display of the future called “Futurama.”  Visitors to the Fair sat in moving chairs and were taken over this display of what the future highway and physical infrastructure of America would look like in the year 1960 – some twenty years in the future.

Futurama

Futurama

Futurama
The General Motors display turned out to be amazingly accurate. It shows what we know as the Interstate highway system along with clover leaf ramps and multiple lane highways. But it also marveled that all of America would be electrified by 1960 (and they were almost exactly right), discussed such areas as artificial pollination of fruit trees, sewage treatment plants, the increased number of sophisticated amusement parks, and the growth of inexpensive track housing. None of these innovations or inventions were unknown to scientists, sociologists or urban planners, but for most Americans these were radical concepts. Remember this was the end of the Depression and people had very little. Most had not owned a car or a house. To imagine a world with vast highways, modern housing  and prosperous farms was a stretch!

But what is most glaringly missing in this video and in the displays at the Fair is any indication or speculations about how people will respond and react to these technological changes. There is an implicit assumption that life will be pretty much the same in 1960 as it was 1939. People will work on farms and live in villages. That everyone will be happier and healthier than they were in 1939.  It was a very positive picture with little indication of the changes these innovations would cause.

Future Button

Future Button

How People React to Technological Change
As we are well aware, it is the way people react to technology that is the most interesting and challenging for futurists to imagine.  Every technological innovations creates a change in how people think, work, live, communicate, and learn.  Even if the change is small, over time they accumulate and create social disruptions.

While the highway system made it safer and faster to travel across the country, it also led to migration from villages to cities and helped to create a mobile society where many people have shallow roots to the past. The technological improvements to farming from new fertilizers and hybrid plants to computerized plows and GPS-assisted harvesting equipment has made the small farm impossible. Electrification led to mass communciation and the spread of television and eventually the Internet.

We are in the midst of another such time as hundreds of biological and technical innovations are about to reshape again how we live, learn and work. By looking back at events such as the 1939 World’s Fair one can gather a better understanding of how to look at and respond to the sociological and psychological reactions we are already having as a society and as individuals to the changes that are  among us.

How we will work and live just twenty years from now is worthy of some deep reflection.  If you are interested, take a look at our Future of Talent Retreat coming up in October where we will explore how things from social networks to virtual worlds are going to affect how we work, learn, and live.

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