Future Everything Day 2: What now for democracy? And the weird and wonderful?

Lorraine Jones, Head of Futures in our Manchester office, recaps Day 2 of the recent Future Everything conference:

FutureEverything

Day Two of Future Everything in Manchester was focused on answering the questions ‘what now for democracy’ and ‘what now for the weird and wonderful’.

An international line up of speakers started with Gabriela Gomez Mont from Mexico’s Laboratory for the City, who talked us through the innovation they are spearheading from a garden office on the roof of a government building in Mexico City. She talked passionately about the future of cities and their approach in particular, which I found interesting: it is focused on a series of ‘experiments’ and ‘provocations’, the latter being open-ended questions designed to stimulate discussion and creativity. Projects included working with Minecraft to look at how to engage kids in city design, and a Code for Mexico City initiative which addressed the real problem of illegal cabs with the ‘Traxi’ app which allows people to check a cab’s credentials and driver’s police records. She talked about how a city should not just house the human body, but also the human imagination.

Jarmo Eskelinen from Forum Virium Helsinki showed a slightly different city vision which recognised that whilst cities are made up of people, they have a tendency to make a mess of the city and not do what they’re supposed to do! He talked about the creativity inherent in communities – showing the annual Helsinki restaurant day, born out of frustration at civic rules but which has resulted in an annual event with over 240 pop-up restaurants in the city at the same time. He also talked about the idea of a searchable / browsable city – crossing boundaries between online and offline.

Throughout the conference, a series of ‘lightning talks’ highlighted innovative companies from around the world in 5 minutes or less, and ‘Dissolve’ caught my eye through the way they presented theirs – taking a seat at the on stage sofas, they invited the audience to visit a website on their mobiles, and proceeded to explain their service via a web chat between each other. I’m not sure I’ll be signing up – it essentially involves allowing your friends to respond as you on your social channels when you want some time out – but an interesting concept and a reminder that just because there’s a big stage and a microphone provided, it doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez continued the technology theme and brought with it a fresh enthusiasm for tech (no easy task in a conference pretty much dedicated to it!). I liked the way that he talked about technology being magic – and about incorporating dark magic which has demons and gremlins in it. By way of example, he demonstrated some laughably poor attempts at Latin translation made by Google Translate. Apparently due to the use of ‘lorem ipsum’ text when designing websites – once the ‘real’ text is uploaded to the site, Google assumes it has the same meaning as the lorem ipsum text that preceded it. I was also taken by a Tokyo ticketing machine which, when the help button was pressed, had an assistant physically open a panel on the machine from behind, and pop their hand through to help the hapless user.

Building on the ‘tech as magic’ concept, Georgina Voss’ talk was themed around the film ‘The Craft’, which seemed more than apt in the neo-gothic surrounds of the Manchester Town Hall. She talked about the reframing of expectations, giving the example of a US supersonic plane that threatened to wreak havoc during the cold war with its sonic boom annoying residents below. An ad cleverly reframed this irritation as the ‘new sound of freedom’. She also highlighted an inherent sexism in tech development, noting that the Apple iHealth app does not have the facility to track menstruation, and that health apps typically operate on the assumption the phone is always physically on you, in pockets that women frequently don’t have! Whilst it’s not something I’d ever noticed before, I can’t help but now feel slightly riled at this oversight from Cupertino!

Apparently no celebration of anything digital is complete without a plethora of cats, so the conference closed with a presentation by Scott Stulen from The Internet Cat Video Festival. Yes, it exists. In case you’ve not had your fill of cats on the internet lately, I’ll leave you with this.

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