Again, the future

…and so to FutureFest, ‘powered’ by NESTA, a two-day celebration of all things creative, innovative, futurish, and fantastical. I made it to the Sunday, courtesy of those fine people at Belonging Space (thanks Isabel!), and launched straight into the session ‘From design thinking to design playing’, which featured London College of Communication graphic branding and identity guru Grant Rose;  Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International; BBC Design and Engineering chief design officer Colin Burns; and Oxford primatologist and animal play expert Isabel Benhcke – all coordinated by Wolff Olins CEO Ije Nwokorie.

Phew, just typing out that list was exhausting! As was keeping up with the rapidly-changing perspectives which the respondents brought to bear on the central questions, about the relationship between playing and designing and, I guess, thinking. The points that stood out for me were Grant Rose’s warning that play is not measurable, and we need to find other ways of evaluating its impact, particularly in a higher education setting where the intellectual context demands that we learn from failure. Yet, as Rose put it, “education is not going that way”. Instead, it is increasingly dominated by assessment, measurement, satisfaction surveys, and so on.

Marjorie Kaplan shared a great story about scientists in a biomechanics lab printing artificial bones on a super complex 3-D printer. Apparently, in quiet moments they would go over to a more ‘basic’ 3-D printer to make toys – a process they considered no less important to their work than the business of bone making itself.

Colin Burns made a strong appeal for ‘grown-ups’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly, typing this on my 54th birthday) to recover and model the play behaviour that is innate in all of us, so highly valued and encouraged in children, and then so comprehensively suppressed once we ‘mature’ (see above…).

But the greatest insights, at least to my mind, came from Isabel Behncke’s work, investigating animal play and looking at human play from the perspective of evolutionary biology. “Play is full of bad ideas,” she pointed out, “but evolution is full of bad ideas”. In other words, you have to be comfortable with bad ideas to have any hope of realising good ones. As the discussion ranged over the relationship between play (in and of itself, and as a proxy for ‘creativity’) and innovation, Behncke came out with an absolute gem: “Evolution innovates through the play behaviour of animals.” Huizinga himself would be proud of that!

After a quick chat and a coffee it was on to hear Frank Furedi, on love as risk. Furedi is well known for his critique of self-help culture, and he began by calling out the growing tendency to represent love as a pathology, and the correlated idea that greater love means greater vulnerability. In love we reveal something of our inner or true nature, but the more we reveal of ourselves the more we risk the possibility of betrayal.

He made the intriguing suggestion that the novel can be construed as a ‘technology’ of love, referring to the story in the Inferno where Dante arrives in the second circle of hell. There he finds the damned spirit of Francesca, married to a handsome young man who grew into an ugly and demanding old man. One day she was sat with her husband’s younger brother, and they were reading the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Carried away by the romance, they kissed (and, she then tells Dante and Virgil while her erstwhile lover’s spirit wails, that was the end of reading that day!). They were discovered by her husband who murdered them both, yet she didn’t regret her desire. Had she not been murdered, she would have had the chance to repent, and, she points out, her killer resides far below in the lowest circle of hell. So that’s alright then.

Furedi went on to suggest that the 18th-century moral panic over romantic novels is in some way similar to the current pathologizing of sexting. But, with only 15 minutes for the whole session, we didn’t get much of an explanation of this. Perhaps there is – or will be – a book to buy at some point…

Next up was ‘the seaweed guy’, possibly the best moniker I’ve heard in a long time. Dr Craig Rose is managing director of Seaweed & Co., a business based on sourcing, accrediting, and supplying high-quality seaweed. You see, seaweed is the future – this sub-set of the algae kingdom is an entirely natural, completely sustainable resource, with staggering potential in biofuels, bioplastics, textiles, and medicine, as well as its rather more obvious possibilities on the dinner plate.  I won’t rehearse the facts and figures here, check them out for yourself, and as you do so please bear in mind that seaweed is 100% vegan plant power.

For Dr Rose and Seaweed & Co., seaweed is no longer the stuff of slimy shocks to delicate feet on cold seashores; it’s time to change those negative perceptions. Time, I would add, to create a new algae rhythm (see what I did there?) in which the 10,000 or so different varieties of seaweed that are found globally can fulfil their destiny, as part of the answer to climate change, global hunger, and world peace (sort of).

Much else was available at this sumptuous feast of future stuffs, but I’ll leave it there for now. Next time, robotic drinking pals, drop-out business magnates, and dull old musos. Watch this space!

Below: Ascophyllum Nodosum. Or dinner, to you. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.


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