Our Creative Future: Thoughts from FutureFest 2015

We attended this year’s FutureFest along with another CharityWorks trainee, Poppy Dillon, Communications Assistant at NSPCC. She kindly agreed to write a guest blog for us, to share her thoughts on the event as someone who doesn’t work directly in innovation.

What is FutureFest?

FutureFest is an event run by the innovation charity Nesta, and is a weekend of radical ideas, talks and immersive experiences aimed to inspire, excite and challenge perceptions of the future. The annual festival took place this March in London and covered seven different strands of the future. These were future democracy, future global, future machines, future money, future music and future thrills.

For those of us who didn’t attend, what was it like?

FutureFest was a circus for the senses, filled with bright lights, whirring technology, claustrophobic corridors and interactive installations. Neurosis was the first thing you saw as you entered FutureFest. It was like every glitzy backstage party that I’d ever imagined as a teenager: walking through a heavy black curtain into windowless cavern in a mist of dry ice, and then this huge machine before you. Balls of lights sticking out of it in all directions. A chair at the top for you to sit in, and immediately be swept away in a kind of neurological adventure.

Neurosis was just the first of a whole collection of scintillating machines and experiences. These included a blind robot, a kissing machine you can attach to your phone and an orchestra which combined sound, taste, touch and smell in an effort to imitate synesthesia. I took part in one of their performances, and it really was as bizarre as you’d imagine.

Chocolates dangling from a frame
Furturistic sweet shop at FutureFest

There was even a futuristic sweet shop with a wealth of exciting new sweets, with textures and ingredients that are potentially soon to become popular (apparently insects and vegetables will be involved). Willy Wonka would have been right at home.

What was the best bit?

What really made FutureFest for me were the speakers. From Baroness Helena Kennedy’s impassioned talk on the future of democracy on an international playing field, to Matthew Herbert’s vision of Country X, the first virtual country, and of course the unforgettable live link up with Edward Snowden in Moscow. All the speakers came from different angles and walks of life but what brought them together was their shared belief that the future could be bright.

So we will really all be replaced by robots in the future?

Nesta has developed a quiz which works out the probability of your job being automated in the future (thankfully my job seems pretty safe, and unlikely to be taken over by robots!) According to Nesta, the good news is that creative jobs are hard to automate, and they say the UK’s creative economy could be its secret weapon, generating a million extra jobs by 2030.

Ije Nwokorie, CEO of brand consultancy company Wolff Olins, was charged with answering the weighty question of the future of creativity in an age of automation. He began his talk with the old folk legend of John Henry, who beat a steam powered hammer in a race to drill a tunnel. After this remarkable feat, John Henry died of the stress and exhaustion; proving that the extraordinary capability of humans is still no match for a machine.

The whole premise of his talk was how, rather than living in fear of some kind of hostile, alienating robotic future, which should rather focus on one of the key aspects that differentiated us from machines: our creativity. And far from sounding like cute PR chat- he was a creative consultant after all- this man’s words had a truth to them. He painted an aspirational image of the future, where in his words, the man who came to check your meter would also be the guy who could advise you on how to sell your spare energy, and the shop assistant at Marks & Spencer’s would also be your style consultant. In this world the number one skill sought after by employers would be your own unique creativity.

What could this mean for charities like Scope?

Ije’s idea of a world in which people’s working time isn’t filled by swathes of torturous admin is a compelling one for all of us working in business environments; especially so in charities, where leaner business mechanisms could lead to more money and time to spend directly serving customers.  Understandably, he was challenged in his vision by an audience member, who asked whether this wouldn’t increase unemployment by reducing the number of staff needed to run an effective business, and leaving people who just weren’t creative thinkers to live on the dole. Something that was on my mind.

However, Ije’s response was simple. Creativity breeds creativity. The more you are challenged in your thinking the more creative and adaptable your ideas will become. And the greater the range and diversity of creative thinking, the more agile and responsive a business can become. Without the day-to-day admin and bureaucratic processes that we know, we can only speculate about how job descriptions would look, how organizations would be structured and how many people would be needed to staff them. Would it spell a re-evaluation of top-down hierarchical models of business? After all, a creative solution could come from anyone.

As for the idea that some people just aren’t creative, Ije’s response was, well, we’ll teach them! With an education system that equips everyone with the tools to harness their own creative strengths, rather than just catering for students who can succeed academically, he believes that this would be possible.

