The Future Of Us exhibition: Going back to the past to look into the future

The Future of Us exhibition is an immersive and multi-sensory experience that offers a glimpse of how we can live, work, play and learn in the future.
The Future of Us exhibition is an immersive and multi-sensory experience that offers a glimpse of how we can live, work, play and learn in the future. PHOTO: THE FUTURE OF US / FACEBOOK

Creative director reveals inspiration for The Future Of Us

SINGAPORE - When Mr Gene Tan was appointed creative director of The Future Of Us exhibition in March, one of the first things he did was to examine the past.

A librarian by training and an avid reader, Mr Tan read seven books on the history of countries such as Singapore, Russia and China, including Men In White, a book about the People's Action Party.

"I became obsessed with how nations were made," said Mr Tan, who is in his 40s. As director of the National Library Board previously, he took charge of the Singapore Memory Project, where people's memories of Singapore are collected through print, audio and video.

Unlike the memory project, the new exhibition looks ahead and lays out a vision of what life in Singapore might be like in the future.

The exhibition, which runs from next month to March at Gardens by the Bay, caps a year of activities and exhibitions to mark Singapore's 50th year of independence.

Entry to the exhibition is free. Since tickets became available for booking on the exhibition's website from this month, most tickets for weekends next month have already been snapped up.

In an interview with The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao last week, Mr Tan said that as he pored through the history books, he was struck by how nations today are created "precariously" from decisions made in the past.

"The future is not set. We seem to think it is, and we seem to think it has all been planned, but the future is not set, because the past was not set," he said.

With this in mind, he sought to create an exhibition that encourages the audience to think about their actions and decisions, and what they could do to contribute to Singapore's future.

The show consolidates the Government's plans, the research of agencies and institutes, as well as the ideas of ordinary people.

They are then retold as stories and scenarios in everyday life in the year 2030 and beyond.

Mr Tan decided to use four ordinary Singaporean characters who are going through their everyday lives to convey the idea that they are each making decisions about their future.

Through the characters' journeys, Singapore's future is shown.

Mr Tan said he hopes to keep the exhibition accessible and relatable for visitors by fleshing out grand ideas "through the minutiae of everyday life", and telling stories through the perspective of a citizen instead of a planner.

Take for instance, SkillsFuture, the national movement to build deep skills and expertise in Singaporeans. The movement is illustrated through an animation which features the four characters.

Visitors can turn a dial to a specific year, and look at what a character is doing in that year.

All four characters pursue different routes: one decides to be a craftsman and learn carpentry, for instance.

The exhibition also gives a glimpse of what life might be like for the elderly in Singapore in the future, by looking at innovations from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

For example, the elderly may be able to access nursing care in their own homes, even if they live alone. This can be done through technology, such as clothes that can record and transmit a person's vital signs to a smartphone.

If an elderly person has an accident at home, the change in vital signs will trigger a notification that is sent through an app to a network of healthcare volunteers in the area. Volunteers will then respond and go to the person's aid.

Singapore's future is not all about technological advances, but also about people pitching in to offer help, noted Mr Tan, who hopes that exhibition visitors will have discussions about the future.

"The key to making it work is having people who care enough to put themselves on the network," he said. "Even if we have all the technology in the world, and people only care about themselves, then it doesn't matter. It will not work."

Choosing Gardens by the Bay as the exhibition venue was quite deliberate, said Mr Tan.

"It is quite symbolic. The Gardens... was realised through sheer force of will and imagination," he said. The attraction was built on 101ha of reclaimed land - the size of 177 football fields.

"The future is the same thing. It is literally for us to imagine, but it also needs the will to realise it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Going back to the past to look into the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe