UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Showcasing a contested future: musings on Nesta’s FutureFest 2015

21 April 2015

FutureFest 2015

By Dr Tuukka Toivonen

Is the future to be celebrated or dreaded? The beauty of Nesta’s 3rd FutureFest conference was that it tried hard to err neither on the side of exuberant techno-optimism nor on that of gloomy doomsday scenarios. Instead, it made a point of showcasing a deeply contested future that cannot be tamed with catchy prefixes such as ‘digital’, ‘smart’, ‘resilient’ or even ‘sustainable’. As such, it delivered an event with both strong public appeal and a critical consciousness—a genuinely rare achievement.

As was to be expected, FutureFest came embellished with some ingenious artistic and technological offerings, from a brain-controlled virtual reality machine called Neurosis to a sensual robot with nimble fingers that gently explore people’s faces. It was nevertheless clear from the start that the uncertain future of our digital democracies occupied the core of the conference agenda.

The choice of Edward Snowden (who appeared via a video link from Russia) as the headline act of Day 1 underscored Nesta’s willingness to take the theme of democratic futures quite seriously and to embrace its many controversies. Snowden’s key message was stark and urgent: Citizens will grow increasingly disempowered vis-à-vis their governments and large corporations that have developed formidable surveillance abilities. Real digital democracies can arise only if the privacy of online communications can be credibly protected through techniques such as end-to-end encryption.

Arguing with the future

It’s impossible to provide a balanced overview of all FutureFest highlights here—there were a total of 35 sessions on the first day alone, organised into four parallel streams—but let me highlight a few other voices from Day 1 (I did not attend Day 2).

Geoff Mulgan (Nesta’s CEO) set the tone for the two-day extravaganza through a fast-paced opening presentation in which he invited participants to ‘touch, taste and argue with’ the future. He hoped FutureFest attendees would leave the event feeling empowered to ‘shape things to come’ as active citizens.

Taking to the stage immediately after Mulgan, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC reminded us that democracies, facing an era of rapid change, cannot rely purely on law as their foundation but require ‘a template of values’ and the ability to make on-going efforts to share power. Neither Mulgan nor Kennedy thus proposed any easy answers to present dilemmas but instead put forth a view of democracy as a living organism that needs to be continuously re-shaped and re-created to remain viable.

Meanwhile on the ground floor, the ‘After the Happiness/Wellness Agenda’ debate engaged an audience of about 150 people in discussion on whether happiness research should guide policy and whether happiness was a suitable arena for policy intervention to begin with. Many sceptical voices were heard (‘we now have a vast happiness industry selling its own distorted versions of happiness to us’; ‘it’s offensive to interfere so paternalistically in people’s behaviours’) while the four panellists highlighted that much of public policy continues to ignore even the most basic lessons from happiness research (e.g. that human interaction is among the single greatest boosters of happiness).

A subsequent debate on whether the future needs elites heated up even further, though with at least the panellists agreeing that it might be hard to entirely do away with elites even in the age of crowd-sourced constitutions. Adrian Wooldridge posited that ‘“people” as such can’t make important decisions as they comprise contesting interest groups—what we will need is pluralistic elites’. Owen Jones made the simple yet profound point that governments must proportionally present the lived experience of their citizens. The problem is, according to Jones, that politicians in the UK come predominantly from the affluent professional classes, rendering issues such as (social) housing into blind spots as elites fail to relate to citizens’ realities. Helen Kennedy’s spirited insistence that women’s lived experiences, in particular, should be better represented by the system, provoked a roaring applause.

Straight talk

After discussions such as these that, while lively, remained within conventional limits, Matthew Herbert’s talk—that began with a description of the political potential of sounds, including those made by 25,000 chicks being born at exactly the same moment on a mechanised farm—felt refreshingly authentic. Herbert (a musician by background) gave us a vivid sense of just how disturbing the gap between stated sustainability aspirations and actual practices is within today’s capitalism. In a world of privatisation, financial crime that goes largely unpunished, ‘flattened’ language and Apple’s incredible dominance, we have little power and the best we can do is try to crowdfund alternative worlds (hence Herbert’s ‘Country X’ project).

