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  6. The future has already started.

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The future has already started.

Lively and far from clichés: London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is showing the impact of technology on the world of tomorrow.

When people imagine the future, they usually do it in two scenarios. The first is white. Tomorrow then appears as a clean version of the present in which there are – finally – flying taxis. The second is pitch black, a dystopia in which all the forces we fear today have been unleashed. The exhibit “The Future Starts Here”, on view from May 12 to November 4 in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), takes a different approach. The future shown here  is strikingly colorful. More than 100  objects are presented in the new building of the world’s largest museum for design. They are presented in pleasant dark rooms, but structured by colored luminous objects. The set design which was developed by the Spanish Office for Political Innovation, among others, is completely contemporary and avoids futuristic clichés in its choice of shapes –edgy, yet warm.

It’s the perfect frame for the curatorial work of Mariana Pestana and Rory Hyde. “When people think about the future, they are often in speculation mode,” says Pestana. “We’re interested in projects that are already reality.” Hyde adds: “All the objects we’re showing are ‘beginnings’. Over the last three years, we’ve traveled the world, visiting research labs, grassroots initiatives, and artists who work completely in the here and now, but who therefore influence our lives in the near future.”

The show is divided into four sections that lead from the microscopic to major metaphysical questions, always focusing on the role that design plays in the process of shaping the future. The level “Self” is about us as individuals. Visitors are greeted by robots – small, friendly machines, not futuristic monsters. Winkingly an industrial robot is presented that is in the process of sorting a pile of dirty laundry. Other helpers, such as the self-learning, cute-looking “Jibo”, pose existential questions. More and more profoundly human activities – such as caring for children or elderly– will be outsourced to robots in the future. Yet how will we deal with the problem of loneliness?

The “Public” section shows us how we as “Selves” will live together. At its center is an example of future mobility: a driverless concept car called SEDRIC developed by Volkswagen Group.  For the first time it is being presented to the broader public with simulated human-machine interaction scenarios. Visitors can sit in the vehicle and experience a fictitious drive through London. Volkswagen’s automotive designer Peter Wouda, who headed the vehicle’s development, explains the role SEDRIC plays in the exhibition – and for the mobility of the future: “This is the first time in a driverless car for most visitors. I think it’s likely that we will see autonomous vehicles on the street probably starting in 2021. From that point on, I expect exponential development on a global scale across a number of regions – probably first in the USA. Driverless systems will prevent accidents, relieve urban traffic congestion, reduce noise and exhaust emissions and give us back some precious time. Our SEDRIC stands for the visions that will enable us to realize the diverse possibilities and progress of digitalization in the future – and include passengers such as children, the blind and older people who have hardly had access to individual mobility to date.”

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But not only enjoyable developments are being closely looked at : Especially in the sections “Environment” and “Afterlife”, the world is less colorful. The devastation of climate change is not beautified, and the detailed presentation of the practice of cryopreservation – freezing dying people in liquid nitrogen – inevitably involves some frosty questions, such as: How could it be that a tiny elite seeks immortality while millions of people will die as a result of global warming in the next few years?  

The curators provide no answers to all these questions. Instead, they encourage the viewer to reflect, and not just to think, but to act. The V&A’s approach has always been to be both entertaining and yet profound. And  so is “The Future Starts Here” as well: Numerous entertaining installations allow the visitor a hands-on experience, for example designing landscapes in an enormous 3D simulation. In the end, the question of whether the future  will be black or white is rejected. “We  focus on technologies in this exhibition,” says Mariana Pestana, “and they always open up paths to both possibilities. It all depends on how we use them.” This idea was expressed with wonderful precision by the French philosopher Paul Virillo, who wrote in 1999: “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” In reverse, this means: It would be wrong not to go to sea at all just because we’re afraid of sinking.

This exhibition is supported by Volkswagen Group.