Catherine Rogers from ArtWorks Alliance partner Creative Leicestershire, and a member of the Alliance’s leadership group, reflects on two hot days for weather and ideas.

I recently attended Nesta’s FutureFest in London’s Tobacco Dock, held over two sweltering days in this hot dry July. In his welcome, Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s Chief Exec told us not to get comfortable, which was not difficult given the increasing temperature and lack of effective air con in the venue.

Despite the heat and an important football match taking place on the Saturday, people did appear to hang in there with this un-comfortability for the entire two days. I’m sure this was down to Nesta’s excellent programming. No one could have forecast that the venue would essentially act as a greenhouse, but maybe it was all part of Nesta’s masterplan to encourage a growth of ideas that would later bear fruit.

Nesta says it is all about innovation, backing new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time. They are jargon averse and much of the two days was spent discussing and championing ways to democratise access to tools that innovate. There was a lot of looking ahead and the call to action was very much to come up with ways that we can collectively ‘occupy the future’.

The event itself was a good mix of panels, discussions and installations and I managed to get to see as much variety as I could in the programme including staying right to the very end to be entertained by comedians Steve Cross, Alex Lathbridge, Lydia Nicholas and Bec Hill.

Over the two days the FutureFest curators (Celia Hannon, Pat Kane and Ghislaine Boddington) invited us to select from three different strands of programming:

Alternative Visions – which asked how can we start to reimagine our society, economy, cities and democracies and what should our systems and institutions of tomorrow look like?

Alternative You – questioning how we are reinventing and editing our own identities? What kind of relationships will we form with intelligent machines, nation states and each other? And where will we go to escape, to belong and to connect?

Making Alternatives – asking what are the practical tools and technologies we need to build the future we want? And what can we learn from those who are working today to experiment with new models and mobilise movements?

I manage a programme that support artists and creative enterprises in the East Midlands to be entrepreneurial and we have a range of services that help with this. One of these is our WebinArt package which is looking at how we can create accessible online programmes that help people with the essentials of running a creative business at the same time as promoting some of the excellent practices we see in the artists we work with through live streamed interviews. I try and prioritise attending at least one national event a year in order to meet people doing similar things in different ways, to see what common issues people are tackling and how they are tackling them. This was my first Future Fest and I was intrigued to hear from the speakers and also to chat to who else was there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed with either of my missions.

I got quite good at placing myself strategically in front of the fans when there was a panel in one of the hottest parts of the ‘greenhouse’ and in doing so these were my most refreshing highlights:

Nicola Sturgeon – expressing realism, optimism and open-mindedness in how the Scottish Government are using innovation to tackle social issues and for future wellbeing. They are investing in design to not just benefit big business but wider society with an emphasis on wellbeing. Working for the public sector I was happy to hear someone speaking of public sector procurement being used properly to solve big societal changes and to make sure the benefits of innovations are shared across society.

Ruby Wax – encouraging us to first fix ourselves, and then save the world. As a comedian she oozed ‘funny’ and her poignant wisdom on how to survive in a stressful world where we are constantly wondering about what will ‘nix us next’ was a beautiful lesson on how to be human.

On the same theme of humans only having so much ‘bandwidth’ with which to survive, Julia Hobsbawm told us we are in an era of overload with a triple revolution of internet, social media and mobile. I geeked out when Julia told us the importance of the following numbers: 150 being the proven number of relationships we can have; 200 is the number of functional democracies and recognised countries in the world and 168 is the number of hours in the week! The two women were obviously resonating with the crowd as both Ruby’s and Julia’s books completely sold out after their panel.

Rachel Caldicott chairing ‘Women Inventing the Future’ with a reading from Molly Flatt – deploring the shocking figures that at our current rate we will achieve gender parity in tech by 2136, the lack of role models who are women in computer science and the lack of support for women from the sector itself. I came away with the following take-aways that ‘If we fight for diversity we will be more successful’; ‘If you’re all likeminded [in your organisation] someone isn’t thinking’; ‘Embrace the uncomfortable moment’; ‘Pay attention’ and ‘Speak to someone from a completely different background’.

The place I was most challenged was the session Escape to Reality, produced and developed by Guerilla Science, where the audience were shown two films identical in what we could see on screen but very different in that they were narrated by two men out for a run experiencing two very different mindsets and perceptions of reality. The session was about our conscious self and what makes us who we are. The post film discussion was led by a neuroscientist and I hadn’t realised we were still so in the dark about what ‘consciousness’ is which was both exciting and terrifying.

My favourite installation and an absolute haven over the two days was The Garden produced by London Glades. This was a phenomenal planting achievement in the underbelly of the Tobacco Dock building where the garden designers had brought to life a wild urban underworld complete with an atmospheric rising and setting sun.

They had used light, sound and planting including trees, grass, wild flowers, as well as installing benches, bus signs and graffitied up old oil drums to explore the relationship between people and the natural world. The two designers Jon Davies and Steve Williams gave talks about their work and how they are interested in breaking down the ever growing divide between the two.

They had succeeded in creating a beautiful and dynamic space for reflection, promoting the role of nature with humanity as essential to our joint future. For me they encapsulated the essence of what was important about the two-day event and I left encouraged with a quiet resilience to re-evaluate relationships and the challenges we (as humans) face by better connecting with each other and our environment, fuelling a deep strength by turning up the heat from the inside. Perhaps this was what Nesta meant by ‘occupy the future’.