The nine-day FutureEverything Singapore festival, which finished on Sunday October 18th, featured imaginative ways to engage the public in envisioning the future of a Smart Nation. The goal was to create new shared understanding how life, work and play are transformed by technology.

The festival was a partnership between FutureEverything and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA). It was the only British contribution to SG50, the year long celebrations that mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore, and was announced by David Cameron in three major policy speeches during his 2015 trade mission to Asia.

Over the two year journey with the Singapore government to realise the project, we explored the opportunities and challenges facing Singapore, now and in its future. The Festival was the culmination of that journey – the place where the ideas became reality, and where we could prototype the future.

“One challenge we idenfitifed is the distance beween art and tech in Singapore”

One challenge we identified is the distance between art and tech in Singapore. We conceived the festival to create lasting new connections between the worlds of tech, government and industry on the one hand, and society, art and culture on the other. I have seen in FutureEverything how art and design can be drivers for technology innovation and uptake, and can engage the public in new ideas about the future. In his speech at the Opening Gala, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, presented an articulate and powerful argument that art and culture have to be at the centre of technology development in Singapore.

Smart Nation is Singapore’s take on the Smart City. Cities are important in the digital economy because much data relevant to people’s lives is held at city level. In Singapore the convergence of city and nation creates an opportunity to span all levels of governance, from the lived reality of urban life to national identity and macroeconomic policy.

The author (left) with Minister Yaacob, Jacqueline Poh and Steve Leonard of the IDA

The political leadership in Singapore has placed people at the centre of its vision. Over recent years the Smart City industry has shown precious little understanding on how cities become innovative or liveable. It is refreshing to hear Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister in Charge of the Smart Nation initiative, advocate a people-first approach.

The vision is underpinned by a model in which all levels of society contribute to and drive innovation. One challenge is how people outside government can take ownership of the Smart Nation, how it can become something co-created and shared. The challenge is cultural not technical. In Singapore, technology is not generally viewed as something in which everyone has ownership and a say. The language gets in the way, ‘smart’ pointing to an elite attending the top universities. Singaporeans are said to be risk averse, due in large part to the education system (thanks, Britain) and parental pressure over secure jobs.

We designed the festival to experiment in ideas around a technologically-enabled future Singapore, and to help to build a culture of permission and of risk taking. The city wide art and design installations responded to the everyday reality of urban life in Singapore, its urban density and speed. Great art can change the way people see the world, it is inspiring, and can be fun. In the festival innovation lab, 50 designers, technologists, artists and urbanists also devised new innovations to answer challenges facing the near future for Singapore.

FutureEverything generated a very public debate. It brought together leading public figures and Ministers in Singapore, world renowned designers and academics, business leaders, prominent futurists and social activists from Singapore, young people and children, and the public through a crowd sourced citizen survey. It was free for all and took place in a national museum and national design centre, on daytime TV, and in the shopping malls and public spaces where Singaporeans spend their time. Many younger designers and technologists were introduced to government officials and policy makers at FutureEverything giving them confidence and breaking down barriers.

When I invited Singaporean educator and social entrepreneur Tong Yee to speak at the conference he told me, “I am not part of this”. I answered, “That is why we need you”. In the lead up to the festival we debated what it would mean for the Smart Nation to be for everyone, and what it would take. For the Smart Nation to be a shared and collective project, there needs to be the sense that it is our place to shape the world around us. In Singapore this requires a culture of permission, and a shift in the way people see their place in the world, from consumers to contributors.

Apple of their iPhone: Art and technology meet at the Festival of Tech

This cuts to something fundamental, identity. FutureEverything comes from the digital culture generation, with the ethos that we can remake our world around us, together. Tong Yee’s talk on building a culture of permission in Singapore was one of the most profound and moving I have had the pleasure to host at a FutureEverything event. On a tour of our innovation lab prototypes, I spoke with Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about how we all can remake the world around us. He developed this theme in his conference keynote on radical change in energy, healthcare, food production, manufacturing and logistics. Dr Balakrishnan urged Singaporeans not to fear the future, but instead to be active and create the future.

Our idea in the festival was to look for a shared vision for the Smart Nation that is bigger than technology. In the closing session at the conference, I proposed we strip away the language, take away the focus on technology, to better give voice to the core core ideals and aspirations for a Smart Nation. The outcome was profound and moving, with our closing speakers, Aaron Maniam, Tong Yee and Cheryl Chung, each articulating a key dimension of such a vision – we need to keep exploring, defining new boundaries; we can use technology to draw us closer together and create the Singapore we want to see; it takes courage to be involved, to debunk the need for permission, and allow things to snowball into greatness.

Something special and unique happened through this close partnership between FutureEverything and the Singapore government. Our hope is that a vision of art and culture as central to technology innovation, and a people-first approach, can be the new normal in Singapore.

FutureEverything Singapore is curated and produced by FutureEverything – the UK’s leading innovation lab and digital culture festival, supported by the IDA. It is the keystone programme of the Singapore Festival of Tech, an IDA-initiated event as part of the SG50 celebration.

Dr. Drew Hemment is Founder and Creative Director of FutureEverything, and a Dundee Fellow, Reader at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee.