Making tomorrow tangible

It’s now just a few days to go until we welcome several thousand people to Tobacco Dock in London for Nesta’s FutureFest on the 6 July. It will be the fourth FutureFest, and in the time since Nesta first started the festival in 2013, conferences promising their audiences a glimpse into what Kanye West has memorably dubbed 'the futch' have proliferated - especially in the tech sector. So why is FutureFest any different and why does an innovation foundation like Nesta run a festival like it?

At its core, FutureFest is one way of taking the big long-term questions Nesta works on (such as the future of the internet or changing skills needs) and making them feel much more ‘real’ and closer to the present.

This is important, because while humans are instinctively attracted to thinking about the future, we struggle to engage meaningfully when these futures remain abstract or conceptual.

The rise of ‘Homo Prospectus’

In his last book, the American psychologist Martin Seligman argued that homo prospectus would be a more apt name for our species given that homo sapiens became wise by ‘learning to see and shape’ the future. The jury is out as to whether or not other animals are capable of conceptualising the future (it seems that some evidence of future planning has been found in apes and ravens) but there’s little doubt that humans have a uniquely sophisticated capacity to develop mental models about the future.

That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily very good at acting on those mental models. Take the example of the ‘disconnect’ we experience when we try to imagine ourselves at some point in the future. This article outlines the efforts of researchers from Stanford and UCLA to use fMRI technology in order to compare neural patterns in the brains of people who were: ‘...asked to describe their current selves, their future selves 10 years hence, as well as other people. Across the board, the neural patterns evoked from thinking about the future self were most similar to the patterns that arose when thinking about another person.’

Given that the ‘future’ is such a nebulous concept it’s no surprise that our future self might sometimes feel like a stranger to us. But perhaps one of the more interesting details in this article is that when researchers presented subjects with a visually convincing rendering of their ‘future self’, they were apparently more likely to take actions which might benefit them in the years ahead (such as saving more money to a hypothetical long-term account). Instinctively, this makes sense; the more concrete the future feels the more likely we are to act on it.

Occupying the Future

Which takes us back to FutureFest. Bringing alternative futures (both dystopian and utopian) closer to the present makes us more likely to react to those possibilities - the more tangible the better. This is one of the ideas behind the use of what is called ‘speculative design' in the field of futures research, where designers create a realistic object or artefact from an imagined future.

Take the future of our cities, it’s clear that the way we live in urban environments needs to change (as we confront factors like rising air pollution, the risk of flooding, the introduction of driverless cars and rising levels of obesity).

Could we fundamentally reimagine the human relationship with nature in the built environment?

This year, we are working with London Glades to bring a living Garden into the heart of London’s Tobacco Dock - to create an experience which seeks to change audience perceptions about the design of green space in cities. Read more about the inspiration for the project in a piece by Georgia Ward Dyer.

To take another example, while Nesta has been working on personal data for many years, for many people these questions still feel remote from their everyday life. Nesta’s DECODE project is focused on developing tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good. For FutureFest, the DECODE team are working with the artist Roos Groothuizen to create the Black Box Bellagio - a casino where the currency is your personal data. A visit to the casino will be a playful experience, but the underlying question (do we want a future where we continue to gamble with our personal data in exchange for services?) is a serious one.

You can take a look at the other installations at this year’s festival here, we hope they will provide a different way for the audience to experience - or occupy - other futures.

FutureFest is coming to London's Tobacco Dock on the 6 and 7 July, and this year will be the biggest yet. With over 150 speakers across more than 5 stages, the line up includes Akala, Ruby Wax, Annie Mac, Imogen Heap, Paul Mason and Nicola Sturgeon MSP. We invite you to join us for the fourth FutureFest.


Celia Hannon

Celia Hannon

Celia Hannon

Director of Discovery and Strategy (on maternity leave)

Celia is a Director in Nesta's strategy department, shaping the organisation’s future agenda and leading the Discovery Hub.

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