Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution
Nearly 1 million visitor insights from the groundbreaking exhibition reveal fascinating insights into how people feel about the future
As the Smithsonian’s first major exploration of the future, the FUTURES exhibit in the historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB) offered a groundbreaking glimpse of many possible futures on the horizon. Now, a new analysis of nearly 1 million insights from more than 650,000 visitors to the exhibition offers a potential roadmap to inspire hope for the future, with overwhelming data suggesting positive emotions lead to greater action on big issues facing people humanity is facing. This broad survey could provide one of the most comprehensive insights into how people are thinking and feeling about the future during the seismic shifts of recent years — and possibly one of the largest data collections of its kind.
From November 2021 to July 2022, FUTURES has temporarily reopened the Smithsonian’s oldest museum for the first time in nearly two decades. The part exhibition, part festival brought together more than 150 historical objects, ideas, cutting-edge prototypes and installations spanning art, technological design and history to help visitors envision many possible futures on the horizon with a sense of flexibility and optimism. It was also designed to be listened to, with more than six different types of interactive elements that invited visitors to share their own visions of the future – from the actions they would take to create a better world, to asking if they could be friends with a robot. Almost all visitors (97%) reported a changed way of thinking or feeling about the future after the visit.
In a unique partnership for a cultural institution, AIB shares its findings publicly and with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a leading research and education organization dedicated to futures studies. This will inform the next phase of the IFTF’s field-leading work, supported by analysis from global cultural audience research firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre and exhibition technologists from the Rockwell Group’s LAB.
“We’ve learned so much speaking to over half a million people about the future, and we look forward to sharing that knowledge with the industry,” said Rachel Goslins, former director of AIB. “This research is a fitting capstone for our groundbreaking exhibition. It is an antidote for those peddling fear and a much-needed tool for those interested in inspiring hope and action for the future.”
- Hope drives action. Seventy-seven percent of viewers said they felt more hopeful about the future after watching FUTURES. A similar 80% said they were inspired to create the future they want and a sense of increased responsibility to do so. Despite the widespread notion that scaring people inspires action, FUTURES’ optimistic approach seemed to make big challenges like climate change less overwhelming and inspire a greater sense of hope and more direct agency.
- There is a “gap of hope” – but shifting it could be a key to creating the future people want most. People trust innovation and technology more than human collaboration. Formative research has shown that while people most want a peaceful and just future, they believe these are the least likely outcomes. This discrepancy created a sense of despair and hopelessness. FUTURES data was consistent, showing that people are much less optimistic about potential solutions to major crises that are peaceful, empathetic, or require extensive human cooperation. They tend to rely on future solutions that rely on technology, personal action or leaps in innovation. Much of FUTURES focused on the latter. By focusing on the former – stories of human collaboration from communities large and small – there is an incredibly powerful opportunity to create far-reaching hope for the future.
- “Mental time travel” through specificity training can help create hope for the future. The concept of ‘specificity training’ was fundamental to the ‘FUTURES’ exhibition, based on research by IFTF and others. The idea is that the more concretely you can imagine the details of a possible future, the more capable you feel of taking action to make that future a reality. AIB curators worked to include the “real world” in which each object might live, presenting actual solutions tackled by real people and inviting visitors to speculate on how these ideas evolved over time of time. As a result of this “mental journey through time”, 83% of the visitors stated that they could imagine a better world. It made change seem more realistic and hopeful, and made the future seem closer.
- Looking 30 years ahead can give people the most productive mindset. When asked when major social and technological changes could occur (e.g. the first 3D printed organ, all-electric gas stations, recyclable buildings), most visitors chose “30 years”. Early research by IFTF and others shows that people have difficulty conceptualizing more than 15 years into the future, which can often lead to devastating or crippling short-term thinking. By continuing to focus on that “30 year” window, you can create solutions that feel both tangible and ambitious.
- Involving younger generations in the conversation can drive change and create the greatest impact. FUTURES created an opportunity for young people to engage in an important, larger conversation about the future. Seventy percent of attendees were 40 or younger, much younger than the average Smithsonian audience. The youngest groups said they got the most out of the exhibition, being able to talk to friends and family about the future, see solutions and be reflected in them.
Hundreds of additional data points range from the entertaining (which future superpower would people most wish for? Teleportation!) to the profound (almost everyone would love to be buried in a pod to grow into a tree) to overarching trends (most People expect to live longer in the future, but not with fewer worries) showing how visitors feel about the world to come.
By sharing these insights widely, AIB hopes to provide an example of how museums and cultural organizations can work closely with think tanks, designers and other research institutions to create measurable impacts that go well beyond a single exhibition.
“The rich data and unprecedented insights about the future people want generated by FUTURES are invaluable,” said Jane McGonigal, Futurist and Director of Games Research and Development at IFTF. “We know that most young people today are concerned about their own personal future and the fate of humanity. We urgently need to reinvigorate our social imagination to collectively create credible images of a positive future. We need powerful new images, stories, and possible ways forward that depict a world we want to live in, a future we are empowered, excited, and healed by. These ‘FUTURES’ insights can help community leaders and forward-thinking organizations like the Institute for the Future understand which visions of the future are most likely to cultivate a sense of realistic hope and the agency to act today to create a better world.”
The data comes from questions answered by visitors at the exhibition’s digital kiosks “FUTURES Beacons,” designed by LAB of the Rockwell Group with a script provided by the IFTF, answers to the interactive central sculpture “me + you” by artist and architect Suchi Reddy, personal visitor Surveys and interviews as well as handwritten “action cards” that visitors fill out at the exit. Additional support was provided by SoftBank Group Corp. and AWS provided.
About the Arts and Industries Building
The Arts and Industries Building (AIB) is a home for those hungry for the future. The Smithsonian’s second oldest building opened in 1881 as America’s first national museum, an architectural icon in the heart of the National Mall. Its soaring halls led millions to world-changing wonders—Edison’s lightbulb, the first telephone, Apollo rockets. Dubbed the “Palace of Wonders” and “Mother of Museums,” AIB incubated new Smithsonian museums for over 120 years before finally closing to the public in 2004. FUTURES temporarily opened the building from November 2021 to July 2022 and was a first milestone in the long-term plan to renovate and permanently reopen this landmark location. For more information, see aib.si.edu. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
FUTURES was made possible by a select group of sponsors and supporters: Amazon Web Services, Autodesk, Bell Textron Inc., Jacqueline B. Mars, John and Adrienne Mars, the Embassy of the State of Qatar, David M. Rubenstein and SoftBank Group. The Annenberg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Kevin S. Bright and Claudia W. Bright, and Robert Kogod are also big supporters. Additional funding is provided by John Brock III, Events DC, First Solar, Ford Motor Company, Wendy Dayton, Charlie and Nancy Hogan, Suzanne Nora Johnson and David Johnson Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Meta, National Football League, National Football League Players Association and Oracle.