Cambridge Festival 2024 unveils bumper programme

Fixing the NHS, stopping wars, and the effects of AI on the democratic process headline a packed programme of events at this year’s Cambridge Festival 2024.

female with VR goggles

One of the largest festivals of its kind in the country, the Cambridge Festival, organised by the University of Cambridge, returns for its annual two-week offering between 13 – 28 March.

The full programme launches on Monday 12th February. It includes a series of over 360 mostly free events held in venues across the city and beyond. Bookings open on the same day.

Tackling some of the big questions of our time – and exploring the University’s work on three of the world’s greatest challenges: Climate, Cancer, and AI – events for all ages range from talks, debates, tours, book launches, exhibitions, workshops, music, comedy, theatre, walks, films, hands-on demonstrations, and much more.

A few of the prominent figures and experts in current affairs, science, arts, and culture set to speak include: the Astronomer Royal Professor Lord Martin Rees; best-selling author of sci-fi novels Una McCormack; world-renowned historian Professor Sir Richard Evans; distinguished economist Professor Dame Diane Coyle; broadcaster, author and biologist Professor Giles Yeo; Verity Harding, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in AI; the BBC’s disinformation correspondent Marianna Spring; best-selling author Jonnie Penn; Observer tech columnist Professor John Naughton; radical cultural historian and activist Diarmuid Hester; poet and Booker Prize judge Mary Jean Chan; George the Poet; former BBC Economics editor and editor-in-chief of the News Movement Kamal Ahmed; and statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter.

Highlights this year include talks about several new books:

  • Aesthetics and Counter-Aesthetics of International Justice; AI Needs You (pub March 2024). During AI Needs You (14 March, Waterstones), Verity Harding draws from her book some inspiring lessons from the histories of three 20th-century tech revolutions – the space race, in vitro fertilisation and the internet – to draw us into the conversation about AI and its possible futures. The official book launch takes place on 19 March at the Alison Richard Building.
  • How AI Ate the World: A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence - and Its Long Future (pub May 2024). Author Chris Stokel-Walker is part of the conversation, How will AI affect the democratic process? (20 March, Cambridge Union Society).
  • Hitler's People: The Faces of the Third Reich (pub Aug 2024). Author renowned historian Professor Richard Evans is part of the panel discussion, How do wars end? (Monday 25 March, Cambridge Union Society).
  • Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland (pub March 2024). The author, BBC’s disinformation correspondent Marianna Spring, is part of the discussion Misinformation, statistics and lies (26 March, Cambridge Union Society) with Kamal Ahmed, former BBC Economics editor and editor-in-chief of the News Movement, and statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter, University of Cambridge.
  • Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone (pub April 2024). Two of the authors, Dr Thuy-vy Nguyen and Dr Netta Weinstein, share their insights into the benefits of solitude (21 March, Cambridge University Press).

The Festival events fall under four broad themes: Health, Society, Environment and Discovery.

Under Health, the latest research and the development of new treatments covering cancer, pre-eclampsia, vaccines, dementia and more are set to be discussed. One of the most critical questions tackled during the festival is how can we fix the NHS and social care? (21 March, Cambridge Union Society). With the NHS and social care on emergency support, this panel discussion with the former Director of the Centre for Public Health at NICE, Professor Mike Kelly, University of Cambridge; Thara Raj Director of Population Health and Inequalities at an NHS Trust in Warrington; practising GP Dr Geoff Wong from the University of Oxford; and author Emily Kenway debate potential ways out of the crisis. The Chair is economic consultant, researcher and writer Hilary Cooper, co-author of After the virus.

Under Society, there is everything from modern day slavery, gender bias, deep fakes, and the rights of indigenous peoples, to ending wars, international justice and the future of the monarchy. The coming year will be a major test of democratic rule as an estimated 4 billion people in more than 50 nations — almost half the world’s population — are set to vote in elections. In How will AI affect the democratic process? (20 March, Cambridge Union Society), a panel of experts – Dr Ella McPherson, Associate Professor of the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology at the University of Cambridge; Dr Melisa Basol, manager of Moonshot, a social impact business focused on ending online harms; Jonnie Penn, best-selling author and AI researcher at Cambridge; and journalist and author Chris Stokel-Walker – discuss what role AI will play and how we mitigate any risks. The Chair is Observer columnist Professor John Naughton, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Press Fellowship Programme at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

The Environment theme covers everything from emerging technologies to combat global warming and climate change activism, to wild elephants and tigers co-existing with people. Several events explore what the future might look like, and a data sonification expert creates a truly captivating and unpredictable musical composition of Yellowstone’s seismic activity.

In Capturing sunlight for a sustainable future (16 March, Wolfson College), Professor of Energy and Sustainability in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, Erwin Reisner presents emerging technologies that can use the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and biomass and plastic waste, as precious resources in a solar-powered economy.

Meanwhile, PhD supervisor Professor Mike Hulme and supervisee Madeleine Ary Hahne from the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge explore other ways of framing the challenges and opportunities of climate change. In Cambridge Conversations: What climate change can do for you (20 March, Cambridge Union Society), they ask if we should be using climate change to animate new grassroots, bottom-up actions, rather than only seeking ‘breakthrough solutions’ to emerge from the next cycle of international negotiations? 

There is a vast array of events under the Discovery theme. Topics range from astrobiology, the Arctic, circadian rhythms and nanotechnology, to how different cultures deal with death, and future working in the metaverse. As part of this theme, the programme is teeming with hands-on, interactive events that are specifically curated for families and children and are concentrated across the two weekends. One of the most enchanting promises to be The nomadic storyteller from the North (24 March, Babbage Lecture Theatre), with the renowned author and toymaker Richard O’Neill, often dubbed the ‘Romani Hans Christian Anderson’. Audiences can expect to be captivated, to laugh and learn as he weaves his spellbinding tales, offering a delightful array of original and authentic stories. This session is an enriching blend of history and pure fun.

Festival goers can also discover their artificial double at the Faust Shop (TBC). Technology offers us the world – but what does it take away? What is the bargain here? The Faust Shop, an augmented theatrical experience, asks these and related questions. On stepping into this pop-up shop, audiences are immersed in a short story that blurs the boundary between the virtual and physical space. The Faust Shop is a mixed-reality experience that explores the Faustian pacts we make with digital tech. The performance is complemented by a talk on anti-computing and digital futures by Professor Caroline Bassett.

Speaking ahead of the full programme launch, David Cain, Cambridge Festival Manager, said: “For anyone wanting to learn more about our world, meet some of the people working at the cutting-edge of research, or discover some of the possible solutions for many of our most challenging global issues, this year’s programme has it all.

“Alongside the meatier topics, there are a huge variety of lighter events, including from the Cambridge Creative Encounters. We challenged our researchers to work with professionals from the creative arts to rethink the way they communicate their research using a range of artistic media, from augmented reality, sculpture, photography, illustration, poetry, to animation and short films. 

“Comedy also features quite a bit this year. I’m really looking forward to Samantha Day’s The Booby Trap. Tadiwa Mahlunge also brings his hit Edinburgh Debut Show, Inhibition Exhibition to Cambridge.

“In terms of music, there is everything from how to code music like a DJ to full chamber recitals. I’m particularly looking forward to the family-friendly workshop at which various groups of UK-based Indigenous artists from across the world teach their unique music and dance style. The workshop is followed by a concert performed by groups involving Indigenous Quechua artists.

“The Festival team are as excited as ever to welcome everyone to the events in March. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to dive into the programme and fill their diaries to the brim!”

The full programme launches and bookings open on Monday 12February via the Festival website:

Image credit: Faruk Kara

Looking for something specific?