Interrupted briefly and somewhat awkwardly by Ije Nwokorie’s optimistic take on how automation could make us all more creative, the activist tone continued with the designer star Vivienne Westwood who called for an end to ‘vulture capitalism’. She started with a slide displaying a largely unliveable planet—that with current rates of global warming seems a realistic prospect—and spoke bluntly about capitalism as a system controlled by a handful of short-sighted elites and about development as a huge Ponzi scheme.

A spectacular confusion?

After a day full of such contrasting views on the future of democracy, capitalism, the Internet, money, wellbeing and innovation, no FutureFest attendee could have left Vinopolis thinking that the future remains uncontested. For many, it might have all been just a bit too much to take in during a single day. But then again, in order to shape the future of our ‘digital’ democracies we may need to have a vivid sense of just how overwhelming the task will be.

Indeed, FutureFest-goers were invited to contemplate an incredible range of complex issues (including, but not limited to, the fact that a huge share of existing occupations may soon disappear; that schools and parents should teach all kids to code; that everyone will need to become competent at technologies of de-centralisation, from blockchains to cryptocurrencies; that economic turmoil will prevail and possibly get worse; and that artificial intelligence will develop so rapidly that it may learn how to perform even ‘creative’ jobs on our behalf). It’s a lot to digest—a spectacular confusion of trends, possibilities and complications to say the least. And rather ironically, at least if we are to believe Paul Dolan on the main drivers of happiness (essentially, deep immersion in one task at a time and enjoyable human interaction), this confusion will almost certainly make us unhappier as technologies of distraction really take off. Until, that is, we ourselves become extinct through catastrophic events that possibly include the speedy rise of a superintelligence that may turn human happiness into a non-issue in a matter of days.

Living principles, experimental citizens

Assuming for a moment that there is still something to be done about the future, what does FutureFest’s inventory of dilemmas imply about the broader challenge of bringing about sustainable prosperity in our societies? The following two points represent my own main take-aways:

(1) Any kind of sustainable prosperity will be extremely difficult to achieve amid frenetic socio-technical changes without continuous reflection on core principles and without their continuous updating and active re-sharing (an insight which this year’s FutureFest organisers appeared to want to communicate clearly through inviting Helen Kennedy and the oracle-like Edward Snowden who stated that ‘sometimes it may be irrational [selfless] commitment to democratic principles that nations need in order to survive’); and

(2) New organisational techniques (new ‘orgware’) are quite probably needed to help societies deal with all the complexity and accelerating change while re-inventing democracy. These might range from mindful listening as a core democratic method (as suggested at FutureFest by both Owen Jones and Matthew Herbert) to innovation hubs, labs, civic hacking collectives, de-centralised online organisations and smarter event formats.

The final point—devising smarter public events—may sound mundane but could be the easiest and cheapest technique to implement. Why not use events like FutureFest and various university-based conferences to ignite self-organising teams of citizens who (serendipitously) find they share an interest in a particular challenge? Why not encourage them to form into ‘mobile civic labs’ of some sort to produce solutions that can then be presented at the following year’s (or month’s) event? Notwithstanding experimentation with digital participatory platforms, FutureFest 2015 largely missed this opportunity to actively ‘incubate’ networks and groups of motivated citizens. Perhaps in the next few years we will finally witness the birth of a genuinely participatory large-scale innovation conference, fulfilling Mulgan’s dream of public empowerment through direct engagement—and constructive disagreement—in the face of contested future.

Later in the year, the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity will be co-hosting a two-day conference that will implement these kinds of innovative incubation methods. Putting digital participatory platforms to use, the conference will engage citizens across generations and geographies.

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Image credit: Dr Tuukka Toivonen