Exploring our future at the Cambridge Festival

Fuel of the future

From overhauling our system of economics, healthcare and the way we work, to the possible new sources of energy and food, the Cambridge Festival explores the future during a series of free online events. 

The Festival, which launches next Friday 26th March, hosts an extensive programme of over 350 events, tackling many of the critical global challenges affecting us all. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge, it features hundreds of prominent figures and experts in the world of science, current affairs and the arts, and focusses on four key themes:  health, society, environment, and explore.

By late-September 2020 the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center had tracked more than 33 million cases of COVID-19 globally, causing close to 1 million deaths. The remarkable speed, global reach, and ease with which the virus crossed borders and is being transmitted between people has sent stock markets tumbling, with the World Bank projecting the deepest global recession since World War II. In Post-COVID Recovery and the Future of Global Economics (30 March, 8pm-9pm), international economist Dr Augusto Lopez-Claros, Chair of the Global Governance Forum and former Director of the Global Indicators Group at the World Bank, examines the immediate challenge of economic recovery from COVID-19 and discusses measures to overhaul our system of global economic governance and propel us on the path to a sustainable and equitable future.

The pandemic has also dramatically changed how people work, so could it be the catalyst to create better, healthier jobs in the future? About six million workers in the UK suffer poor health because of their jobs. Current solutions tend to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes. In a panel discussion, Why work needs to shape up: Redesigning jobs for better employee wellbeing (29 March, 2pm-3pm), experts on health and wellbeing at work, Professor Chris Warhurst and Christian van Stolk, examine the challenges presented by COVID-19. They discuss how it has exposed job-related health risks for sectors such as front-line health and social workers – and how we could be exploring ways to create better jobs in the future and a better society as a result. Professor Warhurst is director of the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick and is an internationally recognised expert on job quality and skills. Van Stolk is executive vice president at RAND Europe and has worked extensively on health and wellbeing in workplaces, including the NHS.

Post COVID-19, how can we continue to keep up the pace of innovation we have seen in the digital health sphere in the future, specifically in improving the patient experience and outcomes in trials and beyond? What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? How can we work together to maintain and build on the momentum?  An interdisciplinary panel, chaired by BBC Digital Planet presenter Gareth Mitchell, discuss these questions and more during Learnings from a pandemic: Accelerating the research and development of new medicines (30 March, 7-8pm). With Cristina Duran, Chief Digital Health Officer, R&D, AstraZeneca; Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine, University College London; Michelle Longmire, Co-founder and CEO of Medable, Inc; and Nick Hartshorne-Evans, CEO of Pumping Marvellous.

A further event related to healthcare focusses on data science and AI – an area that has the potential to transform the discovery and development of medicines. However, there is a lot of hype surrounding AI. The session AI: Hype vs reality (31 March, 7pm-8pm) covers what has been achieved to date; what is realistic to expect from data science and AI in the next 5 to 10 years; how data science experts can manage expectations; and how pharma and tech can better collaborate to realise the potential of data science and AI in healthcare. Chaired by Gareth Mitchell, BBC Digital Planet. Speakers include Dr James Weatherall Vice President, Data Science & Artificial Intelligence, R&D AstraZeneca; Professor Mihaela van der Schaar, Director Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine; Anne Phelan, CSO Benevolent AI; and Dr Junaid Bajwa, Chief Medical Scientist, Microsoft Research.

Cleaner energy is another major issue we are faced with. Could the solution be ammonia? One drop of liquid ammonia has roughly the same energy content as an entire balloon of hydrogen gas. In Fuel of the future (30 March, 1pm-2pm, and 1 April, 6pm-7pm) (see image above) Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology researchers Joseph El-Kadi and Collin Smith explore the potential of carbon-free ammonia as a fuel to meet the needs of powering our world in the future, whilst reducing the impact of climate change. This talk includes an explosive demo and live Q&A.

Energy is again explored in Nuclear and Low Carbon Energy for the Future (26 March, 10am-10.20am, 2.00pm-2.20pm, 6.00pm-6.20pm, and 27 March, 10.00am-10.20am, 2.00pm-2.20pm, 6.00pm-6.20pm). How are nuclear accidents prevented? How do nuclear reactors work? What is nuclear fission and fusion? Why is nuclear important for a low carbon future? These questions are answered during a series of live talks and quizzes, pre-recorded demos and videos, activities and downloadable games presented by Nuclear Energy Futures PhD students as they explore many topics, from low carbon energy and the inner workings of nuclear reactors to preventing nuclear accidents and what the future may hold (fusion).

