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Nesta’s Future Festival

Nesta recently held the two-day FutureFest covering innovation in a range of areas like work, play, and love.  With talks and roundtables interspersed with interactive, immersive experiences, there was certainly plenty to stimulate the curious mind.

There were several sessions on the future of education.  Most of these were slotted into the ‘Work’ theme of the festival, which gave them a clear bias towards education as vocational training.  While that is an important part of education, several festival attendees (including me) voiced objection to the idea that a well-trained workforce is the only outcome that we want from education.  While I doubt that any of the speakers really believe this is the only purpose of primary and secondary education, framing the discussion in this way certainly limits the shape of the future we try to imagine in this area.

The Nesta/Pearson collaboration “How to predict the jobs the economy will need in 2030” is of particular interest as a research-led attempt to encapsulate the future of the workforce and what impact that will have on educational needs and policy.  While they’re in the early stages of their work, areas that they think are likely to remain in the hands and minds of human workers instead of moving to automation include creative professions and work which requires collaboration across many different teams or groups of people.  This blog details their research plan in broad strokes.  I hope the speakers post their slides from FutureFest, but in any case this is definitely a project worth watching as it develops.

I was more skeptical of the primary school who presented their collaboration with businesses to organise the students’ workload in a project-based way which is assessed by entrepreneurs as well as teachers.  Jane Mueller did an excellent job of representing current problems with student disengagement and educational models which are slow to adapt to changing conditions, but I am not convinced that making school look more like the (current) workplace is the solution.

Another area of interest for me is data ethics in an increasingly tracked world, so Ian Forrester’s session “Data ethics in the time of perceptive media” caught my eye.  The talk turned out to be more about the concept of perceptive media and some of the BBC Research & Development work on its technical aspects than ethics around its development and deployment, but the concept is so new that there is certainly a lot to be explored in this area.  The BBC has open-sourced its project for creating interactive and responsive videos, VideoContext, which is available to view and experiment with on GitHub.

One of the most delightful aspects of FutureFest was its recognition of our underutilised sense of smell.  Given its evocative relationship with memory and emotion, we really make very little of scent.  In many ways the scent-neutral era we live in now is no bad thing.  Certainly Eddie Copeland’s talk on the fetid atmosphere of London in 1854, when John Snow plotted cholera cases on a map to identify the likely source of the outbreak, does not leave one hankering for the way things used to be.  FutureFest commissioned a signature scent for the weekend, “Flash of Light,” which for me certainly conjures up images of a sleek tech-utopian future.  It also presents the interesting dichotomy of evoking a nostalgic experience of the weekend when I open the little vial to smell the scent of the future.

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