Published on the eve of the festival opening, 9 October 2015

The theme of the FutureEverything Singapore festival is Signals of Tomorrow – it marks Singapore’s 50th anniversary by bringing to light signals of Singapore’s future through the lens of art, design and digital culture.

In March 2013, we received an email from the Singapore government. I took a call, unsure where it might lead. Four months and several calls later I was invited to drop by Singapore on my way back to Manchester from Beijing. I was shown a very nice presentation on FutureEverything as a top three event in the world, and asked to develop a major international tech conference for Singapore.

My answer sums up everything about FutureEverything – it was to do something different. A tech conference can be done at scale and attract the money, but the market is saturated and is not interesting any more. I proposed what Singapore really needs is a future-facing event that bridges culture, society and technology, something it has never had before.

There began a two year journey between FutureEverything, the Singapore government, and the many friends and contacts in Singapore who helped us shape the programme. We passed through the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the National Research Foundation, Singapore Tourism Board, National University of Singapore, before alighting on an ideal partner in the Infocomm Development Agency of Singapore, or IDA.

To develop a cultural festival with real impact unique we set out to scope the key issues and challenges for Singapore. Singapore is in many ways a nation of the future. Things happen fast, some future scenarios in the UK are already here, other things we take for granted are not even on the horizon. We brought a set of interests and themes ourselves, developed through our own 20 year journey through digital culture.

The opportunity we identified was to contribute to the national conversation on smart technology in Singapore. Singapore is highly advanced in technology and innovation, and similarly sophisticated in debates around social values and culture. The challenge is to bridge the separation between the worlds of technology, government and industry, and of society, art and culture, to contribute to an enlightened vision for a Smart Nation.

We set about finding and connecting interesting people, companies and organisations with a stake in the future of Singapore. Some incredible people began to get involved, from urbanism, architecture, media art, data science, entrepreneurship, social innovation, circular economy, food security, education and the local literary scene. We invited people we felt would contribute a unique perspective and add a novel dimension.

An important aspect of our commission with IDA was the agreement to use culture to engage Singaporeans in the vision for a Smart Nation. This is the first time the Singapore government has used culture to advance its technology development objectives. Our promise was to deliver highly imaginative ways to engage people in envisioning the future of technology and a Smart Nation.

We selected art and design projects that could give large numbers of people a participatory experience of a smart future. At the centre of the festival is a simple idea, that artists detect potentials in situations, materials and technologies, and create images, objects and experiences that give expression to a possible future. The festival demonstrates how technology impacts on life at a profound level, often interacting with us in fascinating and unanticipated ways.

One dimension we responded to is the urban density and fast pace of life in Singapore (1), through works that intervene in the ephemeral experience of urban life to create spaces of play or contemplation. We commissioned a new edition of Hello Lamp Post for Singapore, which invites Singaporeans to pause to chat to newly sentient objects and street furniture about their vision for a smart future. And a new work Chronarium by Loop.pH, a large scale installation in which smart sleep pods induce restorative sleep as an antidote to always-on city living.

The festival also has a focus on making and prototyping. Our innovation lab will bring together artists and designers with professional and community groups to envision scenarios for the future of a Smart Nation. During the week of the festival they will create objects, mockups and experiences that make those scenarios tangible. One of these we will take forward and develop into a large scale participatory project at FutureEverything Manchester in 2016.

Festivals are great ways to mobilise large numbers of people around an idea or theme. Festivals enable the free circulation of people and ideas, connecting people at different levels, from grassroots to government and business leaders. In Singapore, this has run up to the top, with the British Prime Minister announcing our festival and the commission to deliver the digital culture component of SG50 in a series of policy speeches in Asia.

Festivals are also great ways to engage large numbers of people in participatory trials and experiments. Our vision in FutureEverything is that a festival can transform a city into a pop-up laboratory for new ways of living, playing and working (2,3). The public and creative communities can be engaged in shaping questions, collecting data, adding new interpretation, to generate insights that cannot be obtained in other ways.

One of our city wide art projects is also an experiment in crowd sourcing insight from Singaporeans on their vision for a future Smart Nation. In Hello Lamp Post Singapore we have scripted interaction around the theme of a future smart city. Public interactions and responses will be analysed, anonymised, and findings presented in a Singapore Speaks session during our conference at the end of the week.

This can bring the voices of artists and communities into the debate on how we imagine and build future cities. It can contribute new insights on how to make cities more liveable at human scale, and how to address important issues such as urban density, sustainability and an ageing population. These are among the central themes of our conference, which also debates what we mean by ’smart’, and new innovative ways in which people can together actively shape a smart future.

The impact of FutureEverything Singapore is seen in the innovations, ideas, artworks and people engaged. Notable too are the support of the IDA for a central role for culture, and openness to these ideas among Singaporeans. The legacy can be to help foster an openness to new ideas, new ways of working, a culture of collaboration and experimentation.

The festival has arrived after a long journey, and my eternal gratitude goes to the FutureEverything team who have worked wonders, the incredible artists and speakers in the programme, and the partners and people who have helped along the way. In the successful conclusion of this journey between IDA, FutureEverything, and the many people taking part, the festival helps to demonstrate how governments and citizens can become smarter side by side.

Drew Hemment

Footnotes

(1) One recent study claims Singaporeans are the world’s fastest walkers. The study looks at walking speeds as a measure of the pace of life and an indicator of the physical and social health of a city (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6614637.stm).

(2) From living lab, to festival as lab (http://futureeverything.org/news/living-lab-festival-lab)

(3) Open Prototyping (http://futureeverything.org/news/open-prototyping-alpha)