Educated Optimism

Educational futures, digital cultures and social change

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What are universities for?

A few weeks ago I found myself on a sunny Wednesday afternoon sitting on a river bank in Uppsala, Sweden, with a group of students and staff from the CEMUS centre, discussing how they might creatively use a new space they have been offered in the centre of the city. Such an opportunity raises hundreds of questions – should this new space be a platform for student work, could it act as a resource for community knowledge building, can research be conducted here, who should govern it?

These questions, and myriad others, keep coming up everywhere I go recently. A couple of days later, I found myself talking to the head of strategy and innovation for a Stockholm municipality, who wants to attract universities to the region. The problem, she says, is finding institutions who want to think creatively about what they are for. A few weeks before that I was sitting with my colleague Dave Cliff, discussing how Bristol, my own university, might imagine a new campus and what precisely we should do there.

These are interesting conversations – but the reality is that we cannot begin to answer these questions unless we actually know what universities are for. And this doesn’t mean something as obvious as pointing out that they should be institutions for the public good rather than private positional benefit. Rather, it means getting into the work that they do and understanding it.

Having spent the last few years thinking about the relationship between educational institutions and social change, I’m increasingly convinced that the university does 5 key things which, when combined, make it a unique institution in helping society to think about, prepare for and create the future. These are:

  1. Its disciplinary/educational function – the system of specialisation within disciplines that allows students and scholars to develop the capacity to assess the value of new knowledge and use procedures to judge novelty. In a context of rapid change, this matters – how do we tell the difference between online controversy theory, new fads and robust data? We tell because we have specialised procedures to help us get as close as possible to reliable evidence within the traditions and ways of knowing of the disciplines.
  2. Its stewardship function – this is about the university keeping alive traditions, objects, knowledge that might not have an immediate application, and developing mechanisms to allow lost and old knowledge to be re-found and re-used should the time be right to rediscover this in future. Here, the university is the place that holds diverse knowledge because we never know what is going to be useful in the future, and because some knowledge and ideas when they emerge, emerge at the wrong time – it takes a change in conditions for us to understand how they can help us. This refers to everything from seedbanks to concepts locked in ancient languages.
  3. Its reflexivity function – this is about the development of critique and challenge, asking questions of the assumptions upon which claims about the world are made and justified, about examining the long-term patterns and changes that underpin the seemingly insane pace of superficial change. This function helps society to ask why and whether it wants to go in the direction it is going.
  4. Its modelling function – here the university helps to create abstractions, models, which allow us to examine the relationship between different forces in the world, to discern patterns from what seems like a too complex and messy reality; these are patterns that allow us to de-centre our world-view from our own perspective. Modelling underpins our capacity to creatively experiment with different possible futures without acting in and on the world.
  5. Its experimental function –here the university is an actor in and on the world. Inventing things, making things, but most importantly, reflecting on whether these inventions and experiments actually work – not just making, but reflecting and testing out whether these new possibilities make sense, have value, can be repeated.

Taken individually all of these elements are available in a number of social institutions. There are some places that provide expert training in specialist subjects; there are some that are clearly experimenting and making all the time; there are some that are providing ongoing critique. But the reality is that each of these orientations to the future suffers from being disconnected from the others. Reflexivity without experimentation is impoverished hand-waving from the sidelines. Modelling without reflexivity creates lousy abstractions that are misleading. Experimentation without stewardship lays waste to the world.

Only the university combines these different functions and puts them into productive tension with each other – so that reflexivity can allow us to question the procedures of our disciplinary knowledge, so that experimentation can test models and re-animate stewardship.

This, then, is what a university should be for – for combining these different orientations to and strategies for working in and on the future, together.

And yet… many of our universities fail to do this. We sequester students in subject silos for three-year degree courses in which they may never engage with a different orientation. We encourage staff to publish and research in familiar disciplinary areas at the same time as setting up barriers to collaboration.

The universities I might imagine, therefore, as we are sitting by the river bank or planning new campuses, draw on these strengths of universities we have already but envisage them becoming so much more and so much more committed to creating something new from the combination of these different resources. They are universities in which students are supported to reflect upon the different orientations that they use to face the future and to build knowledge, in which researchers and scholars are encouraged to put these orientations into productive dialogue, in which projects and possibilities emerge from the challenges that these orientations to the future pose to each other.

At the same time – we need to remember what the university cannot do. It can’t tell us who and what to love, it can’t tell us the world we want to build, it can’t tell us why our choices matter. It cannot provide meaning. The living of life is essential for this; the attempt to act in and on the world, with all its flaws, is necessary to test out and work with these ideas. Which is why universities cannot be seen as the places that will tell us our futures – they will walk alongside us, as friends – different but committed – challenging our ideas, sharing knowledge – but only we can decide what matters and where we want to go.

