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Cambridge Festival of Ideas closes with record attendance

The 10th Cambridge Festival of Ideas has wrapped up after record attendances for the over 200 events dedicated to thought-provoking ideas and discussion.

The two-week Festival culminated on Sunday and has seen around 23,500 people attending 230 mostly free events, from exhibitions and panel discussions to cinema screenings and theatre. Numbers are estimated to be up by 3,000 on last year's attendance.

Recordings of many of the main discussions are now online for those who were unable to attend.

This year’s theme was truth and many of the events were fully booked with some of the most popular being, appropriately, Populism, the MML Faculty and Schroeder Lecture: Encountering Brexit - Perspectives and Challenges, How Conspiracy Theories Stake Their Claims to Truth, Rewriting History, Fake News and Herodotus.

In the first week discussions ranged from a consideration of whether history is always written by the victors and a debate about the afterlife of Empire and its impact on Brexit to the importance of sleep for mental well being.  You are what you sleep, organised by RAND Europe, saw experts drawing attention to the harmful effect of sleep deprivation on business, education and health.

A discussion about Brexit saw a presentation setting the record straight about Britain’s legal ability to control its border, research on the role of the media in giving a platform to far right groups in the Benelux countries and a detailed discussion of the political and historical reasons for the Brexit vote and analysis of the ongoing negotiations.

Events over the first weekend of the Festival proved particularly popular. Professor Sir Richard Evans spoke about his role as an expert witness in the High Court case between Holocaust denier David Irving and American historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt.  The Can we keep secrets discussion with the Guardian’s Nick Davies, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 and Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5, explored the line between the need for secret intelligence gathering and abuse of power. While there was disagreement, all the panellists agreed on one thing: that the biggest threat to individual privacy comes not from the intelligence services but from the likes of Facebook and Google.

In Manufacturing a Clash of Civilisations, the history of the development of the clash of civilisations narrative was outlined as well as politicians' role in exploiting it. Dr Julian Hargreaves spoke about his research with Muslim communities in North-West England and how this kind of broad narrative is not representative of what is happening on the ground. He described the importance of everyday encounters around issues such as childcare or sport and how these could build common ground. 

The Festival featured a strand on India, celebrating the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. This included a beautiful Festival of Light at the Botanic Gardens, a range of films from the sub-continent and panel discussions on everything from the development of Indian democracy to the role of technology in Indian nationalism. The latter covered trolling on social media, smart cities, the exclusion of marginalised communities from economic development, frugal innovation, globalisation such as outsourcing of call centres and the gig economy.

The final week saw discussions on President Putin’s political strategy, the failure of mainstream economists to predict the global crash and the role of experts in the Brexit debate as well as the politics of punk. Professor David Reynolds and Dr Kristina Spohr’s talk was entitled We need to talk about Putin! They spoke of Putin’s ambitions to regain Russia’s superpower status and how discontent in Russia is likely to force him to seek to direct resentment at home towards foreigners abroad and to divert domestic criticism with “triumphs” on the world stage.

The Festival also hosted a wide array of performances, film screenings, hands on events and exhibitions for all ages on everything from Pani, Pahar, a photographic exhibition of the changing landscape and escalating water crisis of the Indian Himalayas to a screening of the film Those Who Dare on Iceland’s role in securing the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Ariel Retik, the Festival of Ideas manager, said: “This year’s Festival was a great success, attracting record crowds to a broad range of discussions on some of the biggest issues we face today. The Festival is not just about the experts giving their view, but about interaction with the public who can put any questions they have to speakers. We hope that audience members came away informed and inspired. We look forward to welcoming everyone back for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2018!”

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John's College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Arts Council England, Cambridge Junction, The Nine Dots Prize, Cambridge Film Festival, Cambridge University Press and The Conversation. The Festival media partner is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

*Next year's Cambridge Festival of Ideas will take place 15-28 October 2018.