Innovation in arts and culture: sounding the horn for R&D

Hasan Bakhshi, 16.04.2012
In the first instalment of a series on research and development, Nesta's Hasan Bakhshi explains how a digital fund aims to shake up the sector
It's staggering how much money the government pumps into science and technology each year with the explicit aim of supporting innovation. The Technology Strategy Board alone spends around £300m a year "investing in the development of new technology-based products and services for future markets".

Tax incentives for research and development (R&D) cost the government a further £1bn each year. Clear definitions of scientific and technological R&D, developed over five decades in its own dedicated manual, have enabled its measurement and evaluation and, in turn, assessments of market failure which have further strengthened the case for public R&D funding.

We have no equivalent understanding of innovation in the arts. We don't have rigorous definitions of R&D in the arts, nor are we clear why it's socially desirable.

We don't know how to measure how much arts organisations invest in innovation and we don't have ways of estimating its return on investment. We are lacking the tools to identify the market failures, so we haven't developed policy measures to address them where they exist.

Is it any wonder that governments have not targeted more money on it?

This was the starting point for the digital R&D fund for arts and culture, a groundbreaking three-way collaboration between Nesta, Arts Council England, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which is currently being piloted in England.

The basic idea of the fund is to connect three sectors – arts and cultural organisations, technology companies and academic researchers – in a way that other arts and cultural organisations who are not participating in the fund can also learn from.

Arts and culture organisations are invited to apply to the fund to test propositions on how new technologies can be used to broaden, deepen and diversify audience reach and explore new business models.

The results of the experiments are captured through rigorous research design and then published in full. To date we have been looking to fund projects in the following areas: social media and user-generated content; distribution; mobile and gaming; data and archive; education and learning, and resources.

In the pilot fund in England, now closed for applications, we have supported eight projects, all currently at, or close to the stage where they are starting to test their digital propositions with the public.

A contemporary art space, the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, is collaborating with the London-based tech company Artfinder and researchers at Birmingham City University. Their aim is to develop a digital portal which allows the gallery and artists to upload, sell and exchange their artwork, as well as audiences to vote on and virtually curate art programmes.

In another project, three smaller cultural institutions – Sheffield's Site Gallery, the Lighthouse in Brighton and Spike Island in Bristol – are embedding teams of digital designers and developers into their executive teams to see how this changes organisational thinking and develops more innovative digital ideas. Researchers from Warwick Business School are using ethnographic techniques to capture what is learned.

The London Symphony Orchestra is also creating and testing a mobile marketing and ticketing facility that allows students to purchase discounted concert tickets through mobile apps.

The apps use data to show the location of nearby events and allow students to share comments via social media. Researchers at Salford University are using analytics, survey and focus group methods to evaluate the project's success.

Battersea Arts Centre has teamed up with software developer Videojuicer and academics at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University to pilot a digital version of their acclaimed Scratch programme, which allows performance artists to share ideas and engage in a creative dialogue with the public as they are developing their artistic projects.

In its social interpretation and cultural exchange project with University College London, Salford, Nottingham and Exeter universities and MTM London, the Imperial War Museum is developing a new system to enable the interpretation, discussion, collection and sharing of cultural experiences with, and between, museum visitors.

This project is developing and testing new in-gallery, online and mobile applications, which will augment and spread museum collections through social media and digital interaction.

Then, in a collaboration with technologists at MIT Media Lab and researchers at Dundee University and the University of West England, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk are building an online platform that will partner live audiences with online participants. This will be piloted for Punchdrunk's critically acclaimed production Sleep No More in New York.

The Exhibition Road Cultural Group of museums is working with Seren and MTM London to create a new app that will allow users to go on a cultural journey across London, inspired by the life, work and interests of Charles Dickens, and drawing on content from museums, theatres, shops, pubs and markets.

Lastly, the Sage, Gateshead, is working with Videojuicer, Cambridge University and Fusion Analytics to explore how digital technology can help orchestras and venues find new audiences and income streams.

The project explores extending the audiences for orchestral and ensemble projects using simulcasts, nearcasts, livestreams and downloads through partners including regional venues, the Guardian and the partners' websites.

The aim is to reach new young audiences who live in rural areas that previously would not have had access to live performances.

It's worth explaining that the fund does not intend to promote novelty in artform as an objective. Rather, it plugs a gap in funding streams for arts and cultural organisations who want to experiment with new engagement and business models.

The fund's distinctive approach is that through careful research design, projects can generate a wealth of knowledge and insights that can remove some of the bottlenecks to innovation in the wider arts and cultural sector.

We have had an amazing response from arts and culture organisations. They have recognised that the funders themselves are experimenting – testing a new way of collaborating with each other for the benefit of the sector.

The pilot in England received 494 applications, of which 393 (seeking over £24m in total excluding research) were judged eligible.

The funders are now exploring scaling up the fund. Creative Scotland, the AHRC and Nesta have also launched a digital R&D fund pilot in Scotland this year.

Chris Smith and his film policy review panel have recommended that the British Film Institute sets up a digital R&D fund for the film industry, which underlies the transferability of the funding model across the creative industries. Conversations are taking place with a number of other sectors and funding bodies.

All of these digital R&D funds should be viewed as small moves in a much bigger game. The ultimate prize for which is an understanding of innovation that is better grounded in today's society.

Arts and culture organisations should aspire and be funded to engage in research and development that aims at innovation in all its forms, redressing the long-standing imbalances that exist in innovation policy.

Hasan Bakhshi is director of creative industries for Nesta's policy & research unit. Follow Hasan on Twitter @nesta_uk

Written for Guardian Culture Professionals Network

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