The Cambridge Festival of Ideas launches today [14th October] with a huge array of events and cutting edge thinkers, tackling social, cultural and political change in a rapidly transforming world.

Participants include Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor Gina Rippon, author and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, politicians David Lammy and Ed Miliband and Professor Mary Beard.

The Festival runs from 14th to 27th October with over 270 events, most of them free. They cover subjects ranging from climate change, Brexit, hate speech and the impact of artificial intelligence on society to how to bring divided communities together after major trauma and who will look after us in our old age.

Change is the theme of this year's Festival and events cover everything from social and political change to cultural transformation, with new research challenging traditional views of the past. 

Events on social change span how we care for the old in a rapidly ageing society, reproduction past and present and addiction.

In Who will look after us in our old age? on 21st October, we ask who will look after us in our old age and how it will be funded? Will the crisis in carer recruitment require greater immigration? Will women still be relied upon to take on the burden of unpaid care? Or will social robots take up the slack? Join affective computing expert Professor Peter Robinson, sociologist Elif Cetin, feminist economist Victoria Bateman and Dan Holden from the International Longevity Centre for a fascinating discussion about an issue that will affect us all. The event is chaired by Chris Mann from BBC Cambridgeshire.

Elif Cetin, a junior research fellow at the Von Hügel Institute in Cambridge, said: "It is very likely that the UK’s need for immigrants will increase as the population ages. Yet, due to the heavily politicised nature of immigration in the UK, I think it will be really difficult for politicians to openly discuss and make the case for an additional labour force that cannot be met through the domestic labour market due to reasons such as the lack of necessary qualifications, unwillingness to take care jobs due low salary and/or lack of prestige etc. The British public remains highly worried about migration and tends to express a preference for highly restricted immigration...

"Various types of migrants are now highly politicised and even the case of European mobility is approached within the frame of immigration controls. Surprisingly, older people are more likely to vote in favour of Brexit, which had immigration debates at its core, despite the fact that they are more likely to need care. This is because prejudice and fear about immigration and immigrants have become ossified to the extent that this group's sense of insecurity has reached the point that rejection of further immigration is likely to triumph over the necessity for having more immigrants. And fewer immigrants is also likely to affect women as it could lead to more women leaving their jobs for unpaid carer roles." 

Reproduction is at the heart of many major debates around the world today. In When was reproduction invented? on 17th October Nick Hopwood, Professor of History of Science and Medicine in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, his fellow editors of  Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day and Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, will talk about the history of reproduction from ancient times to the present day, looking at continuity and change over the long term.

Professor Hopwood says: "The question ‘When was reproduction invented?’ is intended to highlight what we can learn from different periods of change. Some aspect of reproduction is in the news every day, and by the nature of news it can all seem new. But reporters, like scientists, clinicians and patients, typically frame what’s happening in terms of historic achievements or abuses, recent progress or worrying contrasts with how things used to be. We appeal to history all the time, because it allows us to compare in a long view. So we wanted to pool expertise to make that history robust and acknowledge that our interests shape the ways we use the past."

Give and Take: How Giving Has Changed The World And Why It Matters asks whether giving a gift must necessarily exclude hopes of a return to be considered a “good deed”. Based on a short film produced by Alexander Massmann and DragonLight Films, the event will include a discussion panel on the complex nature of gift giving for humans and their close relatives. [19th October]

Rethinking drug addiction will ask why current approaches to addiction are not working and question if this is a matter of economics, politics, ethics or education. Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College and former Archbishop of Canterbury, will chair a discussion on safer drug use and the research on drug consumption rooms. [22nd October]

Events focusing on political change include  Is it possible to forgive and forget after major national traumas, a panel discussion on how we bring divided communities together after war or trauma. Drawing on the examples of East and West Germany, Korea, Japan and Burundi leading experts will discuss how we rebuild peace after traumatic division has riven communities on 22nd October, a subject of huge relevance in our increasingly divided world.

Other events relate to widespread cultural change, including the Yoko Ono: Looking For... exhibition at the Ruskin Gallery, which explores themes of violence and healing, and the screening of two films by Yoko Ono.  It is the first time Ono's work has been exhibited in Cambridge and curator Gabriella Daris will give an illustrated talk about how Ono’s art resonates with the cultural and political specificities of our contemporary condition on 19th October. 

The impact of historic political and social revolutions can be seen in events such as:

Maroon Nation, where Dr Johnhenry Gonzalez, University Lecturer in Caribbean and Atlantic History, will talk about his new book on the history of Haiti and how the country went from the most profitable slave colony to the site of the only successful slave revolt in modern times. He will argue that Haiti’s early independent history has been the subject of relatively little basic research despite its historical significance. His book is inspired in part by him getting access to a vital historical document on those early years which is held in Kings College London's library. His session will discuss discuss broader questions around the provenance and proper place of foreign historic treasures held in British and other national collections. [17th October]

Four events commemorate 50 years since the Stonewall uprising, a landmark event for gay rights activism. In addition to panel discussions about the history of the uprising and the LGBTQ+ movement today, there will be screenings of two important films linked to events in New York in 1969 - Screaming Queens: The Riot At Compton's Cafeteria and Marsha P Johnson On Film, celebrating trans activist and queer icon Marsha P. Johnson [22nd October].

Other events focus on new research which changes our perspective on past eras:

In Animals In The City, historian Tom Almeroth-Williams, author of City of Beasts, will talk about the fascinating facts his research has uncovered about the interaction between humans and animals in Georgian London when people and animals lived in close proximity. He will compare the experience of living with cows in 21st century Cambridge with the experience of living in the shadow of Smithfield Market in Georgian London, painting a picture of life then and now. Focusing on evidence of tangible, dung-bespattered interactions between real people and animals, drawn from legal, parish, commercial, newspaper and private records, Almeroth-Williams will open up new perspectives on unfamiliar or misunderstood metropolitan spaces, activities, social types, relationships and cultural developments and challenge traditional assumptions about the industrial, agricultural and consumer revolutions. As one reviewer says: "It will change how you see the pre-industrial world and every mutt you meet on the street."  [23rd October]

Bring Out Your Dead!: Destiny And Health In The Middle Ages members of the After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval Cambridge project will use the actual life stories of people from medieval Cambridge, as revealed by multidisciplinary studies of their skeletons, to show the kind of health lottery faced by our ancestors. The session also includes an interactive game which allows you to play out the lives of typical people from the Middle Ages. Was the Plague the biggest health challenge facing them or were things like influenza and even toothache more deadly? [24th October]


*The Cambridge Festival of Ideas programme is available in hard copy around Cambridge and online here. Bookings open at 11am on 23rd September 2019. Follow the Festival on Twitter at and on Facebook at

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