(this blog is a shortened version of a talk I gave for the UNIKE conference in June, 2016, Copenhagen)


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May Utopias Weekend

To celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the first publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, the Anticipation research group at Bristol will be running a ‘Real Utopias’ weekend in partnership with the Festival of Ideas on May 21st and 22nd. We’ll be exploring how we might create Utopia in the twenty-first century; what past examples of utopian thinking can teach us about utopia now and in the future; what technology might offer – in areas ranging from sex robots to climate change; and how to get started on imagining and building utopias. Come and join the conversation. Details and links to book (free) places are below.

Saturday 21st May  10 – 11.30: Utopian Cities: Learning from the Ruins

Speakers: Charles Burdett, University of Bristol; Alex Marsh, University of Bristol; Eugene Byrne, Independent Historian

Chair: Keri Facer

The session considers utopian planning projects from the past. It looks at the notions of time, the future and the conceptions of social architecture that were behind three disparate projects. The session aims to ask how plans of the modern impacted on the imagination and collective practices of different groups and it considers the afterlife of each project. The session begins with Charles Burdett’s discussion of the implications of the utopian thinking that lay at the heart of Italian Fascism with its plans to create a vast Mediterranean empire. The talk considers the material and psychological debris of the Fascist utopian project. Alex Marsh will examine the rise of local authority and New Town housing as a response to problems related to urbanisation, the delivery of good quality affordable accommodation, and the creation of sustainable settlements. He will then trace out the story of the decline of local authority housing, and social housing more broadly. Central to this story are political narratives of local authority housing as a failed social experiment. In England we now find ourselves in a situation where the death of social housing, as it has conventionally been understood, is a genuine, if currently rather remote, possibly. Eugene Byrne looks at some of the ideas for post-war Bristol after much of the central part of the city was destroyed in the Blitz. The debate on the shape of the new city took some very idealistic turns, but even the plans drawn up by the sober-suited men at the Council were indeed Utopian. While they could never be realised in full, Byrne argues that the planners were more successful than they’re nowadays given credit for.


Saturday 21st May 12.15 – 13.45: Climate Utopias and Dystopias

Speakers: Stephan Lewandowsky, UoB; Mike Page, Uni of Hertfordshire; Chris Goodall, Independent Author. Chair: Stephan Lewandowsky, UoB

Climate change may displace upward of 150,000,000 people during the 21st century. The world needs to produce as much food during the next 35 years as has ever been produced during the history of agriculture to date. Floods and droughts will ravage many parts of the world. And human beings are notoriously unable to consider and plan for the future.

So we’re all gonna die. Or will we?

The Paris agreement on climate change has ushered in a new era of willingness to tackle climate change and new technologies and ways of thinking about the future are emerging that may enable us to head for a delightful rather than a dreadful future.

This event will examine the challenges but also the opportunities that await us in an uncertain but manageable future.

Saturday 21st May 14.30 – 16.00: Making Utopias Workshop

Speakers: Kat Wall, NEON/ Policy Bristol; Patricia Gaya, EFIM; Sado Jirde, BSWN

Who gets to imagine, decide and make our futures? Decision makers, thought leaders and many involved in social change organisations come from a particular part of society – often white, often middle class, often university educated. If we are thinking about making utopia – the best possible future – we will only be able to do this when everyone is involved – when the richness of diversity is expressed in the imaging and creation of a better world. To address the current imbalance of voice and influence in ‘utopia making’ we need to better understand issues of power and privilege. Come along to this workshop to uncover the role power and privilege play in the kinds of future we can create; to explore how we can understand our own power and privilege; and to deepen our awareness of what can be done to re-centre social change work going forward. This workshop will appeal to people involved in social change who feel they have the power to shape the future and to those who feel that, at present, they do not.


Saturday 21st May 17.00- 18.30: Sex Robots and Utopian Fantasies

Speakers: Genevieve Lively, University of Bristol; Kate Devlin, University of Goldsmiths

Advances in computing, robotics, and A.I systems (as well as popular science fiction narratives) confidently predict that sex robots will play an import role in our future lives. The prospect is welcomed by many for the potential such robots promise in helping tackle some of the problems associated with loneliness and bereavement, in reducing some of the harms associated with sex work, and in offering therapeutic as well as recreational benefits. But others see sex robots very differently. This discussion and debate will consider both sides of the issue – in particular, inviting participants to take the long view and consider what we might learn from the history of sex robots. This is a remarkable history which stretches back millennia and anticipates both our utopian fantasies and dystopian fears about human interactions with these machines.


