How does the next generation imagine the future?



Do you guys build robots?

This was a question posed by a nine-year-old to a workshop facilitator, wondering about the purpose of Spark Labs’ Storytelling-Creation workshop “Wie siehst du die Zukunft?”

The event, held at the ETH Zürich, was organized to ask kids how they imagine the future in terms of new mobility technologies as well as teach them some skills for brainstorming and pitching original ideas.

Future lab for kids and teenagers

 “So do you?”

“Build robots? We might! But we’re still just gathering research.”

“What programming language do you use then?”

“Uh, Python?”

“Python is the worst for robotics programming, it’s too simplistic. You should really be using C++.”

Clearly, the kids were going to give us more than we bargained for. The attendees ranged from eight to sixteen years old, and were arranged into five mixed-age groups.

The program was:

  • to envision and prototype the daily life of a person in 2040,
  • to imagine what were the events happening between 2020 and 2040 that lead to their new lifestyle,
  • finally, to pitch the whole story in front of the other teams.

The insights they shared with us were exciting, encompassing environmental concerns, film-inspired visions of dystopia, instinctive reactions to new technology and – most importantly – an unwavering hopefulness for the future.

Kids building the future

Environmental Activism

Unprompted by any input from the moderators, four of the five groups imagined the year 2040 to be in peril brought about by environmental disaster. Whether humanity’s impact on the earth in each version of events resulted in a disappearance of resources, climate change-related lightning storms or plastic pollution, the outcomes were the same: humans turn to technology to either undo the damage already done or simply survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. CO2 neutral transportation came up, as well as ocean-cleaning robots, electric trams, wind energy, and even a lightning-powered system. With the Greta Thunbergs, Jamie Margolins and Isra Hirsis of the world leading the way as young activists, this generation is highly aware of human impact on the earth and motivated to make a change. As a generation raised with social media, they are used to being immediately connected to political and social issues around the world and hearing news break in real time. With the urgency of #Klimastreik ringing in everyone’s ears, it’s no wonder that environmental disaster is at the forefront of young people’s minds when trying to imagine the future.

Environmental Activism

Risk Assessment

The kids seemed uncomfortable with invasive technologies that linked directly to the body, such as VR contact lenses and Neuralink, a hearing device that works through a brain implant. Instead, they engaged with the more external mobility technologies like driverless cars, flying taxis, and jetpacks. When asked about this preference, a 10 year old responded that these technologies “seemed safer (than the tech implanted in the body), because if something goes wrong you can just jump out. If the VR contact lens malfunctioned you might not be able to get it out and it could melt your eye”. When asked to imagine that the inherent risk was the same for all technologies presented, a nine year old succinctly said what the inner child of everyone present should have told us from the start: “Even if they’re all the same amount of danger, the jetpack is more worth the risk because it’s really cool.”

Risk Management

Cinematic Dystopia

Alongside current news, film references made a huge appearance in the narratives that the students came up with. Three of the five groups imagined that space travel would be imperative by 2040, and two of these three predicted humanity’s relocation to space would be a direct result of earth becoming uninhabitable from environmental disaster. Those premises may sound familiar: Wall-e (2008), Elysium (2013), and Io (2019) are children’s and young adult’s movies that explored the possibility of humanity needing to escape earth into outer space after a man-made environmental apocalypse. Another group predicted that a corporation providing virtual reality services would go mad with capitalist power, monopolize all other existing industries, and exploit the people dependent on their products. That corporate greed plotline, specific down to its incorporation of VR, is uncannily similar to that of Ready Player One (2018).

Going beyond dystopian visions of the future, it seemed that film references were the kid’s go-to source for understanding new and not yet available technology. When shown an augmented reality contact lens in the workshop, one kid explained to another “It shows you things layered over what you can see in real life, like the Stark Helmet.” This explanation, referencing a piece of equipment used by Iron Man in recent films, was met with immediate understanding. Italian director Frank Capra said: “Film is one if three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.”

Technology appearing in film before its realization in reality isn’t an uncommon occurrence: feats of science that collectively interest people are often more easily realized on-screen than off. The first manned mission to the moon in 1969, for example, was predated in film by 67 years in Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). And if space travel entered the collective fantasy with Méliès, it was re-emphasized in the year leading up to the moon landing with the 1968 releases of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Vadim’s Barbarella. These genre-defining films both owe their success to and contributed to the excitement over the imminent milestone in humanity’s exploration of space. Are audiences more receptive to technology that cinema has already familiarized them with? Or is referencing film just a tool of language to explain new things, based on shared experiences?

Cinematic Dystopia

Hope for the future

All of the children and adults gather around a table, ready to hear the final group’s presentation. The entire bag of Lego is poured in a heap on the worktable, surrounded by little Lego robots of varying shapes and sizes.

“This is all the plastic in the ocean, swept onto the shore by a tsunami so humans can’t ignore it any more. These robots were invented to clean it up and carry it to recycling plants.”

After a dramatic pause, one of the students sweeps a patch of Lego aside, revealing a buried Post-It bearing the words ‘THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE.’

“When the robots clear some of the plastic away, everyone realizes that we still have a chance to make our world livable. It’s not too late to save the environment.”

The workshop was characterized by this cinematic blend of pessimism and hopefulness. All the kids we talked to showed both a solid understanding of current political issues and a vast capacity for caring about the environment – as well as the people most harmed by its changing. If children are the future, we can expect a future full of hope for our planet, jetpacks, and escape plans to space if earth doesn’t work out – all executed with the dramatic flair characteristic of this generation.

Innovation Zürich

By Claire Guffey, Design Intern

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