FutureFest this year was a cascade of "Alternatives" - with A/UK at the heart of it

From left to right:  Pat Kane  (from A/UK), Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Also MiRo, the robot rabbit-dog. 

From left to right: Pat Kane (from A/UK), Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Also MiRo, the robot rabbit-dog. 

By Pat Kane

As lead curator of this year's FutureFest - my fourth since 2013 - I found myself in an unusual position. I wasn't only overseeing and balancing the usual wildly diverse inputs, from innovators and future-makers from across the UK and the world.

But I had a little skin in this great game-space myself - as one of the co-initiators (along with Indra Adnan and others) of The Alternative UK, who were partnering FutureFest in two panel sessions: Is Politics Broken?, and Not By Bread Alone: emotions and politics.

However, the notion that this year's event should focus on different kinds of "Alternatives" was baked into the prospectus of FutureFest 4 very early on. As our blurb had it: 

Alternative Visions:  How can we start to radically reimagine our society, economy, cities and democracies? What should the systems and institutions of tomorrow look like?

Alternative You: How are we reinventing and editing our identities? What kind of relationships will we form with intelligent machines, nation states and with each other? Where will we go to escape, to belong and to connect?

Making Alternatives: What are the practical tools and technologies we need to build the future we want? What can we learn from those who are working today to experiment with new models, mobilise movements and pioneer alternatives?

And the crisis that kicked off A/UK - Trump, Brexit and the murder of Jo Cox - has very much also been the shadow that's fallen across our bright and progressive FutureFest curation. As I said in my opening remarks to each of the days, standing alongside my amazing co-curators Ghislaine Boddington and Celia Hannon: 

One large section of this weekend is very much influenced by the spectres of what happened with Trump and Brexit, Erdogan, Orban and Putin, even Windrush and Grenfell. 

In terms of elections and referendums, two peoples, in two political systems, spoke about the direction they wanted to head in. And both times it was a surprise, indeed a shock, to the mainstream operators and commentators. 

There are dimensions of the future that seems to never stop being relevant. These are identity - the question of who we think are and what motivates us, individually and collectively. And power - the capacity to shape the future.

So how do we, first, understand this urge to go back to the future? And then secondly, suggest brilliant, attractive and meaningful alternatives - but ones that really listen to underlying emotions and mindsets?

Many might characterise these events, and other examples of what has been called “populism”, as steps backward, away from the future. 

But maybe it’s more like hitting the pause button. So that we can start a deeper, more inclusive, more honest discussion about where we collectively go next. 

Our curation team have tried to listen and respond to these sentiments in a constructive, even philosophical way. 

In an overwhelming world of demanding choice and pervasive connection, to seek some “control” is a deeply human and familiar request. 

To dream of “being great again”, when faced with an algorithmic reality which defines and measures us down to the last breath, and maybe even last thought… This is also human, all too human. 

But while this pause button is pressed down, we must fill the moment with brilliant, stirring alternatives. Attractive innovations in behaviour, values and models, as well as transformative tech. That way we can show that we can occupy an uncertain future - for the better. 

The Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells once saw the interdependence of what he called “the Net and the Self”. Our networked, mobile and global existence is so demanding that it produces a need for a collective anchor in the storm. We may require a more slow-moving resource of culture and history - which might be drawn out of some formulation of nationhood.

That’s one use of nationality - but the problem of getting the measure of our ever-more-powerful machines is pervasive. If technology seems like a dehumanizing threat, how can we reassert our human distinctiveness - or perhaps expand our humanity to embrace the machines that we have, after all, invented? 

If our cultural lives seem like vast exercises in escapism from our problems, how could we use those simulations to re-engage with our challenges? Could computer games, virtual or augmented reality also rehearse new forms of identity and being, that might cope better with an accelerating world? 

Nesta has just produced a comprehensive report of the day which succinctly captures its highlights (and also the breadth of input from the whole Nesta staff). See some excerpts below:

The rapper and public intellectual Akala opened the event and asked a packed audience if Britain is having an identity crisis. Arguing that instead of a truly global vision for existing in the modern world, Britain seemed determined to retreat into little England nationalism. 

Following Akala was Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who explored how governments can shape the future, raising environmental concerns as a key issue (her full speech is here on Youtube, and full text is here). She said:

"We know climate change is the greatest moral issue facing the planet. Taking action is an overwhelming moral imperative for developed nations like ours."

 The First Minister also announced the launch of ShareLab Scotland - a new fund to support projects that use collaborative digital platforms to tackle challenges around sustainable energy and transport - run in partnership with Nesta.

As well as rousing debates and inspiring talks, visitors also took part in a range of performances and experiences, including a real living garden in the depths of the venue. 'The Garden' created by London Glades is an immersive, multi-sensory journey reimagining our relationship with nature in the urban environment. Passing through a dystopian, barren landscape, to discover a forest glade full of trees, visitors were encouraged to rethink the way we live.