Saturday 21st May 19.30 – 21.00: Creating Everyday Utopias Through Play

Speaker: Professor Davina Cooper, University of Kent, Chair: Keri Facer

What are everyday utopias; can imaginative forms of improvisation help to establish them; and can play help us to re-imagine what markets and states could be like? This session will explore two sites of play: the micro-site of Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, and those counter-institutions that perform everyday governance relations differently. It examines how Speakers’ Corner, as a place where one-timers and regulars argue, debate and laugh together, re-enacts the relationship between markets and play. At Speakers’ Corner, markets are satirised, relations of exchange are re-imagined, offerings are tasted, diverse speech acts and encounters are sampled, and risky transactions enjoyed. But if Speakers’ Corner provides some hints of a different way of approaching markets, can play help us to reimagine states? I am interested here in simulatory, often serious, non-competitive forms of play that don’t mimic the state as it is, but indicate ways of imagining what states could be. Prefiguring statecraft may seem an odd idea given the anti-state assumptions and ethos pervading much utopian and left-wing scholarship and activism. Without at all denying or minimising the oppressive, coercive practices of states both now and in the past, this session will explore whether there is value in imagining and enacting other kinds of statecraft – including at micro-level – that perform political governance relations in more progressive ways. Drawing on a series of different examples, including establishment of the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove, the session will address the challenge of forging counter-states through play.

Sunday 22nd May 11-13.30 (including screening) : Screen Utopias

Speakers: Tim Boon (Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum), Adam O’Brien (Teaching Fellow, University of Bristol), Sefryn Penrose (Postdoctoral Researcher, University College London), Angela Piccini (Reader in Screen Media, University of Bristol), Sarah Street (Professor of Film, University of Bristol)

Chair: Angela Piccini

What is it about the idea of things to come that energises and terrifies in equal measure? How do we come to imagine what it is that’s not yet here? And is what is to come next year, one hundred years from now or tomorrow? Taking its inspiration from H G Wells’s 1933 story, The Shape of Things to Come, which, in 1936 was adapted for the screen by Alexander Korda, this session explores ‘social and political forces and possibilities’ (H. G. Wells, Things to Come – A Film Story, London: Cresset, 1935). While on-screen utopias are most readily seen through science fiction, our panel will discuss a wide range of film and television genres, including musicals, sports films, documentaries, prison dramas and political satire in addition to sci-fi. Academic Richard Dyer has argued that all screen entertainment forms are utopian. How might different genres envision yet-to-come communities, ways of being and new politics? Join the conversation about the different ways in which ‘things to come’ have been explored on the silver screen. Followed by a special screening of Things to Come (Alexander Korda, 1936).

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Anticipation 2015 Conference

Here’s a post on the 2015 Anticipation Conference

Educated Optimism

So – this is a very belated post, but still…just for the record. The first conference on Anticipation took place in November, Trento. Here’s a quick storify of the event to give you a feel for it.

Sarah Amsler and I were running a strand on Education and the future, which took in everything from James Duggan’s use of design fiction in classrooms, to a massive Unesco initiative to support young people from around the world to reflect on how they think about the future (using a game based on Stuart Candy’s work), to Maria Odaje’s detailed work on how students deal with the anxieties and hopes relating to the future, to our own work on schools as sites in which Anticipatory Regimes are at play and can be resisted.

The conference as a whole brought together a very wide range of participants, evidenced in the keynote speakers from Roberto…

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On memorial benches and utopian possibilities.

One of my regular early morning pre-writing walks when I’m down in St Ives is out round the little headland between Porthmeor and Porthgwidden beaches, below the tiny chapel and the coastguard station that reaches out to sea. It’s a popular walk, albeit mainly with grimly determined dog walkers bent against the wind at this time of year. It can be, on bleak days in midwinter, a wildly romantic spot, light changing in different weathers, the sea picking up the pinks, greys, whites of the sky, the lighthouse at Godrevy Point a dreamlike focus for the view.

St Nicholas Chapel, St Ives

And dotted around this path are memorial benches, everywhere. That strange British tradition of commemorating a lost family member or friend by buying a great wooden bench somewhere they loved and affixing a little plaque to it. That they are here in such numbers isn’t surprising; this is, after all, a semi-suburban walk that collides the implacable wild of the cliffs and sea against the day-trip, car-park, ice-cream muddle of the family holiday.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for these benches – not just because I’m a romantic at heart and the tiny message that captures a life lived long and well together, or of friends lost and loved, will always make me cry – but also because they are everyday invitations to utopian dreaming. They are a visible reminder of the collective, and commonly held desire, for a better life.

