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Futuristic streetscape by Utopia Now! author Laura Hack ;

Utopia Now! Local young people set out their visions for the future

Nicole Mennell

Engagement Lead (Vision 2029)

12 March 2021

Utopia Now! is a research project that invites young people from King’s College London’s neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth to share their hopes and fears for the future through a series of arts-facilitated workshops and activities. The project brings together a multidisciplinary group of researchers, creative practitioners and community experts to work with novel methods and co-productive approaches to research, with the aim of developing more collaborative ways of setting research agendas. Utopia Now! has run throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and also aims to alleviate the sense of isolation and hopelessness experienced by young people as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

A better place for whom?

Utopia Now! is led by a multidisciplinary team of researchers who were concerned that numerous research projects, such as those engaged in robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetics, are set to drastically change the world in which we live but that people outside of universities are rarely asked what this means for them or what they want the world to look like. Drawing on King’s mission to ‘make the world a better place’, Utopia Now! gives local young people the opportunity to express what would make the world a better place for them.

We called the project Utopia Now! because we want to think big and think with hope in this pretty hopeless time. We want to find ways to think about what the world might look like beyond our current systems and structures which people often assume will or even must stay in place, despite the ways in which they fail so many.– Dr Hannah Cowan and Dr Charlotte Kuhlbrandt, co-leads of Utopia Now!

Future Stories: One Day in 2027

One of the key initiatives of the Utopia Now! project was the writing competition, Future Stories: One Day in 2070, which ran between June and September 2020. The competition invited 11–16-year-olds from Southwark and Lambeth to write a story about life in the year 2070.

The competition was run by King’s researchers in collaboration with Lambeth and Southwark Libraries. It was funded through the King’s Together Fund and the NIHR Guy’s and St Thomas’ Biomedical Research Centre, and was supported by the London Research Design Service.

To help the young people develop their submissions, the team put together a 7-day sci-fi story starter resource page, which includes video content, writing prompts and examples of science fiction in popular culture.

Illustration by Utopia Now! competition winner

The writing competition resulted in an anthology of flash fiction by local young people, with an introduction by acclaimed science fiction writer Stephen Oram. In his introduction, Stephen commented: ‘I had a pleasant surprise when I received the competition entries for judging. They were fantastic. Such insight into possible futures and of human behaviour was heartening. There was some really good story telling too. Not only did they make me smile, chuckle, gasp and raise my eyebrows they made me think about things I'd not previously considered.’

Ranging from unsettling dystopian worlds to futuristic technology, the short stories included in the anthology represents the aspirations and anxieties young people have about the future world.

Letting your creativity strive, was one of the experiences I enjoyed the most. Letting go of the world around you and creating a new one, whether that would be one of euphoria or that of a dystopia or a mix of both. There was no judgement and no boundaries, just immense freedom and creativity.– Laura Hack, Utopia Now! competition winner and author of What a Wondrous World

The most imaginative writers were selected to take part in a creative writing day with Stephen Oram in October 2020 to explore the world of the future. The young people also took part in an illustrations workshop to create images that would accompany their stories.

My favourite thing about this workshop was that I was just expecting it to just be a competition and nothing further! However, this opportunity was really wonderful and I learnt a lot of things about sci-fi and illustration! Writing stories about the future is very important because younger people need to understand that the world can change and that the only way the future can improve is from their actions.– Janice Ho, Utopia Now! competition winner and author of Inside the Future
I really liked how you collaborated with professional sci-fi writers and professionals who are in the know about really cool technological things, because they help to shape my writing to include more advanced techniques as well as even more fantastical and wild technology, which I definitely hope will exist in the future, hopefully in a different context from my very much dystopian story.– Caelan Ho, Utopia Now! competition winner and author of The Government

Dystopia Now!

The team have also recently launched Dystopia Now!, a spin-off project of Utopia Now! funded by the Maudsley Charity, which aims to improve life for young people in Lambeth and Southwark during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dystopia Now includes three online activities for young people to get involved in that aim to shape research, policy, and practice in the local area. Activities include This is the Year, a poetry and spoken word workshop and competition that invited young writers (ages 11-16) to write or record a poetry or spoken word piece exploring their life during the pandemic. The young writers were also invited to join an online workshop with local published poet Belinda Zhawi at Theatre Peckham to develop their entries.

Aspiring town planners, architects, and Minecraft enthusiasts (aged 6-16) were invited to take part in a Dream Lockdown Minecraft Workshop to build their ideal lockdown neighbourhood in Minecraft. While budding filmmakers (aged 16-19) could take part in the Life in a Day of Corona film challenge, supported by an online resource page to help them get started with creating their 1-minute submissions. Selected films created as part of this activity will be woven together to tell the story of a single day in Southwark and Lambeth during these unusual times.

The work from all three activities will be published online later in the year on the Dystopia Now! Time Capsule. The time capsule will also be shared with local policy makers and the Maudsley charity, which is linked to the local NHS mental health Trust. All participating young people will receive a certificate from King's College London to thank them for their contributions.

Young people are going to be the future, they are going to be the leaders and rulers and parents for the next generations. So, it is very important that young people have their say in the future.– Ishika Sood, Utopia Now! competition winner and author of The Big Reveal

In this story

Hannah  Cowan

Hannah Cowan

Research Associate

Charlotte  Kühlbrandt

Charlotte Kühlbrandt

Research Fellow

Hana Riazuddin

Hana Riazuddin

PhD student

Christine Aicardi

Christine Aicardi

Senior Research Fellow

Tim  Hubbard

Tim Hubbard

Professor of Bioinformatics

Nele Jensen

Nele Jensen

Lecturer in Global Health and Social Medicine

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