Five take-aways on the future of FutureEverything.

“Still walking into the unknown,” I said.

Vikas Shah, then on Day One as new Chair of FutureEverything, had asked where I want to be in 10 years. He didn’t blink.

“Then I’m going to get you a better space suit,” was his reply.

Step forward two years and here we are. All shiny dome visors and badass rocket packs.

In that time we’ve headlined Singapore’s 50th anniversary year with our first festival in Southeast Asia, and built a year-round programme spanning art, design and technology. Right now we are leading on programmes including FAULT LINES, GROW Observatory, CityVerve and CREATE IoT. Only this year we have delivered two incredible artworks: Positively Charged and every thing every time.

These two years have been a time of change and growth at FutureEverything, some incredible individuals have joined the team, and the company is full tilt into our largest ever projects.

It’s also 10 years since we announced Futuresonic was to be reborn as FutureEverything. The new name captured the freewheeling scope of our corner of the creative universe, the sense that our community of digital artists had exploded and was reaching into domains known and unknown.

2017 has been our first with no festival since 2003. (YES THAT LONG!).

So it’s a good time to look ahead to the coming 10 years, and take stock. Not for the first time, there is a sense of a new chapter before us.

Here are some reflections on five things we have learned, and what is coming next.

Artists in the lead

every thing every time at Hulme Community Garden Centre, Manchester, July 2017

Championing the way art can make futures tangible is in our DNA. Over the last couple of years we, and people around us, have won the argument for the impact art can have on society and technology. Art can bring new dimensions to cities and technology innovation, imaginative ways to read and experience the future.

Over the last two years, we have had the chance to take art and artists to the heart of some of the world’s most ambitious technology programmes. From the Singapore Government’s Smart Nation programme and Taiwan’s leading industrial technology institute, to the UK’s and Europe’s Internet of Things demonstrators and pilots.

Together with the FAULT LINES artists we have been discovering what it means to work between the two cultures of art and industrial technology. It’s been a delight to see how a curiosity for the artists around technology and its social impact has been a jumping off point for creating outstanding work. We have also at times rubbed up against differences in language and worldview.

One challenge we had to overcome was more prosaic. We had agreed with the Cisco engineers that Naho Matsuda’s every thing every time would be the first implementation of the CityVerve ‘platform of platforms’. But in a large scale technology project like this there are many factors that can lead timelines to slip. The underlying technology wasn’t ready in time, and lucky Naho’s superhero artistic team of Peter J. Evans and Dan Hett were able to jump to the rescue and build their own system for the artwork. We were happy to show to our illustrious tech partners the meaning of the old adage “the show must go on.”

A dose of design

Some tools for design.

If I was to tell you that another line we have been crossing is between art and design you could be forgiven for doing a double take. FutureEverything has spent more than two decades in that grey zone between art and design, and much of the work we present could be one or the other, depending on who you ask and when.

While our centre of gravity has long been on the arts side, this year FutureEverything took on a service design team for the first time. Our mission was to introduce human-centred design to the Smart City and Internet of Things in CityVerve. For many years we have championed grass roots digital creativity and civic action, and supported open, community IoT platforms. This is the first time we have worked on the design of new city services in a major project like CityVerve.

One of our contributions has been to introduce “Community KPIs” as a way for citizens and residents in the city to be involved in defining success criteria for the project. This builds on work in another project I am working on called Making Sense, which follows on from the Smart Citizen Manchester participatory sensing project we did in 2015. Our hope is for human-centred design to be the medicine the Smart City needs and Community KPIs can provide a framework for large scale technology projects to be more citizen led.

One of the learnings from this dose of design was for ourselves. While we may think we are “the progressives”, some of the ways we work in the arts are really hidebound. The influx of designers brought a welcome challenge to do things differently at FutureEverything.

A year without a festival

Positively Charged at Taipei Arts Festival, August 2018  Photo by【Lafun Photography】
Photo by【Lafun Photography】

FutureEverything began life as a festival. The festival is the time our community comes together.

The energy, and intensity, created when people come together for a festival is insane. They are times of beauty, and of wonder. All told, I have been organising events for many thousands of people to come together to celebrate and create art and technology since the late 1980s.

But having a year off is without doubt the best thing I have ever done.

In 2016 we completed a cycle of 5 festivals in 24 months, including our 20th anniversary edition, and major festivals in Singapore and Moscow. We also began the biggest projects we have every done, by far. These include the GROW Observatory and CityVerve, projects with new challenges, and that are all consuming in their own way.

Having invested so much creative energy on developing a programme in Asia with FutureEverything Singapore, we wanted to build on that. We were told the place to be is Taiwan, for the speed and energy of Shanghai and the laid back attitude of Manchester.

This summer all the effort, and the sacrifices were all made worthwhile, as GROW and CityVerve hit their straps, and our first art project in Taiwan, Kasia Molga’s Positively Charged premiered at Taipei Art Festival.

Now we are looking forward to next year. We have taken time to  really think about what a festival is, what it can be. Next year we will be coming back with something new, for you.

Bringing change to the world

Grow Observatory - digging and sensing

A turning point in FutureEverything’s history was three years ago at a team meetup. We were sharing our greatest hopes and dreams on what we might achieve together.

It struck me that the message coming through loud and clear was that this was a group of people who want to change the world. Our comms manager, who joined us from a much loved Manchester music venue, wanted to work on a project that would change people’s lives for the better through bottom-up innovation.

If it had been any year before then, people’s dreams would have been about an artist they want to work with, or a show they want to put on.

So it gives me more satisfaction than I can say that we are now working on projects that really could do that. That can really make a difference.

Look at the GROW Observatory. The ambition is ridiculous. We want to mobilise a movement of growers sharing data and knowledge to contribute to better soil and food, and to solve major challenges for science.

Best of all, it has an art programme. We have a budget for an art commission, and Kasia Molga and my old friend Scanner have been awarded a residency to bring art to our innovation project.

On GROW Observatory FutureEverything is the arts partner, and, through the University of Dundee, I am the innovation partner,

Cake. And. Eat. It.

A team brimming with brilliant people

People!

Anyway, back to the spacesuit.

The greatest joy of the last year for me personally has been getting to know and work with significant new arrivals in the FutureEverything team.

Leading from the front is Andy Stratford. Andy is the guy who turned up with the dome visor and rocket pack. His intelligence, energy and organisation is, really, out of this world.

Sarah and Ali are joining us this week, as we bid sad farewells to Vim, Daniel and Natalie who are all moving on to some high powered and amazing new roles. From setting up the Portuguese Government’s first service design lab to Curator of Digital Design at the V&A, Bon voyage dear friends, travel far!

Alongside Andy and the new arrivals in the team are Feimatta, Rachel, Jose Luis, Sarah, Callum, Minnie, Ella, Ishy. Every one is a legend. Get to know them.

A new FutureEverything round the corner

This all makes for an exciting moment in FutureEverything’s 23 year history.

We are delighted to be one of 28 UK cultural organisations awarded a place on Change Creation. Andy and Feimatta from FutureEverything will join 54 other cultural leaders in a hothouse environment for peer learning and social change.

We do not know where it will lead. It’s another confident step into the unknown.