East London’s Tobacco Dock opened in 1811. It is a structure of cast iron rods, exposed brick and cloudy glass that was used for decades to store tobacco. There are dark basements and open atriums, shafts of light filtering through and casting stark shadows upon the industrial architecture. The Tobacco Dock lends itself to transformation – and is the place where past meets future.

Last Friday (6th July), I attended Nesta’s FutureFest – a space for ideas to come together, to be challenged and to be shared. Technology was a hot topic, as was sustainability, democracy and social welfare. The festival itself comprised of keynote speeches, panels, debates and “immersive experiences”; a personal favourite being the Black Box Bellagio, a casino where you don’t gamble with money but with your personal data. Just off one of the main stages was an art installation that asked people: Will the future be good? The festival was a space to decide what we want the answer to be.

“Should AI be feared or revered?” was the big question that was buzzing around the dock.

Nesta had brought together 4,000 people, each with a different perspective on technology and its potential, sparking off debates about the virtues and drawbacks of technological progress.

The day kicked off with “Educ-AI-tion Rebooted”, a discussion between Sir Anthony Seldon and Azeem Azhar, chaired by Nesta’s Director of Education, Joysy John. Seldon is currently the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham and is the former principal of Wellington College. He also wrote The Fourth Education Revolution so he knows a thing or two about using artificial intelligence in education. Seldon argued that the biggest flaw with our current education system is that it generalises students.

“Don’t ask how intelligent a child is, ask: how is a child intelligent?” he urged.

Children have a natural curiosity that is often stamped out by a rigid education. An educator’s job is to nurture this curiosity but teachers are all too often over-burdened by excessive marking and highly-demanding workloads. Rather than using technology to simply digitise, Seldon calls for the use of education to revolutionise. AI, he argues, can be used to give children a personalised education. At CENTURY, we wholeheartedly stand by this; it is the foundation of our organisation.

AI learns how a student learns and can suggest the optimum path through schoolwork or revision material for each pupil. But could AI replace teachers? This is a question that naturally springs to mind after learning about the capabilities of AI and was addressed by Seldon. He stated that AI is not going to take teachers out of classrooms, but that it could be used to support them and to encourage student autonomy. Azhar, who spoke after Seldon, echoed this point. The founder of PeerIndex and author of Exponential View, Azhar is another leading figure in the field of AI and education. Citing his own autodidactic journey as evidence, he posited that the traditional “3 R’s of education” – reading, writing and arithmetic – were not sufficient in the rapidly changing world we live in. Rather, he encouraged, we should look to instill the “7 C’s” into students and into ourselves. These, Azhar proposed, are the new core skills needed to thrive, not just in the future, but in the present too.

The “7 C’s” are:

Computational thinking, cultural communication, character, cognitive skills, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

We like to think of CENTURY as the 8th ‘C’ : we have endeavoured to ensure that CENTURY builds future-ready skills in students. Our platform encourages cognitive agility by prompting students to make connections between subjects, and the use of CENTURY itself promotes digital literacy in pupils, parents and teachers alike. We were thrilled to be included in the Ednology launch at FutureFest, where we showcased our platform to parents, teachers, students and others working in the EdTech sector. The excitement in the room was palpable. Everyone present was ready to embrace the coupling of technology and education because technology takes the heavy lifting out of teachers’ tasks and can also be used to foster uniquely human-skills like creativity and lateral thinking.

Much of the talks at the festival shared a common thread: that our world is changing so fast, but our traditional institutions are unable to keep up. The only solution is to radically transform them, and to transform them now. While the festival was titled “FutureFest”, it was as much a prognosis of the present as it was an evaluation of the future. The developments that were discussed are not hypotheticals; they are happening as we speak. AI is not “coming to transform education”; in the words of our founder, Priya Lakhani “AI has already arrived to transform education”. Everything that was called for in Educ-AI-tion is what CENTURY is putting into practice because we know we need to act now.

FutureFest generated a call to action to reconnect with our humanity in order to keep pace with technology. In many ways, technology will free us to do this. By taking care of menial, repetitive tasks, it will allow humans to focus on what only humans can do: debate, relate and innovate. While each person brought their own opinions and values to the discussions, a general consensus was achieved. In short: technology can be harnessed for good, but in order to do this, we need to tap into our collective humanity, our positive thinking and our radical mindsets.

Curious about Nesta and FutureFest? Watch some of the talks here!