Thinking Futures at University of Bristol

University of Bristol has been running the ‘Thinking Futures’ Festival of Social Science for over 20 years. The festival, funded by ESRC, is run to raise the profile of Social Science research with the public. The festival is run by the University of Bristol Public Engagement team. Over the years, we have had the opportunity to evolve festival events to be more useful and impactful for researchers and audiences.  


 In the early years, the Festival focused on large scale events, held in spaces such as the Great Hall, with a talk or panel event, showcasing a piece of research. This approach reached a good number of people, and, to a certain extent, raised the profile of Social Science research in Bristol. However, there were two issues with this approach. Firstly, evidenced by data collection, we only reached a narrow section of society, generally older people from geographically well off neighbourhoods. The second issue was that we had little or no idea what the impact of these events were. People would leave and we’d never hear from them again. Had they learnt anything that would change something? Had the event had any impact? We’d often never know.  

So, we began to change our approach. We continued to run events that were open to a general audience but tried to make them more interactive and increase the diversity of our audiences by hosting them in different venues across the city. In recent years, we have also trialed a new approach that prioritises impact. This new approach involves partnering researchers with specific demographics or communities, who might have a specific interest or connection to the research, and co-designing activities that build partnerships, understanding, and a shared sense what Social Science research can do for society. This new approach is flexible and responsive. We aim to run events that might spark something. That bring people together to have conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise. That create opportunities to listen and reflect and, ideally, plan ways to continue to work together toward shared goals.  

To give an example: An academic was able to use a Thinking Futures event to build relationships with a niche group in the city, tattoo artists, in an informal and engaging way. This event built on a participatory project funded by the Participatory Research Fund and helped define clear ‘next steps’ that then went towards a successful ESRC IAA application.  

Another success came in the form of a creative workshop that helped a researcher wanting to share recommendations about collective day care for older people with professionals working in the sector in Bristol. The researcher had been finding it hard to engage the sector with the research findings. We paired her with a creative facilitator and together they designed a workshop to present the recommendations in new ways,   allowing the conversation to move forward positively.  


Festival events play a useful role that other funding doesn’t tend to – to create a positive, level playing field, and a low pressure environment in which academics and people/communities can positively explore how their aims can be brought together. If you’d like to find out more, contact Ben ( and  Ellie (