Bristol Festival of Ideas 2021: positivity amid the chaos

·6-min read

In his new book Shutdown, Adam Tooze – one of our autumn speakers – talks about the “polycrisis”. In just 15 years we have experienced the financial crisis, Brexit, and now the pandemic. We have growing inequality, rising poverty, housing shortages, increasing racism and, on top of it all, uncertainty about how we come to terms with – and, as much as possible, stop – the world burning.

The economic and societal consequences of multiple crises will be huge. The resilience of people to deal with these – and live day-to-day – must also surely fracture at some point. With huge shifts yet to come (with capitalism failing, automation potentially putting millions out of work and liberalism and democracy in question), the need to provide a positive future is critical.

Ideas for better futures are not in short supply, and there are solutions. Promoting and debating these is our work.

At the heart of every event will be why ideas are important and how we can, together, create solutions that work

But running festivals – especially ones about ideas – is never easy. Rarely does an event cover its cost, and sponsorship and funding is hard to find. During the pandemic, traditional sources of funding closed, and the sponsorship market died.

It would have been easy to give up. Like others, we pivoted, as they say, to digital. We ran as many events as usual with lots of new ideas presented: dealing with loneliness; extending and strengthening democracy; delivering on Black Lives Matter and #MeToo; making sure cities work for all; protecting and enhancing freedom of speech; delivering effective social care; creating new economic futures; building personal resilience to the multiple crises we face; and adapting lives and communities to deal with climate change.

We’ve just launched more than 100 new autumn events. From planning for the future with Kim Stanley Robinson to discussing Orwell and nature with Rebecca Solnit, we have our Festival of the Future City, Economics festival, a new festival of working-class writing, and a conference looking at the potential of universal basic income with the New Economics Foundation’s Anna Coote, writer and commentator Martin Ford, journalist Paul Mason and philosopher Kate Soper. Along the way Musa Okwonga talks about Berlin, Gillian Tett looks at anthropology and economics, Douglas Stuart debates cities for working-class people, Neil Gaiman assesses the legacy of Diana Wynn Jones, Sheila Rowbotham reflects on 70s feminism and lessons for today, Ed Miliband tries to fix the world, and Bernardine Evaristo promotes creative rebellion.

Some events will continue online, some are live, some hybrid – and this is likely to be the model for all future work. At the heart of every event will be why ideas are important and how we can, together, create solutions that work.

There is now urgency. This is a critical decade in which humanity faces existential risk. The long grass is full of crises that have been ignored or delayed for too long. Our festivals celebrate people with ideas that help build positive futures and create change. And that’s the priority. If we are to meet the polycrisis – to give people a future – we need ideas that matter. We face dark times ahead, but there is hope in all that we do.

Festival of the Future City

Launched in 2015, the biennial Festival of the Future City brings together politicians, writers, artists, scientists, policymakers, philosophers, charities, social enterprises, city-builders and more for the biggest public debate about the future of urban living. This year’s key themes include how we should respond to Cop26; how we can create and sustain a city’s unique character; building healthy cities in the long term; and what post-pandemic cities and regions could be like. Speakers include Mayor Marvin Rees giving his annual State of the City Address, which will examine how we can build an open, tolerant and inclusive city; a panel debating the mayor with Ian Goldin (Oxford University), Sado Jirde (Black South West Network), writer Musa Okwonga, and Liz Zeidler (Centre for Thriving Places); journalist Sian Norris leading a guided walk that follows the old Reclaim the Night route to explore the challenges facing women accessing safe public space today; Eric Klinenberg and commentator Aditya Chakrabortty debating new ideas for healing our divided, unequal society; authors Leslie Kern and Katrine Marçal joining Jos Boys (founder member of the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative) to debate what a city designed by women would look like; poet and journalist Clint Smith on how slavery has been central in shaping the US’s collective history and the role of memory in making sense of places; and Bristol City Poet Caleb Parkin leading a walk exploring how Bristol might be reimagined. The main dates of the festival are 20 and 21 October, but there will be other linked sessions before and afterwards, with a mix of online and in-person. Details here.

Working-Class Writers festival

New to Bristol in 2021 is the Working-Class Writers festival, under the directorship of award-winning author Natasha Carthew, a campaigner for increasing working-class representation in the arts. Part of her wider, nationwide Class festival, the sessions to be held in Bristol seek to showcase authentic stories reflective of and relatable to the experiences of working-class communities, to celebrate existing working-class writers and to inspire new ones, particularly among the young. They include panel discussions on the barriers to getting published; how to smash the class ceiling; navigating the world of literary agents; the power of performance; the importance of diversity in children’s and young adult TV and books; and the myths about publishing that need to be busted. Speakers include Terri White and Cash Carraway discussing life on the margins, memoir-writing and the dangers of what is termed “misery porn”; Anita Sethi, Natasha Carthew and Tanya Shadrick exploring what it means to be working-class nature writers in their respective fields of fiction and nonfiction; and panellists Kalwant Bhopal, Coco Kahn, Stewart Lansley, Mary O’Hara and Paul Sng considering a range of ways of tackling poverty in the UK. Running from 21 to 24 October, the festival will use physical and digital spaces. All sessions are free to attend but booking is required (opens 4 October). Details here.

Economics festival

Oxford economist Ngaire Woods will speak at the festival.
Oxford economist Ngaire Woods will speak at the festival. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA-EFE

The 10th annual Festival of Economics will run from 17 to 19 November at We the Curious. The mornings will mainly focus on policy research relating to the challenges of Covid-19 and its aftermath. There will be sessions exploring health and economics, the future of working from home, inequality, global economies and the post-pandemic future. Speakers and chairs include writer and commentator Isabel Hardman (Spectator), Anna Isaac (Independent), Soumaya Keynes (Economist), Ngaire Woods (Oxford University) and Gillian Tetlow (Institute for Government). The afternoons cover wider issues, including a discussion on the economics of reparations with academic Patricia Daley (Oxford); George Magnus and Linda Yueh on the relationship between the US and China; Diane Coyle on how economics needs to change; Rory Cellan-Jones on the smartphone era; Spotify’s former chief economist, Will Page, on disruption; and a panel on the economics of household labour. There will also be a recording of the popular Talking Politics podcast with David Runciman and Helen Thompson. Details here.

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