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Scan For An Open Mind

October 10, 2013

Having spent years as a consultant in the scenario planning field, I signed up to attend FutureFest hosted by Nesta, http://www.nesta.org.uk/, out of curiosity.  It was billed as “the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers gathering in East London this September to create an immersive experience of what the world will feel like over the next few decades”.  As this was big billing for the inaugural event, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the day.  I was interested to see what the UK’s organisation for innovation inspiration had to say about the future.  I was particularly intrigued to see what they had to say about  “How technology and creativity will transform our experience of the world” in one of the stream of events called – The Imaginarium.

Sadly, getting a full picture of The Imaginarium was nigh impossible during my Saturday afternoon session.  With three simultaneous events going on in addition to an exhibition, I was forced to sample different pieces of the vast offerings organised into five FutureFest themes – The Imaginarium, The Value of Everything, Well-Becoming, We Are All Gardeners Now and The Gastrodome.  The good news is that the event was very well covered and there is plenty of content online, including material already available at http://www.futurefest.org/.

Upon arriving at the event, I was scanned for an open mind by a futuristic looking person welcoming everyone to FutureFest.  My immediate reaction was that this is strange but, then again, it is a conference about envisioning how the future may unfold. Nonetheless, I was officially on notice that this was not my run-of-the-mill, everyday conference event.

I began my journey into the future with the presentation of Rachel Armstrong’s view of a sustainable future, which I found fascinating.  Rachel specialises in  sustainability innovation, particularly new approaches to building materials called ‘living architecture’.  She challenged to audience to go beyond blue sky thinking and on to “black sky thinking”.  Black sky thinking is certainly very far out there.  As I’ve come to understand it, the basic premise is that it engages “people who are pioneering radically new ideas that may shape the way that we imagine and build our future beyond our own solar system”.  How does relate to anything useful today, you ask?  Good question, with an interesting answer.

She described an approach to buildings that is integrated with nature.  By this she means using materials that become a part of nature with the use of metabolic materials.  My understanding is that metabolic materials are created from a set of naturally occurring chemical reactions. This happens when items are exposed to different elements such as water or carbon.  “Petrifying wells” like Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough were used in her presentation as an example.  It was an orthogonal perspective of buildings in our society – how we design them; build them; and maintain them.

After listening to Rachel Armstrong and various other speakers, I visited the exhibition hall (my grand words for the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall) which featured, among other things: 100 objects of the Future, BBC Radio 5 Football Experiment, BBC surround video, and Forum for the Future.  There were also several engaging art installations for challenging the viewer to envision the future. However, I was struck by the Arup exhibit, which probably put forth the least effort of all the exhibitors but I found their ideas on the future of buildings intriguing.  The exhibit appears to have been based on their recent white paper It’s Alive! Can You Imagine Urban Buildings of the Future?, available at http://www.arup.com/Homepage_Imagining_buildings_of_the_future.aspx.

Nonetheless, the content of the exhibition was not my key personal “take-away” from the event.  As a scenario planning practitioner, I found myself very interested in the way Nesta got discussion on the future kick-started.  There were the traditional presentations and debates by “futurists”, many of them had interesting things to say.  There was also “lego-play” and quotes from eminent historical figures declaring wildly narrow and off-base forecasts of the future (today) – i.e. the 1958 IBM chairman Thomas Watson’s quote that the world only needed 5 computers was dragged out again.

However, it was the use of imagery and storytelling that was, by far, more effective at capturing the imagination of participants to envision what was possible in the future.  The exhibit of 100 objects of the Future was very effective at helping an observer to understand “what a day in the life” of some future person would be like.  There were also performances of “participatory theatre”, which took “knowledge transfer” to a whole different dimension for me.  It was certainly different and not right for all audiences but if done in the correct situation with the proper skills, I can see “participatory theatre” as an extremely effective tool for driving one’s messages home to a target audience.  Apparently, there were tastes and smells of the future within the FutureFest agenda as well but I was somehow at the wrong place at the wrong time (or right time depending on your desire to eat and smell the future…).  As a scenario planning consultant, one of the most difficult tasks I face is getting “operations” focused clients to “step-out” of their day jobs, discuss how the future may unfold and understand what it means for their organisations’ plans today.

This is parallel to the challenge faced by the FutureFest organisers at Nesta.  I also find their response to the challenge similar to my response to clients – the purpose of FutureFest was not to predict the future but to use the future for discussion in a way that allows us to shape the future ourselves.  This is part of our goal as scenario planning practitioners.  I believe Nesta executed a very challenging brief in a very professional and useful manner. The content was interesting and the tools and techniques used to deliver the content were memorable. I see my future including another Nesta organised FutureFest, if offered the chance.

(written by Eric Kihlstrom)

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