News and Comment

Back to the Future: The Great Exhibition and NESTA’s FutureFest

Friday 27 March 2015


NESTAs FutureFest earlier this month was in some ways a very old fashioned affair.

For all its future-gazing, it felt very much in the tradition of the 1851 Great Exhibition, with its mix of wonderment sideshows and learned talks by politicians, innovators, academics and journalists, including Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett and author of ‘The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It’, Owen Jones.  They alternately wowed us with futuristic inventions and heralded the end of the world as we know it.

This mix of physical wonder and mental stimulation is a winning formula for FutureFest and one that merits a bigger, more public stage to involve everyone in the debate.

The physical wonder came in many forms:  The ‘Immerse’ space offered futuristic thrills such as the ‘Blind Robot’ whose touch-sensing robotic hands danced across your face and hair.  Suzannah’s ride on Neurosis, the world’s first thrill ride powered by neuro data, left her brain sparking with possibilities and she went to the next learned talk on the collaborative economy more awake and more focused than any coffee hit could have provided.


FutureFest collage 2


The mental stimulation in the ‘Debate’ and ‘Explore’ chambers of the FutureFest space did not disappoint either, including these highlights:

‘Does the Future needs elites’: Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist stated the case for the role of elites as leaders who make society’s most difficult decisions.  He argued for a more structured elite, for example, taking infrastructure decisions out of the hands of politicians who are subject to electoral cycles and as a consequence defer long term decisions, such as increasing airport capacity and building power stations.

Opposing him was Owen Jones, decrying the revolving door of elites that binds them together in lucrative post-politics non-exec board posts.

Between them, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC made the case for bringing ordinary people more frequently into the decision making process, inspired by her work with juries where she was convinced that good evidence, put before people, equalled good decisions. (We’ve blogged elsewhere on what society could learn from the wider use of participatory events such as the jury trial).

In ‘All Together Now’, a truly adversarial debate raised the temperature in the ‘Debate’ space, as the panellists considered the potential (and potential hijack) of the sharing economy.

Dave Boyle’s co-operative ideals were pitted against the venture capitalist peer-to-peer service TaskRabbit, with Michel Bauwen’s call to arms for open source and knowledge sharing.

Discussing peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb, the panellists asked ‘what happens when your boss is an algorithm?’ In defence of the Co-operative (yet also acknowledging its failure to keep up with the times) Dave Boyle’s opening comments alone raised an applause that lasted for almost a minute…

As the weekend came to a close, lead-curator Pat Kane (yes, he of ‘Hue & Cry’ fame) suggested we are all biologically hard-wired to think about the future. Maybe there’s something to be said for making future FutureFest a bigger and more public spectacle on the scale of the Great Exhibition, to help excite conversations about our future democracy, lifestyles and dreams, so that everybody is along for the ride…