Cambridge Festival of Ideas





‘In conversation’ events – part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 

Location: Faculty of English, Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio

9 West Road, CB3 9DP

All events are free and on a drop in basis, no booking is necessary. The drama studio is located in the basement of the English Faculty.  Age 8+

Theatre practitioner and Lecturer Zoë Svendsen has been developing the practice of ‘research-in-public’ – after the sell-out success of World Factory (Junction) at last year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Zoë will be bringing her artistic team to Cambridge to work on the development of a new performance installation, WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE (for performance at the Barbican Centre in 2018).

WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE is a collaborative and immersive experiment for the invention of the future, inviting you to ‘rehearse’ possible tomorrows. From robotics to universal basic income and carbon tax, this performance installation puts people at the heart of the decision-making process by which we might transform our futures. For the Festival of Ideas, Zoë and her artistic collaborators will be working on the project in the Judith E Wilson drama studio, and inviting experts to come and respond to the raw ideas of the installation. Please join us for the following conversations:
Wednesday 18th October 4.30pm: In Conversation with: climate change modeller Chris Hope, Cambridge Judge Business School


Saturday 21st October:

11am In Conversation with: Sam Dyer Cambridge Community Fridge Sam Dyer, project  coordinator for Cambridge Sustainable Food  (CSF), will be explaining how the Fridge works to support the community and reduce waste. CSF is a network of individuals and organisations who support local sustainable food. There are over 50 organisational members.


12pm In Conversation with Catherine Rhodes Catherine Rhodes is Academic Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, working across its research projects. Her work has broadly focused on the interactions between and respective roles of science and governance in addressing major global challenges


2pm In Conversation with: Renata Tyszczuk.  Renata Tyszczuk is an academic and artist whose work explores the relationship between global environmental change and provisionality in architectural thinking and practice.


3pm In Conversation with: Joe Smith. Joe Smith is Professor of Environment and Society, The Open University, Department of Geography, co-creator of the Stories of Change AHRC-funded project, and co-author of Culture and Climate Change.


4pm In Conversation with: Terry Macalister, former Energy Editor, The Guardian

Terry Macalister was until recently the energy editor of the Guardian. He is an award-winning journalist, author of a book on the Arctic and a former Press Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.


Monday 23rd October: 4 pm Performing the future: the challenges of acting/action

In conversation with Shôn Dale Jones and Steffi Mueller:

Shôn Dale Jones, performance maker (Hoipolloi, The Duke, Royal Court).  Shôn is Artistic Director of Hoipolloi, who combine original storytelling with an inventive spirit. He is also the award-winning writer/performer behind his comic creation, Hugh Hughes.

Steffi Mueller, performance maker, designer and actor (Hoipolloi)

Works as a freelance actress, designer and workshop leader in the UK, France, Switzerland, USA and recently Greece. Steffi co-founded Hoipolloi.




Blog post June 2017

Blog post June 2017



Over the past six months I’ve held ‘research-in-public’ events every few weeks – and the final one will be on 5th July (details below), when I’ll be launching my ‘manifesto for research in public’. These conversation have provided extraordinary pulses of energy through the residency – with every event I’ve asked the same initial question, and then my interviewee has taken me and those who have gathered to listen and question – I hesitate to say audience, because the people who have gathered at these events have been a group gathered to a short spurt of collective co-thinking. I have been enlightened and excited by questions emerging that I wouldn’t have thought to ask, and that through the process of these events being small-scale public (ranging in size from around 6 people to around 50), each has built a mini-network of its own.


Each discussion produced a rich network of thoughts that influences my response to the next set of questions, and in the past months have more directly fed into the development of a performance work that will be produced by Artsadmin at the Barbican in September 2018. Entitled WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, it will gather the expertise encountered in these conversations to coproduce a vision of what it might feel like to live in an alternative economic structure – in response to, and under conditions of, climate change.

