In May this year, a series of talks and workshops under the umbrella, Creating Real Utopias in the 21st Century, took place in Bristol. Jointly organised by the Festival of Ideas and the University of Bristol’s Anticipation Research Group, the two-day event hoped to address the realities of a Utopian society in the modern era. Copyright spoke to Keri Facer, Professor of Educational & Social Futures and leader of the Anticipation Research Group, about what a Utopian society might actually look like.
What is the Anticipation Research Group and what are its goals?
‘The Anticipation Research Group brings together researchers across the University as well as some partners in the city, to think about how our ideas of the future influence our actions in the present,’ says Keri. ‘This might be around global issues like climate change, and how we build robust expectations of what might happen and what that means we should do now.’ Or, concludes Keri, it could be something more specific, like how classical historians and writers have imagined the future in their work.
What was the aim of May’s two-day conference, Creating Real Utopias in the 21st Century?
‘The aim of the event was really to start having some of these conversations in public, to open up the question of how our hopes and dreams for the future have influenced our decisions both historically and today,’ says Kerri. ‘For example, looking at how Bristol was once a place of Utopian dreams for city planners, or how the movies are a place where fantasies of the future are explored.’ It was the aim of the research group to have these conversations in public because this process of anticipation is something we all do all the time, but don’t necessarily reflect on how it creates the conditions of our existence.
What is a utopia – in a modern sense?
‘There are many different definitions of utopia,’ say Keri. ‘For me, it is an impulse towards the idea that the world might be organised differently. It’s not a particular place or way of being, it’s about a critical challenge to accepting the world as it is.’ And this is how, it seems, most analysts, scientists and thinkers are addressing the notion of utopias today.
City-specific or philosophical endeavour?
But are these complicated, and at times, idealistic ideas transferable into the reality of city living or are they, at this stage at least, purely hypothetical. ‘I’d think different cities create different conditions for thinking about the future, and different ideas of the future shape cities in turn,’ muses Keri. ‘So there’s a relationship between ideas and reality. Particular conditions in some cities make it easier to imagine particular futures rather than others.’
How can Bristol become a utopia?
In Keri’s eyes, Bristol is well suited to adopt some of the revolutionary, community focused ideas that could lead to a modern utopia, ‘I think utopia is a process, it’s a way of thinking rather than a particular vision of the future,’ says Keri. ‘But, saying that I think that Bristol has much of this spirit, it’s one of the reasons I love living here, it’s a city that does like to ask how things might be different and, more than that, it is a place where people experiment and try to make things happen.’ For Keri this is a profoundly Utopian way to think and behave. ‘Although, we’re not always good at talking about our different visions of the future and how these might be connected,’ she continues.
What is a modern dystopia?
‘A dystopia for me is a place where the possibility of hope doesn’t exist, and where the way things are now are assumed to be the way things will always be,’ says Keri. But, the mechanics are in place to ensure this hellish vision is never realised. ‘People are finding and creating mini utopias all the time,’ says Keri. ‘They are asking how their communities might be made stronger, how they can create deeper and richer relationships that exist beyond the exchange of money or work, they are taking tiny steps to create different sorts of realities.
‘Every conversation with another person that invites a discussion of the future and that works to make it happen, is potentially Utopian.’ But these ideas can be realised on a larger scale too, ‘I think the sorts of collective experiments in new ways of working that we see across the city, the sort of work of civil society groups who think beyond personal interest, the moments when groups come together to protest, to create new sorts of public spaces, to celebrate – all of these are moments when our individual Utopian impulses connect up with other people’s ideas, and we can start to see how they connect,’ says Keri.
How far off are we?
‘These impulses are always there,’ says Keri. ‘The challenge is to create the conditions in which they can flourish.’ Keri believes we are ‘just around the corner and a million miles away’ from creating the ultimate modern utopia. ‘We just have to keep seeing the possibilities in the present,’ she concludes.
We may not be hurtling towards a future imagined by Victorian fantasists, in fact the idea of a perfect world might be one we can’t yet truly conceive. But, by turning the notion of utopia on its head, envisioning a future where environment trumps inhabitant in the battle for supremacy, maybe one day we’ll achieve some kind of perfection.
Find out more about Bristol’s Anticipation Research Group here: bristol.ac.uk/fssl/research/groups/anticipation.
Keep up to date with all the events taking place in association with the 2016 Festival of Ideas here: ideasfestival.co.uk.
Illustrations: Caspar Wain