After all, what is a memorial plaque that records ‘She loved this spot’ or that documents ‘A place where they were always happy together’, but a Utopian moment? They are a record of the incursion – into the mess, rush, struggle and banality that dominates everyday life – of a dream of other possibilities. We are invited, when we read these benches, to imagine someone stopping awhile in that place, creating time to love, creating space to be with friends and with family, taking time to dream. All of these are mistrusted, radical practices today – we are not supposed to dream, to reflect, to take time out. These are uneconomic, unproductive activities – they won’t buy you the house or the car, they won’t get you the promotion. And yet, these are the moments people choose to remember on these benches. As we pass by, then, we are encouraged to imagine other possibilities, other lives, other ways of living. They invite us to think – where would my bench be? What would it say? Who will remember me and why?

I wonder, when I look at these benches, how many dreams dreamed about a different way of life in the magical two weeks of a Cornwall summer holiday are actually realised – do these dreams become what Bloch would call concrete utopias? Does the confrontation with the early death of Laura the ‘free spirit’, or with the long lives of lifelong friends ‘Ray and Bert’, help to stiffen the resolve to take the steps to make another reality possible? Who knows. But these benches attest to the prevalence of an everyday and commonplace dreaming of a better life that is anchored to something – a loved landscape, friends, family, love – that is not merely the plastic product of the advertising professional. And just knowing that, for me, offers a resource for hope and for the beginnings, should we so wish it, of a politics of possibility.

Other stuff…

If you’re interested in benches – and why wouldn’t you be? – then you might like to check out the great ‘Bench Project’ and their manifesto for a good bench.




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Anticipation 2015 Conference

So – this is a very belated post, but still…just for the record. The first conference on Anticipation took place in November, Trento. Here’s a quick storify of the event to give you a feel for it.

Sarah Amsler and I were running a strand on Education and the future, which took in everything from James Duggan’s use of design fiction in classrooms, to a massive Unesco initiative to support young people from around the world to reflect on how they think about the future (using a game based on Stuart Candy’s work), to Maria Odaje’s detailed work on how students deal with the anxieties and hopes relating to the future, to our own work on schools as sites in which Anticipatory Regimes are at play and can be resisted.

The conference as a whole brought together a very wide range of participants, evidenced in the keynote speakers from Roberto Poli (chair of the conference) who gave us a technical and philosophical walk through of the concept of ‘Anticipation’ – his framing of it is ‘the use of the future to inform action in the present’. He describes it as the difference between viewing a weather forecast (simply thinking about the future) and viewing the weather forecast and deciding to take out a brolly (the use of the future in the present). What this perspective does is require us to think about the present a lot more – about how ideas of the future (and the past) work together to create a ‘thick present’ which is where we think, we act and we uncover possibilities. This is something I’ve talked about in this chapter here. Other keynotes were Ruth Levitas, talking on Utopia as Method; Sandra Kemp on Design and the future; Riel Miller on creativity; Jens Beckert on capitalism and the future; Liisa Välikangas on novelty and innovation.  This range of speakers gives a feel for how diverse the field is that is beginning to coalesce around this idea of ‘anticipation’ – or the use of the future in the present.

There was a lot to learn from the conference: some things worked very well (the diversity of the participants, the fantastic Italian food, a real atmosphere of generosity and interest) some things worked less well (the programming, too many parallel sessions). What became very clear to me throughout the conference was that if we are to really make the most of these diverse perspectives being together, we need to work carefully to create opportunities to talk across difference but around common themes. This is a problem when a new field is emerging – there are such different framings: the anticipatory systems people, for example, are coming with very different core questions from those of us emerging from the sociological and cultural studies traditions. But there is potential here, if we can work out how to talk together.

Some of the themes emerging for me were around: power – who gets to imagine, shape and frame ideas of the future? affect/emotion – how do we deal with the anxieties, fears and desires that are attached to our ideas of the future? the present – what is this strange, mysterious time we live in?

There are many more questions and a lot more conversations to be had – which is why I’ve agreed to chair the Anticipation 2017 conference, which will be held November, 2017 in Bristol. Watch this space for the calls for papers and do drop me a line if you’re interested in getting involved.

(For a more detailed account of the conference and some reflections from the perspective of the field of Futures Studies, see Andrew Curry’s nice summary here)


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Call for Papers: Education and The Future

We’re holding the first ever Conference on Anticipation in Trento next year, under the leadership of Professor Roberto Poli (Unesco Chair in Anticipatory Systems) and with keynotes from, amongst others, Arjun Appadurai, Erik Olin Wright, Martin Seligman and many more…

I’m working with the wonderful Sarah Amsler to curate a theme on Education and the Future. The call for proposals is available here

Deadline for proposals is 15th April. Contact me if you’d like to discuss possible ideas for the conference or just to find out more.