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Institute of Advanced Study

Futures Sub-Themes

The IAS annual theme on ‘Futures' is designed to attract researchers from across the disciplinary base to address a wide variety of topics spanning the sciences, social sciences, and the arts.  A number of sub-themes have been identified and are currently under development by inter-disciplinary teams of staff at Durham to ensure a wide-ranging programme of activities in 2010/11.  These include:

Time and Evolution

This sub-theme will focus on the nature of evolutionary predictability in social systems; exploring, in particular, the challenging problems that complicate the models of evolutionary theorists and statistical physicists.  In addition, researchers at Durham wish to explore the concept of ‘evolvability' - the potential for systems of diverse kinds to evolve over time. This concept is a relevant and important extension of the broader question about how species respond to environmental change, and allows us to focus on our future potential for adaptation and local extinction.

Figuring the Future

This sub-theme will explore how different art forms attempt to understand and represent ‘the future'.   One area of exploration will be a retrospective examination of various ‘Futurist' movements alongside a complementary focus on what it might mean, across a range of disciplines, to be ‘futurist' in the contemporary moment.  Other strands to this sub-theme will include a critical examination of apocalyptic narratives and a focus on the writing of the future within the literary and historical texts of the past.

Experiencing the Future

This sub-theme will explore ways in which the future is ‘experienced' in the present, and how future experiences are shaped by the past.  Anticipation and imagining of the future are governed by memory; past experience shapes behaviour and future expectations.  The predication of a future self is reliant on memory; to imagine the future is to place one's self in time.  This sub-theme seeks to map a path from memory and experience to the future and future possibility, and will involve work that on the borderlines between disciplines: between psychiatry and philosophy, between phenomenology and psychology, between psychology and anthropology, and between literature and other academic disciplines concerned with the nature of the definition of the self. 

Anticipating the Future

This sub-theme will examine various modes of anticipating the future, including an examination of how we anticipate the future through narratives, with a particular emphasis on policy-making decisions, and an examination of the  ‘posthuman' futures implicated in advances in genetics, nanotechnology, medicine, artificial intelligence, and communication technologies.

Sustainable Futures

This sub-theme will examine the strategies employed for the management of increasingly scarce natural resources.  One aspect of this sub-theme will focus on ecosystem services and, in particular upon quantifying ecosystems' capacity to deliver such services, and the potential impacts of climatic change upon these delivery capacities. Another aspect will explore the replacement of petrochemical feedstocks for the chemical industry with sustainable alternatives, looking not only at sustainable starting materials but the whole life cycle of a product.

Theorising the Future

This sub-theme intends to examine critically how ‘the future' has been conceptualised by a range of different philosophers and critical thinkers, and to investigate how the future might be imagined anew.  In particular, work in this area will focus on how conceptions of the future vary and how these variations relate to different ways of problematising, governing and securing the future.

The IAS, as one among a small number of centres in the world covering all the disciplines, is well placed to address this wide-ranging theme, one that will be of interest to scientists, social scientists, scholars in the arts and humanities, historians, theorists and practitioners, artists, and policymakers, politicians and opinion formers.