FutureCity mass "debate"

MCFly went along to the “City Debate” that was part of the FutureEverything festival. It was perfectly clear from the blurb that this was mostly going to be about shiny technology and weightless informational flows yadder yadder yadder. The format was also a little unusual, in that there were 17 speakers listed, each who would get approximately 90 seconds, with a couple of panels chipping in questions at some of those 17, and a couple of opened-out Q and As for hoi polloi to intervene.

For an event all about how the future is about hi-tech, there were entertaining (and instructive if we care to think about them) snafus involving dead microphones and even the simple matter of getting a ‘tape’ of Sir Howard Bernstein to play. Moderator Jenni Murray tried to forge on regardless, only to be “interrupted” by the absent Sir Howard on his second or third attempt.

There followed a rush of speakers. All the usual jargon and cliché got an airing- forefront of cutting edge… global… connected… game changers… challenging… hugely rewarding… going forward.. diversity… the future is speeding up… independent business… collaboration…. step changes… There was also a fair amount of vacuous boosterism, but I suppose that will come as a surprise to no-one.
The medium was the message, to quote somebody. Each speaker could only speak in banalities, unable to unpack their ideas and allow the audience to see if they made sense. There was no give or take, nobody was really able to pick up on other people’s points. It all resembled a google-binge, where after 90 minutes you’ve been exposed to a lot of shiny ideas and words, but they’re all muddled and you feel a bit queasy.

Only one speaker (asides the taped SHB) explicitly mentioned Climate Change and low carbon economies. That was Roger Milburn, Environment Commissioner and also Director of Arup. One of the provacateurs, Maarteen Hajer asked Roger Milburn to elaborate. [Hajer implied that the climate science suggests we have four decades left to do anything. I hope he’s right, but MCFly’s understanding of the climate science is that it is very much ‘now or never’ for this species]. Milburn did elaborate a bit- a low carbon economy has, in his eyes, finance mechanisms, a changed skill base, “product” and research (the Manchester Corridor, with the universities and the entrepreneurs was his example). Jenni Murray, who was chairing the meeting, invited other speakers to chip in on this question of “low carbon”. Incredibly, they didn’t. It’s not on their radar, they don’t think it matters, they’ve not informed themselves; MCFly doesn’t know why, but it’s grotesque- how can you talk about the future of this city without grappling with the fundamental crises of peak oil and climate change?

So there was more talk, with the real standout one– grounded in social realities – saved for last. Patsy Hodson, vice principal of the Manchester Communication Academy, gave a succinct account of what the MCA will be trying to do, in an area where 41% of the people are economically inactive and 49% have no qualifications. With that, the room came to life a bit, and the Q and A that followed was a little more “real.” The ‘elephant in the room’ (the public sector money running out) even got a mention!

On the plus side- an innovative format that mostly worked (and given that it could have failed spectacularly, it should be chalked up as a success, even though it was the intellectual equivalent of speed-dating.

On the minus side – utterly disconnected from the real challenges that will face us.
If it’s ok for the speakers to drag out hoary old images, so it is for the blogger. This event made me imagine us all as passengers in first class on the Titanic. The unsinkable ship has – thanks to the greed and hubris of its owners – hit an iceberg. In the background we could, if we chose to, see crew and other passengers talking about life rafts and so forth. Do we join that fact-based initiative? Sadly, no. We’re having too much fun speculating on all the things to do and buy in New York… The stupid, it hurts…

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2 Responses to FutureCity mass "debate"

  1. Drew Hemment says:

    Hi McFlyFor my sins, I conceived and organised the City Debate.I totally agree that sustainability needs to be at the forefront of our thinking about the future of the city.This is why at FutureEverything we have been running for 3 years a major project on the environment, and why this year we devised a new kind of globally networked event, GloNet, so that people do not need to fly to take part in the festival. The motivation for this was that a pilot carbon audit of our festival in 2006-7 discovered over 90% of carbon emissions are due to air travel of speakers and audience. Read more about it here http://futureeverything.org/festival2010/glonet2010FutureEverything always places a passionate social commitment before "shiny technology". Humans have been technological animals since the first time we wacked two stones together, created agriculture etc. One of our other projects is campaigning to make Manchester an Open Data City. Making public data freely available can lead to huge potential social, and, yes, environmental benefits. In view of this to hear someone has intelligent as yourself dismiss "weightless informational flows yadder yadder yadder" is a little depressing.With the City Debate itself, we posed all speakers 5 questions to respond to, one of which was about sustainability, see here http://futureeverything.org/festival2010/thecitydebate. That is only 20%, which yes is perhaps too low. And it would have been great if more of the speakers had addressed sustainability. Then again, last year sustainability was the main focus of our whole conference.Your comments are welcome, as I think that we all need to continue to push environmental concerns up the agenda. It is absolutely fair comment that sustainability could have been more prominent in the City Debate.Some of your comments were maybe a little less reasonable. For example, we were slammed for the event format in your opening paragraphs, and congratulated for the same in the closing paragraph.I would prefer to see how we can combine efforts and be constructive. There are more similar events in the pipeline, why dont you lead one on sustainability..!CheersDrew HemmentDirector, FutureEverythingdrew@futureeverything.org

  2. Hi Drew,thanks very much for taking the time and care to craft such a reasoned and constructive comment on a blog post that what was perhaps, on reflection, a bot more snide than the event itself deserved. We did actually submit a proposal to Future Everything about the policy intervention that the Call to Real Action group made last year, and the "Concrete Utopia" conference earlier this year. We got not so much as a 'thanks but no thanks' email back. This may (but shouldn't have) have coloured our reporting!I would be delighted to talk to you about sustainability-focussed events around the use of technology, and the future of urbanism (as you'll have seen from other blog posts, the built environment, policy and information technology are some of our abiding concerns!Even if that comes to nought, we will happily publicise any climate/sustainability events that you put on.Best wishesMarc Hudson

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