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James Upton talks FutureFest 2020 and beyond

8th November 2019

James Upton talks FutureFest 2020 and beyond

Interview with James Upton

James Upton is a programmer and producer for the Barbican and is curating a selection of events for FutureFest 2020. From rewilding forests to engaging people with the wonders of space, he shares his predictions and ideas for the future.

The title of this year’s festival is Survival kit for the future. Why do you think the survival theme was chosen and what does it mean to you?

It’s easy to think about survival in terms of ourselves as a human race, or on an individual level day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck, but in the context of FutureFest I like to think of it as “what ideas do we want to survive into the future” and conversely “what ideas should we call time on”.

You are a former cell biologist, turned science event curator and producer. What experience or knowledge has inspired you when programming some of the events at this year’s FutureFest?

My favourite part of both jobs is that they throw up new, unexpected problems that require practical, imaginative and elegant solutions – whether it’s finding a way to grow artificial skin in the lab or working out how to present a piece of bacteria-based artwork in a public space.

If you weren’t programming events like this what would be your plan B?

I’d like to be doing something nice with neurons.

As a species we’ve already managed to do the unthinkable in changing the course of a planet’s entire ecosystem once, I’d back us to do it again.”

You were one of the original members of Agony Auncles of Science. What do you think are the most important questions about the future and how do you think we will answer them?

Haha! We were mostly answering questions about what to do if your partner snores or how to deal with the aftermath of lift fart. If I was looking to spin something profound from this I’d say it highlights how what’s important to most people is often the fairly prosaic, everyday problems, and these are what go on to spark some pretty smart innovations.

How can we engage people with science and technology so people don’t feel left behind?

It’s tricky. As the world becomes more and more complex I think there’s a natural instinct to feel a loss of agency or control. The feeling that decisions are being made for us by governments and corporations with obscene levels of power is what’s led to such a disenfranchised and polarised breed of voter. But the fact is, that those in power need us. They need our money, our labour, our data and our votes; and for that to work those with power need us to be clueless and compliant.

Educating and engaging people about the wonder of space, amazing Coral reefs or cool things to do with 3D printers is a great first step, but the key thing to all of this shouldn’t just be to shovel them a bunch of neat facts and demos. We should be empowering people to know how and when to ask questions.

Which new scientific discoveries do you think will have the most impact on our future survival?

Given our trajectory with global heating, even by the most optimistic outlooks, sooner or later we will have to consider coordinated international geoengineering projects in order to stabilise the planet’s climate.

These could take the form of solar arrays across the Sahara, or rewilding forests at scale. We could even go for more drastic speculative solutions such as acidifying our oceans to absorb CO2 or using weapons of mass destruction to divert the course of a hurricane from highly populated areas. These may seem like insurmountable or implausible tasks – but as a species we’ve already managed to do the unthinkable in changing the course of a planet’s entire ecosystem once, I’d back us to do it again.

What can people expect from FutureFest in 2020? And what should be included in a survival kit for the future?

We want the programme to plant a seed in every visitors mind, whether that’s about the environment, politics or themselves and how they interact with others.

Quick Fire 5

Where is your happy place?

A pier.

Which book would you recommend to others?

Artful by Ali Smith.

What is the best advice you have been given?

Say ‘No’ quickly, not ‘Maybe’ slowly.

What has been the hardest lesson you have learnt?

Knowing when to stop.

What can we do on a daily basis to shape our future for the better?

Make eye contact and listen to each other.


Reset the clock on doomsday: come to Futurefest to map a better future.