We need to talk about antimicrobial resistance

Engaging with science fiction and speculation is a powerful way to intervene in society’s desires and expectations of the future, and so to change our present and our preparedness for what comes next.

If the imagined futures we encounter focus on a narrow set of problems they can make those seem clearer and more compelling, even inevitable, and blind us to other issues. When science warns us of slow, complicated, yet potentially enormous catastrophes, we need to use a variety of tools, including imaginative ones, to help us effectively envisage and recognise threats and to identify possibilities for change. 

For the Longitude Prize's Infectious Futures anthology we commissioned six stories set in a near future where we failed to win the battle against antimicrobial resistance. Through the characters and their worlds this complex, abstract possibility becomes immediately, vividly real, entangled with people's heartbreak, hopes, family, ambitions. We then invited three experts to comment on how we can talk about catastrophes in a way that most effectively changes the present.

Nesta grapples with questions of how real and imagined futures co-construct one another in a number of ways, and seeks to support alternative perspectives. Previously we have explored the mutual influence of science fiction and innovation in our paper Better Made Up. We invite the public to debate, taste, feel and play out potential futures at our annual FutureFest event. We commission and support a number of narrative projects. For instance, we split the future of nanosatellites into six narratives in an attempt to demonstrate to policymakers that the ways they choose to talk about a new technology affects how it plays out in the world. With the British Council we supported a group of Nigerian creatives in their work creating and sharing films, images, music, art and narratives exploring alternative futures of Lagos.

Enriching the conversation around AMR

Our society’s relationship with microorganisms is going to have to change over coming decades. We will not succeed in overcoming antimicrobial resistance (AMR) by simply producing more and stronger drugs within the same environment that pressures microbes to evolve resistance. The overall solution to AMR involves a long-term journey towards a more intelligent, informed future. The test that the Longitude Prize will be awarded to will be a major, but by no means the only step towards that goal. We commissioned stories about a future facing up to the challenge of AMR as part of a much larger effort to publicise, educate, and enrich the conversation around AMR. 

Not an action hero, or the aftermath of a plague, but stories of everyday life in a world where antibiotics are failing

Authors were asked to consider not an action hero in the explosive beginning or empty aftermath of a plague, but the subtler stories of living in a world where our antibiotics are failing: the shifts in everyday life and society, the impact on families, relationships, politics and work. 

The medications, symptoms and procedures in place depicted in these futures cannot be perfectly accurate - those that are at the time of writing may not be within weeks of publication, when a new discovery renders them obsolete. Some symptoms are drawn directly from medical case studies, some extrapolate cautiously, and a few are more loosely imagined. Many dwell more on the general fear of infection than on specific resistant strains, a reaction that most likely reflects public understanding of the issue better than depictions which more strictly adhered to specific illnesses.

How do we have this conversation?

In order to challenge us to have this conversation in the best way we possibly could we invited experts in both public engagement and the science of AMR to comment on the project. David Kirby’s, Brigitte Nerlich’s and Matthew Clarke’s essays explore potential risks and rewards of using stories to talk about catastrophes. Could dramatic stories risk terrifying readers into inaction, or into feeling the threat is too big to face? Or could the same dramatic, emotionally charged narrative bring an abstract possibility to life and drive readers to learn more and make changes. Scientific experts also joined the conversation on putting the science in a social context, and the challenge of balancing scientific detail with engaging narratives that would be enjoyed, remembered and shared.

As the pace of social and technological change accelerates, it is no surprise that stories, vignettes and other speculative experiments are being used more often in decision-making processes. Such tools have great power in shaping our vision of the future, and should be investigated as they are deployed.

We hope this collection forms the beginning of a project that promotes new ways of thinking about our relationship to health and medicines.

We will be exploring this issue further at 1.30pm on Sunday 9 August at Nine Worlds Geek Fest 2015. Tell us what you think using #InfectiousFutures.

Part of
Longitude Prize


Lydia Nicholas

Lydia Nicholas

Lydia Nicholas

Senior Researcher, Explorations

Lydia was a senior researcher in Nesta’s Explorations team, focusing on how minds, systems and technologies come together to perform better at complex challenges with particular focus …

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