Why the Battle of Ideas 2019?

Join us as we get to grips with a world in flux.

This year’s Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican in London is our 15th annual festival. We’re living in interesting times, and more than ever it feels like we need a space for interrogating ideas, open discussion and civilised debate.

Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan
Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan

Take the rise of the word ‘toxic’, currently Oxford English Dictionaries ‘Word of the Year’. Toxic is commonly applied to describe a vast array of things, situations, concerns and events. It’s the go-to prefix for everything from masculinity to relationships, social media to workplaces. What’s more worrying is that the notion of ‘toxic politics’ is also commonplace. At a time when people, discourse and ideas are regularly decried for the harm they inflict, it is vital that we are able to question and understand why social and political life is experienced in such a personalised and visceral way. The Battle of Ideas festival provides a space for open discussion that encourages, rather than curtails, debate.

Another big term for 2019 is ‘existential threat’, regularly used to describe everything from the possibility of extinction via climate change or a Third World War to the unravelling of political parties and the future of artificial intelligence. The ease with which we now place ‘possible’ scenarios before ‘probable’ outcomes seems in keeping with a recent shift from fearing the future to a more all-consuming future of fear. Never has it been more vital to get to grips with questions of risk. We must think about how to shape the future, including the role of genomics, vaccinations or the future of the automotive industry.

As is often the case, in order to move forward it might help to look back through history. By contrast to today’s focus on the impossibility of knowing, the Enlightenment was associated with a confident conviction that knowledge would help us solve problems and create social progress. What can we learn from that and other historical events, such as Greek Democracy or the English Civil War. In a lighter vein, there’s also lessons to be learnt from the advent of the Bauhaus or even The Life Of Brian, 40 years on. Do recent positive uses of terms like ‘socialism’ and the keen interest in ‘solidarity’ suggest big ideas are back on the agenda? If so, how can we make them count, in order to solve problems like climate change, construction or the changing nature of work?

It’s clear that we need to get out of our intellectual silos and meet and debate with different people. If we’re to take anything from recent political events, it’s the fact that many people feel like simply reading the news or listening to politicians is no longer enough. We want to discuss what’s going on, no holds barred.

So whether it’s assessing declining trust in institutions, debating the future for democracy or enquiring into what lies behind the rise of conspiracy theories, there is something for everyone at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival. Join the 400 speakers and 3,500 attendees, who come from a range of backgrounds, disciplines and political allegiances, but share in a common thirst for ideas and public debate.

Grab a ticket, and we hope to see you there.

Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan
co-convenors, Battle of Ideas festival