After a quick break for lunch, London's Night Czar Amy Lamé and DJ Annie Mac shared their visions on how we can preserve night culture in our cities... and Geoff Mulgan discussed governance in the shadow of the smart machine with Sir Nick Clegg and Tabitha Goldstaub.


From solving the mystery of consciousness to building public services on Mars, the second morning of FutureFest 2018 took us to places near and far. We kicked off the day with the charismatic musician and innovator Imogen Heap giving us a live demonstration of her Mi.Mu Gloves before introducing Mycelia's new Creative Passport, a digital identity standard and hub connecting all musicians. Using blockchain, it has the potential to produce a fairer, more sustainable and more productive music industry.

The power of blockchain was also the subject of technologist and policy analyst Vinay Gupta's talk, where he shared how it could be used in solving global problems such as carbon emissions. 'How blockchain can, literally, save the world' not only highlighted the heightened knowledge and power technology can give us but the moral choices we must make as a result.

Vinay said: "We've always been a bit shy about where the money is coming from...what computers give you is the ability to face reality - if you want to."

Meanwhile on the debate stage, our speakers discussed whether politics is broken and how we can fix it. The conversation around democracy and identity continued into the next session as we considered the new types of nationalisms.

From envisioning a new generation of female inventors to what a more intersectional future internet might look like, diversity and collaboration in technology has been a hot topic. Inspired by the original female of science-fiction, Mary Shelley, the Future Frankenstein I: icons & iconoclasts session also explored if new movements in science and research could be a democratising force for good or a reason to be fearful.

Whether gambling their data in our casino with a difference or dancing with robots, our visiting future-shapers had the opportunity to experience what a relationship with technology might look like. See the slide show below:

It was writer, documentarian, and lecturer Douglas Rushkoff who got to the heart of the matter though; championing human connection - ‘Team Human’ - in a digital world. Said Douglas: "The digital has gone from being a connector to being a divider...Humanity is not the problem, it is the solution."

Indeed when we fully understand human consciousness – our physical reality – it could transform the virtual realities scientists are trying to create through technology, explained artist and professor, Rebecca Allen in 'The tangle of mind and matter'.

From the mind to Mars, we explored whether we would be able to coexist with aliens and, using Nesta’s work on New Operating Models for Public Services, how we would go about building public services. We were still back in time for lunch with Michelin-starred chef, Nurdin Topham, for a talk on urban foraging, the movement reconnecting city-dwellers with their natural environment and offering fresh new flavours.


Ruby Wax OBE continued with the theme of human connection, reminding us that we are imperfect creatures with millennia of evolutionary baggage, and that to survive we needed to upgrade our brains as well as our technologies. A big part of this was practising compassion for ourselves and others. "Fix yourself first", said Wax, "then go and save the world".

Ruby was joined by Ziyad Marar who talked about the hypocritical judgements we make of others while feeling judged ourselves, and Julia Hobsbawm OBE who spoke about the irony of feeling disconnected from reality in an allegedly connected era, and the importance of what she described as social health.

Aral Balkan was critical of surveillance capitalism as seen in the 'Trojan horse' gifted to humanity by Silicon Valley and its venture capitalists, proposing instead an ethical model of tech for the commons funded by the commons.

We closed our event with the noted critic of Alt-Right digital culture Angela Nagle, who also sounded a note of hope:

"I think the future belongs to those with idealism and who can imagine possibly a very technologically advanced society, but one based on eternal human themes... that you can’t bypass through the internet or technology. Those deeper human needs will outlast technologies."

* * *

Nagle's quote really sums up what became the central theme of FutureFest 4. That is, reasserting the complexity, agency and richness of being human - in a context where smart machines are advancing on and subsuming our old industrial and bureaucratic routines, and their cognitive, emotional and physical content.

That new humanity - as Paul Mason's presentation most eloquently pointed out - will have to raise its creative and political ambitions, if the productivity of automation isn't to create even more divided and polarised societies (something Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett talked about a few times during the day). 

The great joy of FutureFest - indeed, any event based on festivity and the carnivalesque - is that the immeasurable subtlety of human creativity is what it primarily celebrates. (Even when that creativity is to think anew about how we might co-exist with increasingly intelligent machines). As I said in one of my promotions for the event, festival culture is so vibrant because younger generations are using them to prototype new ways of being and acting together: 

Festivals are clues to what the new organisations and institutions of the future might look like. My theory is that there’s such a disjunct - between what one of our speakers, Paul Mason, calls the 'networked educated individuals' driving change in society, and the often stupid and narrow slots that the official labour market holds out for them - that people are both attending and starting festivals to fill the gap. The 'festive' or 'convivial' organisation, or maybe even super-powered community, is where Ys and Zs want to be. I think they’re using festivals as laboratories to forge that.

I look forward to my next immersion in this festival of the future - and I hope that other organisations and institutions are inspired to pick up Nesta's lead. We need a civic culture of futuring - and we need many parties to invest in it.

The Alternative UK will continue to explore its own route of popular empowerment through future-thinking with communities everywhere. 

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