Urban agriculture is being increasingly investigated as an alternative local source of food for the future, notably using hydroponics. Integrating urban farms within dense environments has the potential to utilise waste infrastructure and resources within cities with environmental benefits. In Growing underground (2 April, 2pm-3pm), architectural engineer Dr Ruchi Choudhary presents the environmental monitoring and modelling of the world’s first underground farm in London, located in tunnels designed as a WW2 air raid shelters in the 1940s. The long-term monitoring programme on the site highlights some of the challenges and opportunities of growing food in abandoned spaces within cities.

What would happen if everybody could have access to the tools to engineer biology in the future? Would it be the beginning of the end of the world as we know it? Would it be the beginning of a more sustainable era? Would it bring fairness or increase inequalities? In Engineering biology everywhere: a threat or the key to a sustainable future? (3 April, 4.30pm-5.30pm) a panel of sociologists, policy makers, journalists and scientists try to untangle this complex topic as they discuss and answer some of the most challenging questions about risks and advantages of democratising tools to engineer biology. Speakers include Dr Jenny Molloy from the Department of Chemical Engineering; Beth Tuck, Executive Director at Genspace, a community biology lab in New York City; Anna Verena Eireiner, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, whose research explores the governance of emerging technologies, DIY practices, and open science; Joe Egender, a filmmaker and actor and Leeor Kaufman, a documentary filmmaker and photographer, who together created the original Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection; and Fernan Federici who works as an assistant professor at PUC, Chile, and as an international fellow of OpenPlant Centre for Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge.

Can the built environment help us to flourish in the future? Researchers from the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) ask this question during Four Futures, One Choice (27 March, 2pm-3pm, and 29 March, 6pm-7pm). They present a future lens enabling us to view four compelling scenarios of what Britain could look like in 2040, depending upon the decisions that are made now. Of the four future scenarios presented there are two that are clearly preferable; focused on a sustainable, equal and diverse world within which Britain’s economy, society and environment can thrive.  Each scenario presents us with an insight into how we can take swift and decisive actions that not only aid the COVID-19 recovery, but also help develop a built environment that supports a flourishing future and reduces our negative impact on the global environment. This event is presented as an interactive e-book (aimed at children) that sets out the four visions, and a talk for adults exploring the topic and CDBB’s wider vision for a digital built Britain. Speakers include CDBB Executive Director Alexandra Bolton and Dr Didem Gurdur-Broo. A further interactive session for children explores what it might be like to live and work in the different future scenario, during which children are encouraged to share their views about what the future world might be like to live and work in.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times.jpg

2021: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Further related events include: 

  • 2021: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times (26 March, 12.30pm-1.30pm) The world today is rapidly changing. In this event, five young leaders reflect on the foundations required to serve effectively in public life in an uncertain future; they focus on the unique challenges but also the opportunities they are faced with.  
  • 2040 (26 March, 8pm-9.35pm) film screening. Award-winning director Damon Gameau embarks on a journey to explore what the future could look like by the year 2040 if we simply embraced the best solutions already available to us to improve our planet and shifted them rapidly into the mainstream. Drawing on the best minds from around the world to focus on climate, economics, technology, civil society, agriculture and sustainability, 2040 maps out a pathway for change that can lead us to a more ecologically sustainable and equitable future. This is part of Earth Optimism’s programme of events during the Festival.
  • Algae: Food for the future (27 March, 11am-11.30am). A talk introducing the algal species that could be a bigger part of our diets in the future, with a focus on the diversity of microalgae and their uses in food.
  • Panoramic Holographic Projections to improve Safety in Cars (26 March-4 April, all day) Interactive displays in modern vehicles are a major distraction to drivers and endanger road safety. Electrical engineer, Jana Skirnewskaja, discusses the development of an exciting new technology and how it could be useful for many drivers in the future.
  • Art and Science for a Future Planet (26 March, 6pm-7pm) Dr Joanna Page presents innovative multimedia art projects that draw on new scientific research to help us imagine more sustainable relationships between humans, technology, and the environment.
  • Love Letters to a Liveable Future (1 April, 1.30pm) This event brings together specialists in alternative ways of organising our social worlds, as part of our ‘research-in-public’ for the theatre show Love Letters to a Liveable Future. Creatives and specialists come together to imagine the inhabitants of an alternative future, to ask what it might feel like to live in a culture of care – for each other, and for the living earth. Chaired by Director & Lecturer in Drama and Performance, Zoë Svendsen. 
  • Mind Over Chatter: The Cambridge University podcast (26 March-4 April, all day) Series 2 explores ideas about the future – covering everything from the future of AI to what did the future look like in the past? New episodes are set to be released during the Festival.

View the full programme at www.festival.cam.ac.uk. Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website. 

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)