Futures Fair 07- Review

Report back from the day- 02 May 2007.

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“Futures Fair 07” was an exciting and new initiative developed closely with the support of the Department for Trade and Industry’s Foresight programme. Both Building Futures and Foresight sought to develop a day where ‘futures’ would be the focus for a wide-ranging day of debate and discussion. Both groups were keen to promote the research work of their organisations and seek new partnerships through which to promote development programmes and introduce their core concerns to a much wider public through a conference style event. The day sought to give more people a voice in the debate.

On 02 May at the RIBA’s headquarters building, Building Futures hosted a day long event where a diverse range of subjects, close to the future development of the built environment were addressed and proposals put forward. The aim of the day was to invigorate and encourage new networks and provide a series of spaces for people to talk and develop lasting professional and creative relationships. Futures Fair 07 was the first and certainly the largest event of its kind for the Building Futures team. During its development we secured the assistance of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The final programme included more than 25 speakers, each presenting a range of proposals across eight core themes over seven different debate spaces. The highly successful day was attended by approximately 130 individuals representing businesses and organizations’ that are in an established position to shape the future, but also by those whose own research and innovation will inform tomorrow’s built environment.

The day began in the Riba’s Jarvis Room auditorium with Dickon Robinson and RIBA president Jack Pringle welcoming the delegation and outlining why futures matter. Points raised included the need for architects and designers of the built environment to take futures on, not only as a business model, but to develop their ideas in advance of legislation in order for competitive and enlightened practice to emerge. An assertion was made that design and construction industries ought to be able to predict future scenario planning in advance of those legislators and that through sharing information and technology the industry could thrive in the face of future challenges. These comments were echoed strongly and given some authority by first speaker, Yvette Cooper MP.

The Minister for Housing and Planning talked at length on issues facing future land use and rehabilitation of housing stock towards achieving a sustainable built environment. The minister called upon those in development industries to consider the insulation and energy needs of existing housing stocks. Setting the blue sky open, appropriately for a futures debate, and in deviation from her speech, she called for ‘Magic Wallpaper’ with a serious note on achieving lasting consumer durable technologies for home owners. As the minister talked delegates began SMS messaging questions and thoughts to Building Futures. In a departure from the usual format, we encouraged our audience to keep their phones on and message us. The messages appeared on a projected screen behind and became one of a range of ways people could inform the day.

The morning session looked at ‘Futures in Context.’ These deliberately broad themes looked to set the day in a wider context. The first speaker, Glenn Lyons of the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, introduced Foresight’s Intelligent Infrastructure Project. Looking at social science and transport futurology, Glenn identified potential opportunities for the economy and society from new science and technologies. He considered how future science and technologies could address key future challenges for society and its ‘mobility-systems,’ Technology was looked at in further detail by the morning’s next speaker, Derek Clements-Croome, Professor of Construction Engineering at the University of Reading. Derek’s theme was the Life Cost of Intelligent Buildings and drivers of innovation. The presentation covered a wide range of drivers for change, including environmental, demographic and lifestyle trends. He stressed the need for those developing new technologies to take a multi-disciplinary approach to innovation and cited many case studies where the application of science on buildings had been sourced from a variety of people intergrated systems.

The morning’s ‘context’ session was rounded off by Building Future’s very own David Fisk, Chair in Engineering for Sustainable Development at the Imperial College, London. David spoke on Value Added Futures and proposed futures thinking as a ‘gambling game’ with no fixed outcome and a certain amount of risk. Borrowing ideas from the financial sector for handling future uncertainty, he talked on real options theory as a technique for identifying initial investments that reduce the cost of handling inevitably uncertain futures like energy.

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Having established the extremely broad remit of the day, the following session, ‘Futures in Focus,’ gave our audience the opportunity to meet and talk to those in specific areas of expertise. Set over five concurrent, and rather more intimate debating spaces, the aims of these groups were to encourage a more fast-paced discussion around presentations that put forward a series of hypothesis, solutions and proposals. Our delegation was divided and spread out in various directions across the Riba building.

The themes of the five break-outs each looked at an area of development and change. They included Climate Change; sustainable future solutions for the built environment, Urban Change; proposals for reconfiguring the city, Changing Materials; insights into new techniques and products, Changing Frameworks; the shifting networks of the future city and Changing Work Styles; the future of the office place. In each break-out, two or three speakers representing a range of professional and academic futures thinking made presentations on a diverse range of provocative topics. To give some idea as to the breadth of Building Future’s programme, some highlights of the topics covered included, Energy Efficient Design in Buildings, Sensory Technology in Sustainable Architecture, the Densification of the Suburbs, Commercial Regeneration Strategies, Freeform Construction, Moveable Structures, Sustainable Neighbourhoods, Inclusive Design and Healthy Environments, Delivering Dynamic Work Spaces and Working Flexibility in Distributed Organizations. In each session a lively discussion followed and in many cases such was the enthusiasm to talk to one another and probe our speakers these break-out discussions continued over into lunch.

Throughout lunch delegates again had the opportunity to message Building Futures with their thoughts and questions and take part in a data transfer activity where visual representations of their ideas and concerns could be recorded electronically. One of the central aims of the Futures Fair was that delegates should be able to provide us with feedback and put forward their own concerns towards that of the day. Continuing the momentum and pace established during the previous session, there followed after lunch an hour of Speed Dating. ‘Futures Links’ as we called it, was a lively and energetic session in which our audience had the opportunity to speak to each other, share ideas and establish new relationships. Facilitated by Macdonald & Company, it proved to be a highly popular and entertaining initiative, with delegates given just ten minutes to talk before a strike of the gavel signaled them to move onto someone else. Within this session a good mix of people was crucial in which to establish new and often unexpected dialogues.

Returning to the Riba’s Jarvis Hall the day closed with a landmark talk by innovations specialist and writer David Bodanis. In an enthusiastic and often entertaining presentation, David spoke on a diverse range of subjects that reflected his varied professional background. He has lectured extensively and has worked with BMW, Shell and Microsoft on energy projects and numerous international government think tanks. David looked at the historical evidence of futures thinking, past mistakes and presumptions. He spoke of a one time Royal Society president dismissing lighter than air transport as impossible only years before the Wright brothers flight and in an example of a more inert pursuit of innovation included a story of a cold-war era Air France bugging business class passenger seats with recordable mics in order to listen in. These examples served as rather light-hearted lessons from which to draw serious conclusions as to how we pursue solutions today. The Futures Fair is one such initiative where an open and provocative debate can take place and futures thinking mapped out. The day closed with a plenary discussion that welcomed back Riba President Jack Pringle and Building Future’s Chair Dickon Robinson and finished with a lively drinks reception.

Futures Fair 07 set out to achieve a series of broad objectives towards establishing Building Futures as a central debate space within the design, development and construction industries. The response from the day has been overwhelmingly positive both from those in attendances and from our sponsors at DTI Foresight, the EPSRC and MacDonald & Company. We look forward to successful staging in 2008 and continuing the good work of our team and supporters.

Mike Althorpe- Futures Fair Co-ordinator.

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