On the black sea near the town of Anapa in the south of Russia, just where the Caucasus mountain range begins, is Smena (‘Change’) Foundation: a vast and permanent camp to prepare young people for the future. Disciplines range from engineering to pharmaceuticals to the arts, while features include a competitive sportsground, a planetarium and a 3D-printing lab. An ‘Avenue of Fame’ is lined with busts of Russian ‘heroes’ voted in by its students – including Gagarin, the first astronaut.
This October, alongside young adults preparing for the Future World Skills competition in Abu Dhabi next year, 70 prize-winning school children from all over Russia have gathered during the mid-term break to find out what it means to become ‘Young Energy Leaders’, with funding from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as part of the project Russian Future Leaders in Sustainability, in collaboration with Forum for the Future. They flooded into one of Smena’s many light-filled modular buildings, where I was waiting to give them a taste of how Forum uses futures to inspire long-term thinking and innovation. Our translator was glancing over the materials – eight trend cards (see below), four future world scenarios, and a list of exercises – eyebrows raised: “I don’t know where the answers are going to come from. I wouldn’t know them!”
Thankfully – for me and the students – futures workshops aren’t about getting the right answers. They’re a space to put aside assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, for the sake of finding out what might be possible, even probable, in future, and thinking how best to plan for it. If we want to navigate the complex challenges emerging today, we need to start doing the strategic guess-work. Guess-work it is, based on evidence, but with plenty of room for the unexpected.
The students browsed the trends I’d prepared (also attached below). Which did they think mattered most to their energy future? The ones that came up most were:
- Automation and Artificial Intelligence
- Digitalisation and the proliferation of digital networks
- An ageing population
They anticipated challenges such as the malfunction of highly automated energy systems, high energy consumption in robot-reliant societies, and the vulnerability of automated systems to terrorists and hackers, and the need to balance the energy demands of robots with those of long lives with high support needs. They also spotted opportunities – such as increased energy efficiency, smart energy networks that can match demand to supply with high levels of flexibility and personalisation, and automated repair and maintenance in energy systems.
Then the students devised scenarios in which multiple trends converged, again spotting the challenges and opportunities. What happens to energy in a world where AI meets digital networks? One group imagined energy produced and consumed locally in tight networks, and noted the possibility of whole communities being cut off if the system fails or is hacked. Or what happens in a world where high levels of migration meet digitalisation? Another group imagined the risk of both a brain drain and an energy drain, as migrant populations flock to areas rich in renewable resources.
On the second day, the students rapidly prototyped some solutions to the challenges they’d identified. Here are three of my favourites.
1. How might we ensure both robots and people have access to sufficient energy?
The students built a small modelling clay robot with an inbuilt anaerobic digester as a stomach, that powers itself through the conversion of human waste.
2. How might we manage trade between countries with unequal access to resources?
The students imagined a union of countries with differing energy capacities and sources of energy, supporting international energy trading networks while tackling inequality in access to resources.
3. How might we solve problems of energy access among highly mobile populations?
The students created a small model of a finger-printing energy metering system, tracking consumption on the go.
Here are the eight trend cards we explored during our workshop. Which do you think matter most to our energy future?
The signal of change "Dutch collective Broodfonds provides gift-based health insurance for freelancers" was spotted by Madhumitha Ardhanari
The signal of change "Airbnb requires users to commit to zero discrimination" was spotted by Dorothy Ng
The signal of change "Ecosystem insurance begins with Mexican coral reef" was spotted by Giulio Quaggiotto and written by Li Lin Loh
The signal of change "China to ban production of petrol and diesel cars 'in the near future'" was spotted by Samuel Smith and Rebecca Lawson.
The signal of change "World’s first blockchain-managed energy transaction" was spotted by Callum Watts and written by Ivana Gazibara.
The signal of change "Urban ‘home farm’ for Singapore’s ageing population" was spotted by Harriet Trefusis
Which of these eight trends to you think matter most to your energy future? Tell us in the comments below.