Stefan Brandt; Photo: Die Hoffotografen GmbH
“A sympathetic ear for fantastical visions and utopias”
Futurium, the house of futures, will be opening on 5 September 2019. Something exceptional is on its way – not least for Futurium Director Dr Stefan Brandt. He spoke to online editor Ludmilla Ostermann about the special kind of tension that is in the air in the run-up to the launch, about playground swings in the exhibition, and about future plans for this house of futures.
Stefan Brandt; Photo: Die Hoffotografen GmbH
Futurium is on the verge of opening. How are you feeling?
Brandt: I’d be lying if I said I was completely relaxed. Anyway, being relaxed wouldn’t be a good thing. Everyone is feeling the positive tension, because we’ve still got quite a few things to sort out. Futurium, at first glance, is trailblazing a vision that seems almost impossible, and that is to create a place that engages with something that isn’t yet there. A place that wants to inspire people to throw themselves into the future and even to help shape it. Nothing like this has ever existed in this form in Germany or Europe, so we’re really breaking new ground. I’m also slowly starting to feel proud to count myself among those who’ve been working together to bring this house of futures to the launch pad. It’s been four years since the foundation stone was laid in the summer of 2015, and it was only in June 2017 that I joined the team myself – an incredibly short timespan for the Seite 2 / 3 ‘parametric sculpture’ in the thinking space Nature is the most visible example in this regard. It’s our conviction that this kind of exhibition architecture also enables visitors to find and grasp meaning within the content. In addition to the exhibition, we also aim to convey the content by means of Futurium’s other two programme pillars, namely, the Forum, where a range of current standpoints can be given a voice and discussed controversially, and the Futurium Lab, where visitors are invited to experiment with their own ideas and to try out new technologies construction from scratch of a new public institution in the heart of Berlin.
What are your expectations for 5 September, the day of Futurium’s opening?
Brandt: The picture in my mind – and the one I hope to see – is one of people looking surprised in a positive way. That is, people who may have come with hazy expectations – or even without any sort of expectations – saying, “I’d never have thought it was possible to engage with the future in this way”. And I also hope, of course, that these opening days, which are bound to be pretty intense, won’t just be a four-day wonder, but that people will feel drawn to keep coming back to discover Futurium step by step. The fact that admission will initially be free until the end of the test phase in late 2022 should certainly contribute to our reaching this goal.
Museums usually offer up the past. How are you going to be offering up the future?
Brandt: We won’t be exhibiting a ‘future’. Nobody can, because nobody knows which one of the many possible ‘futures’ that are being discussed – that is, the many different visions of the future – will eventually become part of our actual ‘future’. In our three thinking spaces Nature, Human and Technology, we present options and approaches that we consider – if for no other reason than the fact that they’ve emerged from a continuous exchange of ideas with many experts – to have a promising future. We take a close look at these three topics and the potentials they convey, and we do so in a way that is both explanatory and critical in all areas. For this purpose, we use many different types of exhibits, from prototypes and historical objects to artistic installations and digital stagings. Games are part of the concept too: in a playful way, visitors can approach future-related questions in a totally unexacting manner. By means of this diversity, we still manage in the end to make topics of the future concrete and to place them firmly in the present. We’ve attached great importance to creating a sensually tactile exhibition architecture – the spectacular ‘parametric sculpture’ in the thinking space Nature is the most visible example in this regard. It’s our conviction that this kind of exhibition architecture also enables visitors to find and grasp meaning within the content. In addition to the exhibition, we also aim to convey the content by means of Futurium’s other two programme pillars, namely, the Forum, where a range of current standpoints can be given a voice and discussed controversially, and the Futurium Lab, where visitors are invited to experiment with their own ideas and to try out new technologies.
It’s our aspiration to become a venue for important debates on the future
Where do you see Futurium in five years’ time?
Brandt: We want to gain a foothold in the capital, become present throughout Germany and ultimately also in the international arena. In five years’ time, I hope we’ll be part of an international network of similar institutions, such as the Museu do Amanhã in Rio de Janeiro or the Miraikan in Tokyo. We’re already in negotiations to form such collaborations, since new public institutions dedicated to the future are currently at the planning stage in many different places. There’s a movement taking place all over the world, and we should be part of it. We also want to expand Futurium’s geographical radius and in this way, above all, reach people in less urban regions. We can actively contribute to science communication by giving visitors access to the latest scientific developments and letting them test, try out and discuss these innovations. It’s our aspiration to become a venue for important debates on the future and indeed to be the initiator of such debates. In short: our societal effectiveness should be noticeable in five years.
In your opinion, how can Futurium motivate people to shape the future?