Automation has been redefining the way we work for centuries, but rather than shrinking the job market it creates the space for new work. Just think about the unused creative potential in businesses which is caught up with self-perpetuating admin. And hell, what about the chance to take pride and enjoyment from your work? That alone is worth it.

What was your overall impression – and does the future look bright?

Although the technological display was fascinating, little of it was explained satisfactorily, so it left us hapless onlookers nodding, saying “oh hey, that’s cool”- drifting from invention to invention, wondering why we’d never really paid attention in our physics lessons at school, or whether it would have helped if we had. This gimmicky feeling pervaded the whole event, and jarred perceptibly for me with Nesta’s more serious aims as a funder of public services and digital social innovation. More futuristic than future.

Poppy Dillon

A person using a virtual reality headset
Oculus rift virtual city at FutureFest

Some final thoughts from Scope’s Innovation department.

It’s easy to come away from an event like this questioning how accurate or plausible all these images of the future are and how much of it we could really believe. Will chocolate covered vegetables catch on, and if so, why? What was wrong with the classic chocolate orange?

That aside, FutureFest was a thought provoking event, all about opening up discussions about the future directions it could go in, and directions we might not want to go in! The main message was not just to look at the future as something that only happens to us, but something we can affect and shape more in line with the things we care about. We all have a role in this, charities in particular, and this was a really empowering message. What the future holds, who knows. Guess there’s only one way to find out!

I use a communication aid to help me speak – #100days100stories

Maria is 10, and has cerebral palsy. She uses an eye-gaze communication aid and attends a mainstream school. She’s shared her story as part of our 100 days, 100 stories campaign

Hi! My name is Maria and I am 10 years old. I live with my mum, dad, sister Sophie and brother Harry in North London. I have three cats called Elsa, Tara and Stevie.

Maria with her cat on her lap, sitting next to her mumI have cerebral palsy. I was very ill as a baby and I had to stay in hospital for a few weeks. The illness damaged bits of my brain that control how my body moves. I find it very difficult to move my arms and legs how I want to. This means I can’t walk or use my hands or talk with my mouth.

I use a communication aid called a Mobi 2 to help me speak. It has picture and word symbols on it which speak when I look at them long enough. This is called eye gazing and I have managed to speed up a lot this year. I like using my Mobi 2 because it’s fun! I would like people to know more about my communication aid. I use it to do my homework and play games, I can also watch DVD’s on it, my favourite is Mr Bean!

I work with a speech and language therapist called Judy. She has taught me how to use my Mobi 2. We have worked together for five years, I even named my hamster after her! When I first got my aid I had 16 symbols on each page, I now have 144!

Maria and her mum looking at their iPad togetherUsing my communication aid is hard work and can make me feel very tired so sometimes I just eye point to the things I want. I have carers who look after me at home, Judy has shown them all how to use the Mobi 2 so they can support me. Every Monday I use my aid to tell my carers how to cook my favourite meals. The recipes are all on there. I love macaroni cheese, pizza and chocolate cheesecake! I want to put some of my grandma’s Cypriot recipes on there too. Sometimes the word I need is not on the aid and I have to ask someone to programme it in, or I have to spell it. My spelling isn’t the best but it is getting better. I enjoy spelling but it takes longer.

I go to a mainstream primary school. I am in year six. I am moving to a mainstream high school in September. I’m excited about the move. I love the new uniform, it’s all green! Some of my friends are going too. The school is really big so I will need to practice my wheelchair driving skills to be able to get around it.

Maria laughing with her mumI can email and text my friends using the aid. I also text Judy every week to tell her what kind of cake I want her to make and bring to our sessions! Chocolate is best. I sometimes text my mum when I’m supposed to be working at school. Don’t tell anyone!

I have a friend who also uses a Mobi 2 to speak. We meet up for play dates and talk to each other using our aids. We both love One Direction! I really like being able to speak to other children using communication aids because I am the only one at my school. I would love a pen pal so I could email them about my life and they could reply. Maybe Scope can help me find one?!

Do you know any children using a communication aid who would like to chat with Maria? Or would your child like to share their story with us? Let us know in the comments below.

Find out more about 100 days, 100 stories, and read the rest of the stories so far.