This week, we released a report calling for the UK to host a new Great Exhibition to showcase 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 exhibitions of industry to demonstrate the latest technological advances, as well as incentivizing and fostering further innovation in fields such as science and manufacturing.
The Great Exhibition attracted six million visitors, the equivalent of a third of the British population (including famous individuals, from Queen Victoria to Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin to Michael Faraday), and featured exhibits such as a precursor to the fax machine, an early submarine, rudimentary photographic techniques and voting machines, and featured the world’s first pay toilets (from which we gained the phrase “spend a penny”).
In Blueprint for a New Great Exhibition, historian and Head of Innovation Research at The Entrepreneurs Network, Dr Anton Howes sets out the case for a new Great Exhibition, and how to make it a success. Recent attempts to recreate historical exhibitions of industry, not least the ultimately ill-fated Unboxed Festival (also dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’), have fallen short of delivering on their objectives. Howes accuses such attempts as “missing the point,” focusing primarily on being “big events to draw in visitors, promoting tourism and providing entertainment” – and not always succeeding in even achieving that.
Howes argues that a new Great Exhibition should aim to “recapture the spirit” of the 1851 Great Exhibition – the original World’s Fair – with an explicit focus on: showcasing the latest innovation in science, technology, and the arts; fostering cooperation, trade, and learning between innovators; and educating and inspiring the public.
The report has been endorsed by many of the great and the good, including Emma Jones CBE, founder and CEO of Enterprise Nation, who said: “If there was ever a time the UK needed a Great Exhibition of Industry, it is now. In this report, Anton refers to the serendipity of connections, celebrating progress, and inspiring the next generation of innovators. These are true benefits of hosting such an ambitious event and I would also offer it could send a message to the world that our industrial and innovative country remains open for business.”
Howes says that a new unique structure should be built to house or accompany the Exhibition, which itself could serve as a demonstration of the latest innovation in construction – using modern building materials and methods, such as 3D-printing. As well as the Crystal Palace, previous World’s Fair structures with an enduring legacy include the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889), the Space Needle in Seattle (1962), and the Atomium in Brussels (1958). He even ran Twitter a poll on four possible designs created with Midjourney.
James Wise, Partner at Balderton Capital said of this idea: “We know that innovation is contagious, people are far 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, in the way described in A Blueprint for a New Great Exhibition could inspire many more people to work on the technologies we need to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century, and engineer the serendipity between inventors, entrepreneurs and investors needed to get those ideas off the ground.” While Richard Harpin, founder of HomeServe, said: “Innovation is a key part of entrepreneurial endeavor and success and showcasing this via an exhibition of industry is a great proposal worthy of support.”
According to Howes: “As well as simply furnishing us with novel conveniences and exciting amusements, innovation will be imperative to solving so many of society’s most pressing problems – from climate change to an aging population. By hosting a new Great Exhibition to bring together the world’s most creative minds, showcase their inventions to the public, and inspire the next generation of innovators.”