From March 2012 to the end of September 2013, I was asked by Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta (the UK's innovation agency) to lead-curate a massive festival of the future called, appropriately enough, FutureFest.
The plan was to occupy Shoreditch Town Hall in London, over the weekend of 28th-29th September, and fill its Edwardian municipal grandeur with visions, arguments and demonstrations of the near-future (with an implicit mid-century horizon of 2050).
Go back to any of the great expos, or even to the earliest futurologists – like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), with its longevity drugs and flying machines, its robots and clones – and it sometimes seems that modernity has always contained the same set of yearnings about the future: stronger, faster, more automation, more communication.
The acme of this might be Walt Disney’s mid-fifties EPCOT (Experimental Community Of Tomorrow), a theme park in which cosmic exploration leaves behind a happy planet of harmonious cultures and sociable, zip-suited citizens.
Well, it’s 2013, and of course we’re wiser and more civilization-weary than all that. Those intricate techno-sciences we devise and set running? They end up rattling our economies, fighting our wars, bombarding our attention spans and challenging our bio-ethics around birth, health and human potential.
And some of the more massive trends heading into the future – the inexorables of population growth and global warming, emergent economies and regions with their own claims to truth and justice – would seem largely resistant to the glittering technical fixes that future-types of the past have put their faith in.
But it’s 2013, and of course we can also imagine – because that’s what humans irrepressibly do – how this progress towards the mid-century might be quite different.
Radical innovation could well find us a combination of energy sources that mitigate the impact of a heating planet. Our computers and devices could as easily amplify our natural capacities for invention and community, as unravel or stymie them.
Over only a few decades of bioscience, our “new normal” could be closer to that menagerie of mutants and cyborgs that you see in the average Star Trek street-scene, than it might be to the mutton-chopped visitors to the Crystal Palace.
How to capture all of these possibilities, in a particular time and place? And in city where the weight of the past, and the chaos of a globalised future, can easily be mapped from the top of a giant glass shard? The principle of a festival – with its tolerance for enthusiasm, dissent and experiment – seemed like the only way it could be gathered together and curated.
FutureFest takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall, London – a building which itself brims with Victorian progressive self-confidence (its motto on the stained glass windows is “more light, more power”). In its cavernous rooms we will be deploying three different methods of thinking about the future.
Firstly, great minds and practitioners (some writing in these pages) will give short but powerfully focussed takes on our options heading towards mid-century, and beyond – everything from the future of religion and altruism, to the future of eating and manufacturing.
Next, we’ll offer immersive spaces in which participants can literally “meet and experience” the future. Real – or at least, artistic and creative – humans will conduct a variety of performances, installations, social games and even banquets, that will leave visitors in a delightful space between “now” and “next”.
And finally, we’ll allow people to go deeper into the future, with a range of forums, seminars, makeshops and technical expos from organizations like the Oxford Martin Institute, Arup, the BBC, Berg, Dyson and many others. (Pat Kane, "Making the Future Dance", Futurefest site).
We had a sell-out on the day, saw millions of interactions around the #futurefest hashtag on Twitter, and with any luck FutureFest will become a regular event in the cities of the UK for years to come. Certainly one of the most satisfying creative endeavours I've yet directed.
And here's some breathless highlights of the two days: