Why we need a new ‘major exhibition’

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This week, we have issued a report calling on the UK to host another Grand Exhibition to show the importance of innovation and inspire the next generation of inventors among the general public.

The original Great Exhibition took place in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park and built on a long and successful tradition of using the industry’s exhibitions to showcase the latest technological developments, as well as encouraging and promoting further innovation in areas such as science and manufacturing.

The Great Exhibition attracted six million visitors, the equivalent of a third of the UK’s population (including famous people from Queen Victoria to Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin to Michael Faraday), and featured exhibits such as a forerunner of the fax machine, an early submarine, rudimentary photographic techniques and voting machines, and had the world’s first paid toilets (from which we borrowed the phrase “spend a penny”).

In Blueprint for a new major exhibition, historian and Head of Innovation Research at The Entrepreneurs Network, Dr. Anton Howes explains how a new Grand Exhibition can be made a success. Recent attempts to recreate the industry’s historic exhibitions, not least the ultimately ill-fated Unboxed Festival (dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’), have failed to achieve their goal. Howes accuses such efforts of “missing the mark”, focusing mainly on “major events to attract visitors, promote tourism and provide entertainment” – and fail to always even achieve that.

Howes argues that a new Great Exhibition should aim to “recapture the spirit” of the Great Exhibition of 1851—the original World’s Fair—with an explicit focus on: showcasing the latest innovation in science, technology, and the arts; promoting collaboration, trade and learning between innovators; and educating and inspiring the public.

The report has been endorsed by many of the greats and the good, including Emma Jones CBE, founder and CEO of Enterprise nation, who said: “If there was ever a time when the UK needed a major industry exhibition, it’s now. In this report, Anton refers to the serendipity of connections, celebrating progress and inspiring the next generation of innovators. These are real benefits of hosting such an ambitious event and I would also like to offer that it can send a message to the world that our industrial and innovative country remains open for business.”

Howes says a new unique structure should be built to house or accompany the exhibit, which itself could serve as a demonstration of the latest innovation in construction – using modern building materials and methods, such as 3D printing. In addition to the Crystal Palace, earlier World’s Fair buildings with a lasting legacy include the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889), the Space Needle in Seattle (1962), and the Atomium in Brussels (1958). He even conducted a Twitter poll about four possible designs created with Midjourney.

James Wise, partner at Balderton capital said of this idea: “We know that innovation is contagious, people are much more likely to try new inventive and entrepreneurial endeavors if they are exposed to others who have taken this step themselves. A celebration of innovation, as described in A blueprint for a new major exhibition could inspire many more people to work on the technologies we need to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, and create the serendipity between inventors, entrepreneurs and investors needed to get those ideas off the ground. ” While Richard Harpin, founder of HomeServesaid: “Innovation is an important part of entrepreneurial endeavor and success and showing this through an industry exhibition is a great proposition that deserves support.”

According to Howes, “Innovation will not only provide us with new conveniences and exciting entertainment, but will also be necessary to solve so many of society’s most pressing problems – from climate change to an aging population. By organizing a new Grand Exhibition to bring together the world’s most creative minds, showcase their inventions to the public and inspire the next generation of innovators.”