“FUTURE CITIES 2: OTHER WORLDS” – A conference held at the University of Greenwich, London, 11th/12th April 2013

“FUTURE CITIES 2: OTHER WORLDS” – A conference held at the University of Greenwich, London, 11th/12th April 2013

A personal perspective by Rob Swinney, Project Leader Project Icarus, Icarus Interstellar


Earlier this month Richard Osborne and I attended the ‘Future Cities 2: Other Worlds’ conference at the University of Greenwich in the School of Architecture, Design and Construction.  It’s quite hard to put in words how far out of my normal experience the occasionally surreal nature of the conference was, let’s just say, possibly as far as alpha Centauri!  I had been invited to speak about Icarus Interstellar by Dr Rachel Armstrong who works at the University and is also the leader of Project Persephone, a collaborative project with Icarus Interstellar.  To quote from Dr Armstrong’s introduction in the conference booklet:


The Future Cities 2 programme is an exploratory bridge to Other Worlds: where a series of international pan disciplinary experts will introduce us to many strange environments ranging from The Deep, to mutant urban landscapes, science-fiction cities, communicating vessels, exquisite dirt, next natures and extraterrestrial landscapes.  Be warned – they have been instructed to challenge our sense of scale and reality!  Indeed they will do this repeatedly so to confuse our senses and suspend belief in those disciplines, habits and preconceptions that make us feel secure.  This wilful condition of perceptual turmoil provokes the conditions for new conversations, partnerships, syntheses and ways of seeing.  ‘Other worlds’ prepares us to consider brand-new perspectives that may be applied to all aspects of our existence – long after this event is over.


Nevertheless, architecturally I was on more familiar ground having spent a number of years working at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell (originally Royal Naval Air Station Cranwell) – the University of Greenwich campus was based in the stunning buildings of the old Royal Naval College.  I arrived just as they were starting on the first day and there was standing room only in the Howe lecture theatre of the Queen Anne building.  I made my way to the back and enjoyed the morning’s lectures which started with a description of Paracosmic Overtures by Mark Morris and finished with a lecture called ‘Living Water – Water Living’ by Dr Sarah Jane Pell. 

As the first day wore on I realised how broad and thought-provoking the presentations were, although I wondered whether a couple of old rocket scientists with our hard science background would be able to challenge the thinking of the many architects and designers there.  Especially those who seemed to delight in ignoring most of the known laws of physics!  The last speech of the first day was by the keynote speaker Greg Lynn, nominated by Time magazine as one of the top 100 most innovative people in the world for the 21st century and Forbes Magazine also named him one of the 10 most influential living architects.  His talk roamed from the new city through sailing ships and rotating houses, but he also spoke of his design work on the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise.  To end the first day we had a panel of all the speakers which proved to be an interesting and illuminating question and answer session. 

We had been invited to speak on the second day and for once it was a reasonable conference start time with coffee at 9.30 and presentations starting at 10 o’clock – I was getting to like the world of architecture and design!  I say presentations but we were in a different location and in a closed invitation-only session; like a workshop environment.  Mark Morris gave an overview of the first day and the rest of the morning was programmed to be an introduction on Icarus interstellar from myself with contributions from Richard to follow and then closing the morning would be two of Dr Armstrong’s colleagues to discuss their work on Project Persephone.  Richard and I were given very enthusiastic welcomes and it certainly seemed as if we were able to give them a good understanding of the work of Icarus Interstellar.  For once I didn’t have to worry too much about the sheer size of some of our plans and designs, with this audience they were already big thinkers. 

The second day continued with more practical discussions on how bio engines might promote new ecological paradigms for example pigeon guano towers and photo bioreactors.  The University were installing a prototype bioreactor system and its development was described by Nathan Morrison.  It also turns out that the school would be moving to a new School of Architecture, Design and Construction in the near future and, fingers crossed, it will be accepted architecturally as it was being built on a location within the World Heritage Site.  This was probably only allowed because that particular area had been cleared by a V2 in the Second World War and the current clearance would only affect post-war builds.  We finished the day with a group discussion on how we might develop more collaborative projects, the result of which I look forward to reporting on in the future!

A big thank you to Dr Armstrong and the team who pulled a magnificent conference together!

You have to laugh…the outtakes.

A funny moment occurred when one of the prominent speakers inadvertently entertained us.  At the end of the first day, as he sat at the panel table on stage he obviously noticed that there was some coins around his feet and realised he must have dropped some money.  Being at the end of the long table he tried to subtly stand up to retrieve his change but it just made him look somewhat unsteady.  Having picked up the first few coins he put them back into his pocket and sat down only to notice some more change on the floor.  He did this about three times before realising he clearly had a hole in the trouser pocket and his change was just falling out each time!

One final story…when I had first picked up the conference booklet I was only just coming to realise the unusual environment I was in (for me anyhow).  I couldn’t get into the booklet to start off with – until I noticed not only that the cover had flaps designed to contain and constrain the insides, but also strangely the inside pages didn’t seem to fit the cover and poked out of the top!?  It wasn’t until the very last speaker on the second day, Mike Aling, explained that the unusual design was supposed to represent that the insides were bigger and more important than the outside…Ah, I think I’m finally getting this design thing!

Rob Swinney talking to Rachel Armstrong