This week I travelled to Singapore and Malaysia as a part of a British trade mission, alongside David Cameron, four Cabinet Ministers and a group of other UK businesses. We set out to promote the North of England as a centre of innovation in business, science and technology (in policy speak, the “Northern Powerhouse”) and to build trade links between South East Asia and the UK.

Needless to say, I was the only festival director on the trip. It says a lot for the global significance of digital culture – and the community of artists and designers I have been proud to work alongside for twenty years – that FutureEverything Singapore was the good news story for the mission. Our upcoming festival was announced by David Cameron in three speeches during the trip.

My first engagement on the trade mission was in a roundtable discussion hosted by Sajid Javid MP. I was representing the Northern Powerhouse contingent in the trade mission, also around the table were senior agency heads from UK and Singapore, and two of the bigger UK companies traveling with David Cameron.

It opened with a presentation on Singapore’s Smart Nation vision. This is something we have been thinking about a lot, as it’s the jumping off point for our festival programme in Singapore. Two of us made the point its good to see PEOPLE were placed at the centre of the vision in the Singapore Government Smart Nation slide deck.

I spoke about our ambitions at FutureEverything to help bridge some of the silos that are to be found in Singapore, and also the UK. Our Data Sync project in Greater Manchester is all about bridging data silos, and also silos in local government. Going some way to bridge the silos between tech and culture/society has emerged as an ambition in FutureEverything Singapore. In Singapore these are poles apart, leading to a distance bordering on mutual misunderstanding.

This is one area where the north of England scores strong, and we hope to help spark some of these connections in Singapore through our festival events and innovation lab. Our Singapore festival will showcase future ideas through participatory art and design projects. The approach is to first showcase the future, then backfill – the hope is to create new connectivity that can endure, leaving behind soft infrastructure in the shape of new innovation capacity.

The sparkle and glamour on the trade mission came at the official Reception at Eden Hall, the spectacular residence of the High Commissioner, famous for its colonial architecture, cocktails and finger food – including British bangers and fish & chips.

Word had already reached me that David Cameron had made an announcement about FutureEverything Singapore earlier in the day. In his major policy speech in Asia, David Cameron chose two points to illustrate all the North of England has to offer. The first was that Sunderland builds more cars than all of Italy. The second was that FutureEverything is taking our long established festival to Singapore.

Minister Grace FU Hai Yien gave the opening speech at the Reception. I did not expect her to inform the assembled dignitaries the PM had announced our programme or go on to describe it in some detail. I was catching more than a few sideways glances in my general direction. The PM then spoke about the trade opportunity between the UK and Singapore, and kindly dropped in another plug to FutureEverything Singapore while he was at it.

I was ushered to one side afterwards by the Deputy High Commissioner for a preordained meeting with the PM. He had clearly had enough by this point, as the conversation was short and despite my best effort at a rugby tackle he was in no mood to pose for a photo with someone sporting a red tie.

My second speaking gig came in a Smart Cities and IoT session at the Northern Powerhouse Business Seminar. I picked up on a question about how to create opportunities for bottom up business innovation. I spoke about the importance of open standards to avoid lock in and promoted the idea of modularisation where different components of a system can be provided by different people. It was a short session and we only skimmed the surface, we could have gone on for a couple of hours more. At the end I was asked to say some words on FutureEverything and why we do what we do.

This session was hot on the heels of another speech by the PM, and a third, yes third, mention for FutureEverything, helpfully in front of the Singapore media – reported here by Rachael Boon from the Straits Times.

Its safe to say there are more than a few murmurs of interest in FutureEverything in South East Asia this week. It was good timing we benefitted from, we have the right gig at the right time, plus we have been doing this for twenty years, which I suppose counts for something.

This week has been new territory for me. I turned to YouTube instructional videos on how to tie a tie, and on day one visited the hotel tailor to buy a suit. I chewed the fat with Conservative Ministers about open culture and saw how a labour of love can become an export asset. Strange days.

Thanks to

Minister Grace Fu Hai Yen
Steve Leonard (IDA)
Judith Slater (Deputy High Commissioner)
Scott Wightman (High Commissioner)
Clive Drinkwater (UKTI)
Philomena Chen (UKTI)
Elsie Yim (FCO)
Shuba Karun (UKTI)

More info about the FutureEverything Singapore festival we have been commissioned to deliver by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore in Autumn 2015 is here.