The feeling that time is running out has only intensified over the course of the residency – a rollercoaster of hope and despair, as the present vied with the future for the prize for utter uncertainty. How to make a project exploring future scenarios when the present is so full of variability? The rollercoaster of entwined strands of political events shifting the social, economic and climate territories kept changing the lens. There was the backbeat of the ratification of the Paris Agreement by almost every signatory, only for Trump to renege, only for corporations and whole US states to declare their aim to comply regardless – implying there might be a route to carbon reduction that is beyond the national. Nevertheless the English/Welsh vote to leave the European Union has put in jeopardy social and environmental rights, whilst Trump’s ascendancy to the White House has brought a number of significant climate deniers to the forefront of power. Throughout 2016 global climate temperature records were broken, again, whilst the Arctic melt accelerated beyond all expectation – in November, perhaps weeping at Trump, the ice actually started to remelt – whilst the Global Seed Vault, designed to preserve seeds of every kind forever in completely secure surroundings, in deep rock in the Arctic, was flooded thanks to never-envisaged permafrost melt. You couldn’t make it up. It is a condition of being an artist in a time of seismic change – nothing we can imagine is as bizarre, telling or frightening as what is actually happening.


Perhaps this is what it really means to make art now: we need it as a source of connection, to make us feel as though we are doing something (when witnessing might be all that is possible). In despair at the incapacity of the political mainstream to act in accordance with human reason, the artists have to come out and make what should be the concern of policy makers and politicians apparent on the cultural map. But then another change took place – just a few weeks ago, a surge in support for Labour in the UK, thanks to an extraordinary manifesto that recognised that social justice and responses to climate change go hand in hand. The conditions are changed again. If this support for social justice, a rebalancing of values away from the accumulation of capital and towards the fostering of care – between people, communities and the environment – actually produces a government that enacts these values in the social and economic structure, then the challenge of WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE will also alter… It may become less a cry in the dark and more an effort towards an actually possible future. But what conditions will the work actually take place under, by September 2018? Who knows?


What I do know is that it has been a complete pleasure to work with everyone involved in the residency – at once enabling the artists to be collaborative and autonomous, the ‘networked’ nature of the residency has been a spirited source of unconditional support and intellectual refreshment. Thus in the spirit of this project of picking up and entwining multiple strands of thought towards a rehearsal of the future, I will finish with a by quoting a fragment of a quotation (from my most recent interviewee Andrew Simms quoting Rebecca Solnit in Cancel the Apocalypse):


To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.

Rebecca Solnit.



On the 5th July, at Hot Numbers Café on Gwydir Street, Cambridge, I will be in conversation with Stephen Peake, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Technologies at the Open University. I will be presenting a sketch of a future scenario derived from all the previous café conversations and asking Stephen Peake to act as ‘respondent’ to the scenario – together we will imagine what it might be to live in that world with both intended and unintended consequences.


I hope to continue holding such conversations in public in throughout the future creation of this work – please follow @metisprojects or sign up to METIS here to follow – and perhaps even share in – the journey from here.




Future Scenarios blog post May 2017

Blogpost Mon 29 May 2017


A week in a life of thinking about future scenarios…


MONDAY 8th May

Café conversation with Ha-Joon Chang in Hot Numbers – Chang’s perspective is refreshing: optimistic, but there’s something of JG Ballard in his suggestion that political apathy is more damaging to democracy than the rants of a UKIP-er type who is still engaging with political process.

He invites the recognition that the imbalance in global equity must inform views on growth – ‘degrowth’ is necessary, but it isn’t one-size-fits all – you can’t insist someone who doesn’t have enough to eat should eat less. ‘Growth’ is only a problem when ‘needs’ have become social rather than existential. Redistribution might be a better term – enabled through three elements Chang identifies: an economy that is more high tech, more collectivist and more egalitarian – that is, one in which technology transfer from those that have the means to do research and those who have the need to apply the technologies. When Chang talks about it, it sounds self-evident, this politics of generosity, of meeting need where it needs to be met – and on the way changing the whole value structure of ‘development’ away from the materialist, individualist model promulgated by recent Western societies.


