futurefest exhibit neurosis

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!