Brandt: I think we need to be honest here: people show very different levels of willingness when it comes to actually participating, and not everyone wants to immediately step forward as an active pioneer for the future. In my opinion, much will be gained if all we do initially is to get people to regard their visit to Futurium as an aid to their overcoming their own mental blocks. That is, if we make them understand that the future concerns them too. Some of our visitors – hopefully many – may perhaps then want to go a step further and actively shape the future. Of course, we also place high hopes on children and young people, for whom we’ve developed an extensive programme with workshops and drop-in formats, especially in the Futurium Lab. We work in a science-based manner and aim to conduct our debates objectively; at the same time, we’ve got a sympathetic ear for fantastical visions and utopias, which we place in relation to the facts. Last but not least, I hope that we can get people to think more about sustainability. Not just as a buzzword, but in terms of our communicating how to use resources responsibly at all levels. In any case, I’m convinced that this is going to be the decisive societal issue of the coming decades – namely, how do we collectively manage to change over to a sustainable way of life, while at the same time preserving our individual freedoms? How can sustainability and liberal democracy come together? These are questions we’ll have to be dealing with for a very long time and in a very intensive manner.
Which target groups would you like to address?
Brandt: There is the huge target group "all" - from the young to the old, from the layman to the expert. The future really concerns everyone - and that's why admission to Futurium is free of charge. We want everyone to come to us - regardless of age, origin or account balance.
We want everyone to come to us - regardless of age, origin or account balance.
Do you have a favourite corner or object at Futurium that no visitor should miss?
Brandt: The Database of Hopes in the entrance area is a great exhibit for people to tune themselves in to their visit and to think about their own personal hopes and wishes for the future. I’m also impressed by the swirl of the ‘Great Acceleration’ at the beginning of the exhibition. With this exhibit we’ve tried to make visible the many new developments that since the onset of industrialisation have become more and more powerful. Equally exciting are our many hands-on interactive points – and of course no one will be able to miss the large playground swings in the thinking space Human that encourage visitors to slow down, offering them a perfect exercise in deceleration. Fabulous things can also be seen and tried out in the Futurium Lab. A focus for controversial discussion is certain to be the artistic installation in the form of a ‘Voting Booth’ in which the voter’s decision is seemingly ‘predicted’ by facial recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). At first, this exhibit seems like an ironic gimmick – but some serious questions lie behind it. The technology used in the installation is already more widespread than most people imagine. In some countries, for example, facial recognition is already being used to monitor people’s every move. Therefore, the AI ‘Voting Booth’ is ultimately a wake-up call for more personal autonomy in digital space.
Which topic lies especially close to your heart when you’re considering the future?
Brandt: The longer I think about future-related questions, the more I’m convinced that individual topics of the future cannot be considered in isolation. Take mobility, for example: of what possible benefit is it to me to tinker about with individual, minor aspects of technology when I don’t know what purpose mobility as a whole is actually meant to serve in my life? Which values are important to me? Is it always just ‘higher, further, faster’? Or can I also find fulfilment in other contexts? The answers I give will certainly also influence my mobility behaviour. The secret question that lies behind future mobility or future digitalisation or the future healthcare system is: what kind of society do we want? That is, how do we want to live? This is the question that preoccupies me: how do we manage to approach the major challenges of the future in a genuinely ‘systemic’ manner and how can we get beyond the more or less disorganised tinkering about with individual symptoms? We must succeed in combining a holistic view of things with very concrete action. We also need for this purpose a new type of decision-maker in many areas of society, one who is in equal part inspired, reflective, and oriented towards participation and action. Perhaps Futurium can contribute a little to inspiring such outstanding individuals to dedicate themselves to questions of the future.
You have a PhD in musicology. How do you think the way we make music is likely to change in the future?
Brandt: I believe that the way of making music that we’ve been practising for centuries will continue to exist. For us humans, the direct experience of an instrument or the human voice will always remain the ultimate form of music. However, there will be more areas – such as film music or advertising jingles – that will become increasingly industrialised. If I have an AI that can record billions of data sets, analyse them, and make something new out of them, then this AI will be able to create compositions that are hardly inferior to those created by humans. To some extent, this is already happening today. In this regard, we’re facing major debates about what human creativity actually is and in what way it differs from AI creativity. AI can also be helpful in analysing music. Thousands of compositions could be searched for patterns and structures, and these in turn could provide information about the composers’ sources of inspiration. The question of how to classify and interpret the results of this analysis naturally remains one that is to be answered by musicologists. This then means going beyond the purely descriptive step of pattern recognition and becoming continuously aware of one’s own presuppositions during the process of reflection. Knowing the limitations of one’s own knowledge and recognising the subjectivity of one’s own approach – I don’t think a machine is likely to be capable of this in the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing too!