Festival University – Studying (in) the Future

FotoJet, Credit: tom mesic

“Transform your world” is the theme of the first Festival University, a cooperation project between Johannes Kepler University Linz and Ars Electronica. It will take place from August 30th to September 19th 2021. In this “University of the Future” 100 students from more than 40 different countries will discuss various contemporary topics over the course of three weeks. They are expected to develop concepts through their discussions to be able to master global challenges in the future. During the project, the participants will be accompanied and supported by mentors from various fields.

The Festival University is not only concerned with what learning looks like in the 21st century, but also with how with creativity and co-creation one can address and perhaps even answer the important questions of our time. In relation to the Ars Electronica Festival new projects are always created – the Festival University is such a project, which keeping with the motto of this year’s festival, “A New Digital Deal“, signifies a step in the direction of digital transformation, in the direction of future and change. We met Karin Gabriel, one of the organisers of this project and Head of Ars Electronica’s Future Thinking School, to find out more about the Festival University.

Credit: vog.photo

The Festival University is taking place for the first time this year. How did the idea for a project like this come about?

Karin Gabriel: The basic idea of this new project is the question “How can students initiate transformation and thus change the world? Especially in recent years, the young generation has increasingly shown – through actions such as Fridays for Future – that they see the need for rethinking and change in various areas and also want to contribute. Through this Festival University, we want to give the participants the tools to make their contribution. These tools are, on the one hand, new ways of thinking and perspectives as well as knowledge in certain areas, but also a global network, which they will receive through their participation in the Festival University. The Ars Electronica Festival has been bringing together artists, scientists, designers and activists from all over the world since 1979, and through exhibitions and various activities it also involves the general public in questions of digital humanism. Consequently, this platform is the perfect starting point for this new project. The cooperation is furthermore supported by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research and the Province of Upper Austria.

What exactly is new about the Festival University project, or how does it differ from other programmes that have existed before?

Karin Gabriel: On the one hand, it differs in its internationality: we invited students between 16 and 24 years of age from all around the world to apply. From the more than 230 applicants, the top 100 were selected and the live in more than 40 different countries. The programme is particularly exciting because the first week takes place online for everyone, but in the second week, we expect 80 participants to come to Linz and only the others participate online for two weeks. The students will receive inputs through “Inspirational Talks”, through workshops with experts and have the opportunity to exchange ideas with each other. They will work in groups to answer the question “How can we change the world through X? Here, X is artificial intelligence, art, drones, investigative journalism, autonomous vehicles etc. On four afternoons, the groups will take part in various workshops on diverse topics – for example at the Johannes Kepler University or here, at the Ars Electronica Center. At the end of the three-week programme, on Friday, September 17th, to be precise, the students will present their transformation concepts, which they have worked out together in groups. Therefore, this is not a classic academy, but rather a new innovative concept of an academic programme.

Credit: Philipp Greindl

Now we have already heard quite a bit about how the programme is intended to proceed. Could you perhaps give me a brief overview?

Karin Gabriel: The theme of the Festival University 2021 is “transformation” and each week is dedicated to a special motto. In the first week, the motto is “Challenge your thinking”, and participants will get to know new concepts for approaching problems and defining new solutions. For example, there will be a workshop on “Art Thinking”, a new approach developed by the Ars Electronica Futurelab. The theme of the second week is “Expand your horizon” and the participating students will dive into new subject areas. The Ars Electronica Festival will also be taking place during this week, so items on the programme with artists will also be organised. The third week is dedicated to the motto “Co-Creating the Future”. On these days, the students will work on their joint transformation concept, which they will then present on September 17th during the closing event. In general, the days always follow a simple structure. In the morning an “Inspirational Talk” on different topics takes place. We have very exciting talks on the list: from journalism to mindset to corporate innovation and also some from the humanitarian field. On four afternoons, there are workshops, where the participants work in groups. Another important aspect is getting to know Linz and the surrounding area, so we have also planned an excursion to Voestalpine Stahlwelt and the St. Florian Monastery, among other places. The social component should not be neglected either, which is why we have planned exciting activities for the participants to get to know each other better.

Credit: Philipp Greindl

You have already mentioned the festival – could it be said that there is also a thematic connection between the Festival University and this year’s festival?

Karin Gabriel: Absolutely, the theme of the current festival will of course be included. We have planned for the students to participate in certain workshops and lectures from the festival and to visit exhibitions, furthermore – and that’s pretty special – to have personal contact with the artists. It is kind of a “VIP treatment” because they really get to spend time with them. Apart from that the festival always takes up topics that raise important questions and provoke reflection, however, the exhibitions also suggest possible solutions. This is exactly what we want to provide the students with – to learn to look at things from a different perspective.

If we have a look behind the scences – what does it take to make such a project possible?

Karin Gabriel: As I mentioned, this project is being carried out by Johannes Kepler University and Ars Electronica. And this great cooperation also makes it possible for such a complex programme to come about at all. The Johannes Kepler University is also an important partner and venue for the Ars Electronica Festival, and thus the Festival University as a new joint project fits in well with the long-standing cooperation. So we work hand in hand with our colleagues from Johannes Kepler University to create an impressive and effective programme for the participants and to give them the opportunity and platform to change the world long term.

Credit: vog.photo

And is the Festival University planned to be a long-term project?

Karin Gabriel: Absolutely. The project is taking place for the first time this year. However, our goal is not just to carry it out once, but our focus and that of the Johannes Kepler University is definitely long-term. Furthermore the experiences of the Festival University 2021 should also be incorporated into the creation of future academic projects.

Finally, can you perhaps give me a brief insight into who will be part of the project?

Karin Gabriel: We are currently finalising all the speakers from Austria and abroad. The programme runs among the title “transformation”, therefore we have invited professors from the JKU as well as artists from the festival and partners from Ars Electronica, we have also invited experts from various fields from Austria and abroad. Another thing that is very important to us was to invite women and men equally, as well as international representatives. So there will not only be speakers from Europe, but really from all over the globe.

Karin Gabriel has been the head of the Future Thinking School by Ars Electronica since September 2020. Her professional journey has taken her from Austria to Bangalore, India and Dubai, UAE. Karin has 10+ years of international experience in developing and leading programmes focused on innovation, emerging technologies and start-ups for decision-makers in the public and private sector.

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