Chang’s discussion of alternative forms of finance is a reminder that climate change is not only about time running out, but that the difficulties of doing something about it are also related to time: we are now a world of finance so fast no human can keep up with the algorithms running the stock exchange; in which the average length of a share-holder staying with a company has gone down to just 6 months. This destroys the notion of the ‘enlightened individual’ – we cannot think for our children and grandchildren when the value of ‘return’ is measured in split-seconds, when no one who finances a company stays with that company long enough to engage with what it is actually producing and how it might affect the world. Here I have the start of a response to one of the questions I posed at the start of the residency: ‘Why are there so many Cassandras truth-telling, and why are those in power unable or unwilling to listen? And why don’t they care about the future of their children like I care about the future of mine?’



I go to a meeting at the University to discuss the government’s green paper on future Industrial Strategy. On first reading this document I was astonished by the lack of reference to climate change, when everything about a future industrial strategy must surely be considered in the context of the (legally, morally and scientifically) required transition to a low carbon economy. The green paper was published by BEIS which is the new government department that didn’t so much merge with the former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as swallow it whole. Originally there was a plan for the artists on the residency to visit DECC. How times have changed – that proposed encounter now feels like another scenario in an alternative life. Again the ‘Cassandra’ feeling resurfaces. How can it be that artists, with access to scientific, industrial, environmental, architectural, and economic expertise, can be clear that climate change is now the context for all future scenarios, industrial or otherwise, whilst those whose disciplinary backgrounds would appear more appropriate to understanding what is at stake, and further who are tasked with the actual future of the country, do not appear interested in taking it into account?



The Labour Manifesto is leaked. It is tantalising. It occurs to me that it is itself a future scenario for an alternative economic structure – one which would have a far greater possibility of addressing the technological and social changes than the current state of affairs – not least because the mantra of ‘for the many, not the few’ invites a collectivist coproduction of society, which Ha-Joon suggested on Monday was necessary for garnering an adequate response to climate change. I’ve been experimenting with the postcard format that I’m developing for summarising possible scenarios, and I decide create some around Labour’s manifesto (see @metisprojects) – I’m posting one or two a day up until election day; summarising the alternative economic structure the manifesto articulates.


In the small window between the manifesto’s publication (officially 11th May) and election day (8th June) is when this document can be seen as a future scenario. On first reading, it seems a beautiful fiction for another future – not because the recalibration of the socio-economic structure is not plausible but it seems so unlikely that Labour will win the election. But things move fast: at the time of writing, the polls are narrowing and this future scenario is (perhaps only for a brief hopeful moment), gaining traction as an actual possible future. At the moment it seems to depend significantly on the turnout of under-twenty-fives. For once the future lies in the hands of those it will affect most. I hope you recognise your power and use it.




I do a research-in-public conversation with Paul Mason at the National. A slightly different constituency of people, this audience consists of staff and artists linked to the NT. The National are developing a new environmental policy, being of a scale of institution that CAN model how to make things work differently. As with Monday’s event – and indeed all the ‘future scenario’ conversations – the questions from those who attend hugely strengthen and broaden the conversation; it is exciting to be researching with others in this kind of co-thinking space – a network of colleagues, friends and strangers.


Paul reminds us that in relation to the time of the planet’s existence – c. 4 billion years – or even the time of overall human existence (c. 250,000 years) – or even the time of industrial capitalism (250 years) – that the 25+ years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of neoliberal market system across the globe, is a mere temporal flicker. That this form of capitalism should have such an exponentially detrimental effect on the environment (through the exponential increase in fossil fuel burning) is a stark image of humanity out of kilter with both itself and its surroundings. Again, the conversation turns to the unsuitability of the structures of contemporary capitalism for the future technologies required. What is intriguing is that Mason’s response also offers a kind of answer to the political and social resistance to the technological change required to drive climate mitigation. He points out that the structures of financing required and the types of energy provision that result from a serious transition to renewable energy will of themselves start to change the economic system: ‘once you do this it doesn’t feel like capitalism any more’. His examples are of the predominant use of wind power (intermittent, unpredictable), and an enormous tidal barrier that would cost billions to put in place, but then would provide energy at almost no cost (other than maintenance) for 60% of UK households for generations. This is a kind of investment in the long-term future no current private company is likely to consider: and therefore ‘the solution is not the market’. Again, this comes back to a relationship to time – part of the resistance to significant long-term change is the charge that we cannot know what will happen. This is where future scenarios come in: if we don’t know, we can model it by rehearsing it. Mason is a strong advocate for agent-based modelling, pointing out that one of the significant problems of the current US administration is that they are no longer interested in constructing and testing scenarios, relying on emotional immediacy to drive policy.



FRIDAY 12th May

My son Max likes the CBBC downloadable animation series, Go-Jetters. Each episode, the Go-jetters head to a different famous place in the world, which they then find is being ‘glitched’ by Grandmaster Glitch, who is ruining it for his own selfish purposes. After hearing some ‘funky facts’ about the place, Go-Jetters then have to work out how to save it from him. Sometimes this involves stopping him vandalising a landmark, or stealing something precious, or damaging an animal habitat (echoes of colonialism here…). But tonight we watch one about ecological damage: of the Amazon rainforest. Glitch wants to picnic, but by drying out a bit of the forest to make himself more comfortable, he upsets the ecology; ‘a delicate balance with nature where small changes can make a big difference’. I tell Max I’m going to write about it for this blog post – and he recommends we watch another one, in which Glitch dumps masses of custard in the dead sea, because having already eaten vast quantities of it he’s decided he doesn’t fancy any more so wants it out of his sight. The bottom of the sea seems the ideal space of invisibility to him. Out of sight, out of mind. ‘Dumping things is no way to treat the sea’ and ‘take your litter home with you’ the Go-Jetters tell Glitch as they gleefully extract Glitch and the massive pool of solidified custard and plunk them back on Grim HQ… Max gets the moral structure; he is five years old. Fairness appeals to kids, and it really is as simple as an 11-minute children’s animation.



I wonder how we would feel if the Go-Jetters got real and like Glitch’s custard, dumped all our plastic that is clogging the oceans back on us. I did only last just over a month collecting all the plastic we used that wasn’t recyclable (see December’s blogpost), having it all in the house, piling up, started to choke the family (so like Glitch I dumped it). I still have the plastic I did save, but just couldn’t keep adding to it. It has definitely had a lasting effect on my purchasing behaviour however. It is not only that less plastic now comes into the house, even if non-recyclable plastic does still end up coming in and out (food packaging is the worst). It is also that I have an increasingly distributed sense of ownership. I don’t have the comfortable sense that Glitch does, that when I throw the plastic away that I will no longer have to think about it. This queasiness does translate into action, eventually, and in a way that sustains more than any moral injunction. It was similar with clothing when I was making World Factory. I couldn’t keep up the moral fortitude it took to stop myself ever buying new clothes, despite the ethics. But knowing the methods of production, sooner or later it just made me feel a bit sick when I saw those clothes – I no longer had to feel particularly moral, I just didn’t want them any more. I’ve not bought any such clothes now in a long time, and I don’t think I ever really will again. The same is slowly happening with plastic. It is difficult when the culture doesn’t support such transitions – I’m not someone who defines myself through specialist purchases, so it isn’t of interest to me as a ‘lifestyle’ choice. It takes this queasiness, a personal ‘just can’t do it’ to make me change… What would the equivalent be for using fossil fuels? The fact my slightly asthmatic younger son, who is now just over one-year-old, can’t breathe properly on high pollution days? But unlike plastic or clothing, my consumer ‘power’ feels very limited when it comes to the actual air we inhale…



Future events: 


10th June: ‘research-in-public’ conversation with Frances Coppola, exploring universal basic income (2 Degrees Festival, 10th June)


5th July: final ‘research-in-public’ conversation of this residency (although they will carry on in various forms) with Stephen Peake (Open University). This will take a slightly different form in which Stephen responds to a rough sketch of a future scenario, developed from the conversations undertaken over the residency. Hot Numbers, Gwydir Street, Cambridge, 7pm. For more information please click here.





Copyright © Metis Arts 2013