Warwick Commission – the digital stuff

Posted on October 9, 2015

In Feb 2015 the Warwick Commission released their final report titled Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth [PDF]. Here’s the blurb about it:

The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value has conducted a 12 month inquiry into how Britain can secure greater value from its cultural and creative assets. Launched in November 2013, the Commission has been culturally led and academically informed.

They identified five goals to ensure that the Cultural and Creative Industries can fully enrich Britain, the fourth of which is:

A thriving digital cultural sphere that is open and available to all.

Which seems perfectly laudable. There’s a chapter of the report dedicated to explaining this in more detail, with some overall context, some challenges and some recommendations. If you’re reading along then you’ll want to head to p54. Otherwise, here’s a really brief summary with some notes of my own…

Context

There’s some general stage-setting in the report. You know the kind of stuff – the digital revolution has provided new ways of doing everything, etc and so on. Three aspects of the current landscape are highlighted:

  • Rise of digital technologies and participation: This is pretty self-explanatory, although worth pulling out the observation that “The nature and extent of creative and cultural participation has changed”. That really is a biggie.
  • Digital R&D: Nods here to various programmes funded by ACE, Nesta, AHRC and the ODI. The report makes a big thing about how lots of arts orgs are (by necessity) distributing publicly-funded work via commercially minded platforms.
  • New revenue streams: Apparently 51% of arts and cultural organisations currently using the Internet to generate new revenue streams. I think it’s worth noting that the examples given – crowdfunding, online donations, and selling products/merch online – may be new but they aren’t necessarily additional revenue streams. It’s not like some/all of that money wouldn’t have come in through other means previously. I’d rephrase this as ‘Revenue streams are migrating’.

Challenges

To summarise:

  • Audiences, access and accessibility: There are plenty of people who either don’t have access to the internet, don’t feel confident accessing what’s there, or who find that when they do they encounter some form of harassment.
  • Cultural organisations: Many organisations have said that a lack of skills, funding and time are proving to be significant obstacles.
  • Search/taxonomy: There’s a lot of competition for attention out there and there’s a worry that, when it comes to search engine listings, cultural content might sink, rather than swim.

The search/taxonomy one comes across a little… odd. At least to my mind.The line saying “An online resource of any kind can only be used if it can be discovered” needs to be extended to add ‘and if someone wants to discover it’. Sure, develop some methods and guidance for getting your stuff indexed in search engines and the like – there are certainly plenty of online collections that aren’t getting this right. Sprinkle a bit of marketing on top if you like. Beyond that, there’s only so much you can force things down people’s throats – if people don’t want it, they don’t want it.

Personally, I reckon the second one presents by far the biggest challenge.

Recommendations

There are two of these. To summarise:

  • Creating a digital public space (DiPS): This is described as ‘a kind of digital ‘cultural library’ of the UK’s artistic and cultural assets, guaranteeing secure and equitable access to all forms of digitised content and resources’.
  • Accelerating digital R&D: More of it (especially for production of innovative content, audience engagement and business models), with training attached to grants and an obligation to share what’s learned in the process.

After wading through all the abstractions, I’m still not sure what this DiPS thing actually is beyond a reasonably interesting (your mileage may vary) thought experiment. At it’s most basic level, it sounds a bit like an Open Culture or Project Gutenberg-style clearing house for publicly funded cultural content that’s no longer commercially viable. I… dunno. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just that I can’t see how it’d work. The BBC’s Tony Ageh OBE was one of the Warwick Commission’s main people and this concept is his hobby horse, so presumably that’s one reason why it’s here.

On the R&D side of things, I think that’s reasonable enough. I’d like to see more focus on the ‘production of innovative content’ part, on the basis that innovation around audience engagement and business models is being pushed forward by other sectors.

I’d also like to see some possibility of using funds to scale some of the things that work so there’s a better pathway to helping these things succeed. And there are problems with the cultural org+academic+tech partner style of R&D programme that the report references strongly, so lets not just go running down that channel.

Interesting to see that the recently announced Arts Council of Wales Digital Innovation Fund includes an ’embed & scale’ phase. Looks like there’s quite a bit of effort going into the earlier phases too, to ensure projects address actual challenges or opportunities. Good stuff.

Final thoughts

Stepping back a bit, the Commission’s saying that one goal should be to have:

A thriving digital cultural sphere that is open and available to all.

And that the way to achieve this is to:

  • accelerate digital R&D (presumably to help with the ‘thriving digital cultural sphere’ bit); and
  • create a digital public space (that’ll be for the ‘open and accessible to all’ bit)

Which is fine, and those two things could well play a role (the R&D thing, at least) but I don’t think they’d be enough to get the whole job done.

For instance, neither of those are likely to help much with the fact that many/most cultural organisations are lacking the knowhow (both at leadership level and on the ground), time and resources to get successful digital initiatives off the ground.

Also, as much as R&D within the cultural sector is a good thing, there does come a point where the way forward is pretty well established and people just need to get on and do things properly. It might not be R&D, but there needs to be support/investment for that kind of activity too.

Finally, I think the use of digital technology in cultural learning and education warrants a mention. Or maybe as this is being solved on a general level by new players stepping in, it’s no big deal if legacy cultural organisations are being left behind. Either way, I think some discussion of that would have been helpful.

Other parts of the report highlight the need to invest in developing skills (albeit commercial), develop boards (to include more enterprise experience) and offer children ‘ digital opportunities’ in learning. I guess I’d like to copy some of that over to the digital section of the report.

Anywho. Interesting report, lots to think about.