This weekend was Nesta’s annual FutureFest event where the public are invited to debate, be inspired by, and get a feel for what we believe the future will hold.
Nesta is an independent charity dedicated to supporting innovation. As Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan said: "At a time of slow growth and shrinking public spending, many people's horizons are shrinking in. We want to rekindle people's sense of possibility – of a future that is bound to surprise us but that can also be shaped by us."
The concept of the future being shaped by everyone is a popular idea in our ever-increasing world of connectivity, collaboration and the power of the crowd. Conferences like SXSW and CES have, for years, been the ‘places to be’ when it comes to finding out what’s next – but with steep ticket prices and an emphasis on corporate attendance over individuals, you don’t tend to find many people there who aren’t representing some form of organisation.
So, do events like FutureFest – where the emphasis on public engagement is key, being programmed at the weekend and with cheap entry – really empower people, or is it more of a trendy form of entertainment?
The first thing you notice at FutureFest is that it is extremely busy. There are so many events going on, particularly in London, that event organisers are used to over-selling tickets to get bums on seats; a half-full room doesn’t necessarily represent a poor event. But this wasn’t an issue for these organisers as the rooms had people standing at the back or sitting on the floor for the vast majority of talks.
It’s clear there’s a hunger amongst the attendees to be engaged in the conversations which went on – there was never enough time for questions and comments as so many people stuck their hands up – so it’s clear people came armed with both their curiosity and own opinions.
Speaking to some of the attendees proved that inspiration was high on the agenda.
“I was looking for new ideas. If you read the news and look at politics at the moment, it feels like a pretty depressing time in some ways – we’re quite hemmed in – so this is one of those rare opportunities to hear about things that are looking years or decades in the future. It lifts you out of that day-to-day thinking.” Joe, based in London.
Belen Palacios of the Future Cities Catapult also spoke about the inspiration pull, but also of the motivation to hear about the here and now: “There is a wide variety of topics to help stimulate thinking about the future, but I like to unpick what’s actually happening right now that will help shape what comes next.”
It also seemed as if there was an expectation that lessons would be learned to inform people's lives, jobs and burning problems.
Jenny, a psychotherapist attending for the 3rd time, mentioned the importance of physical events and human interaction: “I’m really keen on catalysing change by seeing what’s happening and joining in. I think if interesting people all come together, it gives us all more confidence to make change.”
Business leaders were also keen to find useful takeaways, with Sahar of Middle East Global Advisors saying: “I manage a big team, so one of the things I’m constantly thinking about is how to manage people. How we are working is evolving all the time, especially as we continue to be exposed to changes in technology. Given the lines between work and pleasure are increasingly blurred, I want to understand how we can make the most of that, as an employer.”
It’s safe to say attendees were excited to be at FutureFest.
One criticism some attendees voiced on social media though was the apparent lack of diversity. Whilst the organisers succeeded at curating a wide range of speakers from various backgrounds, genders and ethnicities, the same couldn’t be said of the audience. Rooms were predominantly filled with white, most-likely middle-class people, and so you could argue that despite the range of ideas discussed and the energy of all involved, an echo chamber of futurism may well have been formed.
Saying that, more events like FutureFest can only be a good thing. Particularly in the scientific ecosystem where conferences are either of the dull, non-engaging academic type, or the whizz-bang kid’s-science-fair variety.
Bringing together thought leaders from various disciplines to speak to and engage with the wider public, particularly on topics which really matter to them, can only be a good thing. There was a real spirit of sharing progress and inspiration, but also of gathering ideas from outside the usual realms in order to shape the future – something which the scientific industry would do well to replicate.