Pasted image 0 2

Amplified Publishing Category

Making Things Count Rather than Counting Them: The Future Festival of Ideas

by Andrew Kelly

What is the future for Bristol Ideas and what can technology offer? In applying to join the programme, I put forward many research questions:

  • How can we ensure the widest possible reading, learning and debate about ideas?

  • Who are the audiences we don’t reach and how do we reach and work with them?

  • What existing methods of publishing work best for this? What can we learn from those who publish in other areas and we don’t use currently – for example, gaming, VR – in the communication of and debate about complex ideas?

  • How can we create new business models which support this work and the writers and commentators we work with now and in the future?

  • How can we make better use of the archive content we have (over 1300 event recordings)?

  • What can we identify, develop and use that will have wider application in the festivals and cultural sectors we work with?

They are not new, but the pandemic - where we adopted online activity rapidly but also questioned the purpose of our work - made them more important than ever.

For a long time, we have believed in amplified publishing, or at least amplifying the work of writers. Our events are not just a book reading. The production of each one includes reading the work of the speaker (sometimes twice); using reviews and commentary around the event; careful thought about questions to ask; follow-up coverage of the work. It’s the same for the most prominent thinker as for the debut writer. We’re motivated by debating ideas. But there must be a point to this.

Our work with writers, artists, poets, scientists, historians and more explores many of the great issues of our time and tries to find solutions to these. We bring together live events with in-depth programmes of activity (publications, creative projects, walks and more). These include our themed festivals – Festival of Ideas, Festival of the Future City, Festival of Economics – and often year-long programmes which have covered the future of engineering and aerospace; war and peace; science and the city; the past and future of the council estate; and – this year – the history and future of cinema in cities. We bring together our research with the research of others and provide wide engagement: in talks and debates; the books and comics we publish; the writing and poems we commission; the films we show; the exhibitions we run; and the arts projects we support.

The pandemic disrupted not just this work but also the model. Most of our events make little money and need support; large audiences subsidise smaller events; and online events are generally free. The pandemic meant traditional sources of funding were closed; sponsorship died; and the income we generated from pay-what-you-can did not match what we would have received for live events. We couldn’t make a formal charge for online events – though this was discussed many times – as there is so much free content already published on the same subject with the same writers.

Looking to the future, it’s also fair to say that the big international writer’s tour is over. This has been inevitable for a while. It was questionable whether these were sustainable environmentally, but the pandemic has shown that publishers don’t need to invest heavily in flights and hotels when there’s hungry festivals willing to run events online. For big name authors, it’s likely that they may only do one event which is then broadcast live worldwide – sometimes in cinemas and online, and these will be run by commercial providers.

The pandemic affected our work, but it’s not been the only crisis in recent years. Since 2008 we’ve experienced a worldwide financial crisis and Brexit, as well as Covid-19. These have affected economies, increased inequality, exposed and worsened fractures in society, seen democracy questioned and under attack, and affected public discourse badly.

What has been our immediate response? We moved online, alongside other leading book and ideas festivals. New audiences from outside the city were able to attend, not just in the UK but internationally. It worked – and meant more international speakers. But, Zoom fatigue, and the better weather and lifting of lockdowns, meant numbers watching live dropped, though ‘catch-up’ viewings – we keep events online permanently – have increased.

There are bigger issues too which we think about all the time. The pandemic affected our work, but it’s not been the only crisis in recent years. Since 2008 we’ve experienced a worldwide financial crisis and Brexit, as well as Covid-19. These have affected economies, increased inequality, exposed and worsened fractures in society, seen democracy questioned and under attack, and affected public discourse badly. It’s hard for societies and individuals to be resilient to all these. Good ideas and solutions are more important than ever, but deep debate and understanding in the context of an often toxic and polarised public sphere is hard.

There are many lessons to learn from this. The future of festivals like ours is a combination of live and online, but we need to make both work, we need to make them pay and there is a cost. This means greater investment in technology to make the experience a good one for all; it means increasing the amount of work for each event so the content of and around the event is as rich as it can be; it means more research and in-depth investigation of key issues – our plans next year include, for example, the second part of our investigation into the future of democracy and what a new Beveridge report would look like. It also means new approaches by funders (the subject of a future blog).

And making a difference is critical too. What makes a Bristol Ideas event stand out? Is it the discussion? The host? The subjects covered that others don’t? The approach? We must count what we do to justify the support we get. But the impact should not be judged on numbers alone. Making what we do count is more important. And this means, above all, finding new ways to be comfortable with nuance and complexity in debate.

Part of the research is about learning how other ideas festivals are approaching this new future. We partner with festivals worldwide – in Toronto, Lagos, Melbourne and many other cities. Over the next six months we’ll be learning from them.

And it’s about learning what technology can offer. To be honest, I’ve not found an answer yet. Social media is a blunt – sometimes dangerous – tool for online debate, and we’ve known this for a long time; we’re all trying to customise platforms like Zoom and Crowdcast to make them work but have a long way to go. Finding the right technology to encourage good debate and understanding will be hard – and people finding the time to participate will be even harder.

The big problem is that we don’t have a lot of time – in our lives and in terms of the threats we face as this week’s IPCC report highlighted again. Oliver Burkeman's new book Four Thousand Weeks is about our likely time span and how we should manage it. As you get older (though this is a discipline for all ages) – and you realise the time ahead is much shorter than the time you have had – you begin to think more about things like this. If I live to 77 that gives me 832 more weeks (5,824 days); if I live to 85 – my life expectancy according to ONS – that gives me 1,300 weeks (9,100 days).

What does this mean? It means being careful about identifying what will make that difference – both in work and personal lives. Futures Thinker Stewart Brand plans projects in five-year blocks – from idea to end point (a good discipline, though this means, for me, and optimistically, possibly only four projects left). It means finding the best use of technology to deliver the nuanced debate, the good conversation, and solutions finding we need. We’re nowhere near that point yet. I hope the rest of the Amplified Publishing programme can help me discover how to achieve this.