The Utopia Project began as the flicker of an idea over two years ago. I have often dreamed of running a residency centre for artists and writers, and when I took on my current role as Projects & Engagement Coordinator at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, it seemed worthwhile to begin developing a project in which I could explore running interdisciplinary residencies from within the University.
After sharing the idea with various colleagues, I was soon connected with the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) which from the start has been interested in and supportive of the project. It was with extraordinary excitement and not inconsiderable trepidation that I looked forward to the very first incarnation of the Utopia Project; a pilot EFI Utopia Lab which took place 3-5 June 2019.
When I was first designing the project, I needed a shimmering central idea to focus the residencies and I stumbled across ‘utopia’ in my research. What especially interested me was finding out that before Thomas More’s book Utopia was published in 1516, utopia meant something rather more open than the vision of a perfect society that we associate it with now.
“The word comes from Greek: οὐ (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’) and means ‘no-place’ and strictly describes any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’.”
It was this idea of a ‘no-place’ that we could travel to in our lab/space-time machine, in order to conduct collective thought experiments about possible actions in a variety of worlds, which really caught my imagination. Could we use this concept of utopia as a way to generate ideas which would be useful in our world and time?
The first Utopia Lab was an experiment to explore that question. I was committed to keeping the day-to-day framework as open as possible in order that the group could truly co-create its working method, and designed a structure that invited intimacy, communication and sharing from the start. We began and ended each day with yoga and meditation, and lunches were a time of communion and community. Almost the entire first day of the lab was given over to presentations from each of the 9 Utopians, as we came to call them… sharing themselves, their history, their practise and their views on the concept of utopia. This felt like a huge sacrifice of time but one that was so worth it in that we could move more quickly into much deeper realms of thought and communication because we had an intensive understanding of one another from the start. The Utopians came from wildly different disciplines and backgrounds, but this initial sharing broke down barriers and helped build linguistinc and imaginative bridges.
We also discussed the fact that utopia is a weighted word and concept itself – having been used for disturbing purposes in the past by fascists and other parties who were employing the seductive aspects of the word to achieve their own ends. Also that we, as a small and relatively privileged group of people in a university in Scotland might not be best placed for all sorts of reasons to make decisions about how to make the world a better place for everyone else… but we decided that should not stop us from thinking about what kind of world we hoped to live in and wished for others and for future generations.
The nine participants were a mix of staff and students from within the University, with two externals. It is hoped that the Utopia Labs, should they continue, will always consist of a mix of staff and students, internals and externals to the University, as there is so much richness to be had from this diversity. Meet the Utopians and explore their reflections of the Utopia Lab experience here.
One the second day, the group considered possible collaboration frameworks which could be used to guide their work together for the duration of the residency (design sprint, voting, individual or group work, etc). They were invited to present proposals and one of the participants, Riel Miller (Head of Futures Literacy, UNESCO), offered his Futures Literacy Lab Framework – which he has developed and implemented in group settings around the world, as a way forward. The group decided to adopt this framework, but with a few caveats such as insisting that the process could be paused or adjusted as we went along if the group wanted to add in different elements. This happened very early on as another participant, Writer and UoE Deputy Programme Director, MSc in Creative Writing (Online), Jane Alexander, offered to run a creative writing exercise with the group in place of one of the early elements of the Futures Literacy Lab. This was accepted and worked very well and was a beautiful example of how the group was able to collectively co-create and adapt within a short period of time and using tried-and-tested models.
Throughout the day the group explored the concept of utopia and futures thinking, and generated an enormous amount of fascinating material based on ‘visiting’ a future version of our current world, and then a future version of a ‘utopian’ world. Imaginatively exploring various concepts within these future worlds allowed the group to consider many possibilities including ideas around our own inability to effect positive change – for instance, because our attempts to improve the world now often have unseen and damaging consequences in the future. Rather than being disempowering, this was a remarkably humbling and creative realisation, and struck the group as potentially a much more useful starting point for thinking about our actions now than our typical one of having to be convinced of our own efficacy and rightness in order to effect change.
The group had also been asked to consider a ‘Utopia Question’ as a trigger for the thinking of the lab. This question was ‘How can technology help the world to heal?’. From early on, it was clear that the group was critical of this question in various ways, and a critical viewpoint was welcomed. We considered the idea that technology is a complicated word with many possible definitions (the printing press, the internet, mobile phones, spaceships) as is ‘healing’ – what are we healing? Who are we healing? Who are we to heal anyone or anything? All of these complex reflections were an important part of the thinking throughout the lab.
In the middle of the second day, the group travelled from Inspace where we had been working up until then to the uCreate Lab at the Library, where we received a tour of their amazing space and an induction to the use of their extensive equipment. This was a brilliant and eye-opening break in proceedings and certain elements of the final exhibition were created in this space.
By the third and final day, we both had a sense that time was flying by but also that we had opened up a different – no-space – time/place in which we could move and think without the usual pressures and stresses of our daily lives. The first half of the day was spent reviewing the process and thinking thus far and discussing possibilities for the showcase which would take place that evening. It was not until after lunch that we mobilised into the ‘making’ which would result in an exhibition of utopian objects and thinking for an audience of more than 60 people, who arrived at 5.30pm.
The work in the exhibition, considering the time constraints, was extraordinary – as well as the energy in the room. Here is a selection of photos from the event.
(c) Andrew Perry EFI Utopia Lab June 2019
What did we learn? So much! This was a totally different way of working for most of us… more open, with much more emphasis on the process than on outcomes and results. Our sense of time changed, we seemed to have more time even though we had very little, and we often were reminded that we were embodied rather than merely the thoughts in our heads. We got to know each other in meaningful and intense ways, and we got to know more about ourselves. We discovered news ways of creating and communicating, of thinking together in a group, and that freed us up by the end of the workshop to create quickly and meaningfully, both individually and in small groups. We learned to ask more questions, to listen more and to be more at peace in places of insecurity and uncertainty.
Though it may have been useful to have more time to perfect the sharing and to develop presentations to make the work more explicit for the audience, there was something magical about how so many interesting objects and creations came into being in such a short space of time. So much of what we realised as a result of our thinking was that utopia is about what you can create within yourself, and that thinking about the future means accepting the humility of the ‘no-space’, a crossroads where nothing is assured and where, in a way, we are all completely powerless – where we are deliriously, deliciously falling while being held by nothing other than our own imaginations. The question ‘How can technology help the world to heal?’ was replaced with a desire to question everyone and to hear everyone’s questions… what is your vision of utopia? What is your question for the future? And it is in that true group, social, collective, global thinking that we might have a chance to really consider where we want to end up, tomorrow or… as it happens… today.
The EFI Utopia Lab 2019 pilot was an experiment, and a joint creation of the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the Festival of Creative Learning at the Institute for Academic Development. Hopefully the project will continue, and we will be able to further explore and develop these concepts and models. If you are interested in what we did and have your own questions, or want to get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Lyman Tower, Sargent (2005). Rüsen, Jörn; Fehr, Michael; Reiger, Thomas W. (eds.). The Necessity of Utopian Thinking: A Cross-National Perspective. Thinking Utopia: Steps Into Other Worlds (Report). New York: Berghahn Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-57181-440-1.