The south lawn at the Olympic Park has disappeared beneath a sea of marquees. Roadways have been fenced off and resurfaced to provide a test track. And a whole load of exhibits, and students, have been dropped in to create an eco-jamboree sponsored by an oil company. The event's called Make The Future (London), a festival of ideas and innovation, and it runs for four days until Sunday. It could so easily be either great, or awful.
From the iconic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the event will showcase bright energy ideas and provide a platform for innovation, collaboration and conversation about the global energy future. It’s open to everyone, free of charge, and will have immersive, interactive activities for all ages, as well as celebrity appearances. Through hands-on science experiments visitors will explore some of the most ground-breaking and unconventional technology reimagining the future of energy.
To get inside you need a ticket, which requires pre-registering, but that's easily done. Or alternatively you can be a corporate suit from the energy industry, lots of whom appear to have flown in specially from around Europe to be led around a sponsored enclave behind a grinning flagbearer. Or a schoolchild, several classes of whom had been shipped in to learn about science in a much more hands-on way than usual, and were just about finding enough to keep them occupied. Or simply an ordinary member of the public, although we were very much in the minority yesterday - expect the balance to change by the weekend.
What you get if you turn up is access to four zones, and a pass you can swipe as you go round to collect digital collateral relating to the exhibits on show. These don't look terribly exciting at the start, with a gravity-based lightpad system and a darkspace bigging up fruitflies, each constructed out of very temporary-looking plywood. To one side is a large stage on which an hourly explosives display plays out, and on the other a grilled food stall powered by coffee beans. Oh, and there's Pelé. He was sitting beaming in a small netted compound, thronged by a crowd of queueing schoolchildren, as part of some energy-based football challenge I didn't understand because I couldn't see. Pelé's only for Thursday, sorry.
An obvious centrepiece of the event is the test track which snakes round the site, across the Lea, and back along stilted link roads. At noon each day a parade of cars drives round to showcase what the eco-vehicles of the future might look like. But for most of the rest of the day the track is given over to low-wheel low-energy prototypes, rolling round to see how far they can go on a minimum of fuel. Someone's borrowed a set of striped deckchairs from Southsea, or you can sit in a covered plywood grandstand where minor hands-on experiments are taking place. It's worthy, but it's not exciting. Thankfully it got better when I crossed the tracks.
The marquees on the far side go back much further than they look, and conceal a surprise. One of them doesn't, it's more of a marketing blitz, with a display of envirotech vehicles and spin. Virtual reality goggles and bike pedalling activities proved popular, whereas invites to "watch these films to learn more about Shell Bitumen" and discover how bus emissions "can be reduced by retrofitting new hybrid powertrains" went generally unheeded. If you've ever tried putting together the boards for an exhibition you'll know it's a tough call, and these are often more worthy than genuinely interesting. So no, not that tent.
The amazing bit is the huge backroom where the designers of the track-based prototypes hang out. There are 200 teams in total, each with their own cubicle in the paddock, their task to build and run a vehicle that can travel as far as possible on the equivalent of one litre of fuel. The competition has its origins in a wager between two company employees in 1939, and is now an annual event on three continents, with London hosting the European leg. But these days the competitors are students, with youngsters from universities and colleges coming together to show off their engineering prowess (and to stay on a campsite down the road for the duration).
So it's fascinating to be able to walk around freely backstage, along several teeming aisles, to observe each team's cubbyholed preparations. Some are packed close together giving the vehicle's mechanics a good going over, while the group's professor taps away on a laptop alongside. Others are a social base to return to once a series of tests have been fulfilled, wheeling the buggy home through the crowds for further tweaking to the electrics or the brakes. And some are almost empty apart from three people eating sandwiches, suggesting everything's going swimmingly out there, or else it's all gone horribly wrong and they've already abandoned the challenge.
You probably need to enjoy cars and/or science to enjoy Make The Future, probably both. It might help to be younger rather than older, and to remember that this is a corporate event with yellow flags fluttering. They'll email you a survey before you arrive to see how brand-friendly you are, and again afterwards to check if your visit has altered perceptions. But the atmosphere backstage is uplifting, as two thousand students strive to make the most of the technical challenge, and collectively demonstrate the power of European togetherness. In a week when that's been slipping away fast, I found it all highly reassuring.