Warwick Commission – the digital stuff

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.

The Cultural Digital newsletter

Earlier today I sent out the first edition of the Cultural Digital newsletter. If you want, you can sign up to the list here. Or, if you’re reading this on my site, via the various prompts you may well have seen.

The idea is to send out links to interesting digital developments from in/around the arts and culture sector, plus any notable events and jobs that I come across. And any other stuff that I think is worth a mention. If you ever read my old link round-up posts then you’ll know the kind of thing. I’ll also include links to anything new that I’ve written, either here or elsewhere.

It’ll probably be semi-regular, rather than fitting to a regular rhythm. It’ll probably also evolve over time. We’ll see what shape it takes. I’m also half-considering giving it over to guest editors every so often, just because I think that’d be interesting. The list has got a few hundred subscribers and the open rate has always been high, so it’s a good audience. We’ll see about that though.

Anyway, like I say, please sign up if you’re interested.

Digital leadership in the arts

Back in February 2015, the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value published the results of their year-long investigation. Will Perrin spoke to them about digital issues in the British cultural scene and philanthropy and produced an evidence paper back in Jan 2014 that I’ve only recently got round to reading.

I’m glad I finally did, though. This post is a summary of that paper with some of my own thoughts thrown in.

Will’s conclusion is that:

I am struck that the arts seems to be sleep walking along in the comfort zone of an analogue world, guided by boards of people at the end of their professional careers who are not of a digital generation. To stay relevant arts leadership needs a revolutionary approach to digital issues, particularly leadership – their slow pace of evolution risks them being left behind.

There are quite a few good quotes in the piece, with references to some good sources. It’s not often I recommend reading the minutes of a meeting, but those from the ACE National Council Meeting (the one with all the top dogs) on 14 November 2013 but there you go. Will says that they “don’t show any sense of urgency to embrace digital media”.

GDS for the arts?

One of the things Will spoke about was how Martha Lane-Fox’s Directgov 2010 and beyond report, and Francis Maude’s adoption of it, led to the creation of:

a new team, Government Digital Service with the right talent, the right bureaucratic levers and, critically, buy-in from bureaucratic leaders too. Martha and Francis clearly and demonstrably put digital leadership front and centre in the government’s reform programme and made it vital to the future of government services and administration, going well beyond ‘digital corner’.

Will says that he “can’t quite see an analog to this process in the cultural sector”. Me neither, and I don’t think such a thing could exist in quite the same way. After all, the Cabinet Office had the authority to set up GDS and was given a remit to effect some far-reaching changes, with cost-savings estimated to be in the billions (which provided a nice imperative).

In contrast, neither ACE, DCMS, nor any of the other funders are in a position to create an ‘Arts Digital Service’ and have that team centralise the approach to digital activity for large swathes of the arts organisations in its portfolio. Those funders are important, but they’re not in a position of ownership, and portfolio funding isn’t a given – it could be taken away at any point,

Still, it’s worth thinking about the lessons that can be taken from things like GDS. Let’s take the three things Will picks out as being important to GDS’s success:

1. the right talent

I take this to refer to two things:

  • digital talent at board level
  • digital talent at executive level

First up, ‘digital’ people on arts boards. I wonder if someone’s investigated this and seen how much change it enables/catalyses.  I know that at least a few of the orgs I’ve worked with have people from big tech (mostly software, gaming and online retail) companies on their boards, but I don’t know how common that is. I suspect not very.

At this point, I should bring in Will’s take on all of this:

A cursory examination of boards that govern arts institutions at all levels shows few clearly digital people. And Antony Lilley deserves a knighthood for the number of times he is wheeled out at events as a friendly digital person. From a tech sector perspective, the heavy reliance on the broadcasters as founts of digital wisdom seems odd – their technologies are inappropriate for the vast majority of arts organisations.

He’s bang on with the broadcasters thing. And remember that Building Digital Capacity in the Arts thing with the BBC Academy? The next partners working with ACE will be the BBC, Channel 4, the BFI, The Knowledge Transfer Network, Technology Strategy Board, and Google, with all sorts of talk about film making and cinema distribution. Which is fine, but… hmm, I’m at risk of going off on one here.

The second thing is talent working within the organisations. I’m not sure what I want to say about this, other than to say that there’s not a lot to go round. The bigger organisations are able to employ good people to fill digital-focussed roles, although hanging on to them seems to be an emerging issue. On the other hand, in medium and smaller organisations, digital is much more likely to be incidental to other roles (and not in a good way). They tend to be junior roles, too. I realise here that I’m just thinking about back-office functions. There’s a whole other question about the artistic side of things.

2. the right bureaucratic levers

To some extent this goes back to what I was saying about arts funders not being able to magic up a GDS. However, there are levers that can be pulled. Thing is, as things stand, I don’t think support and funding (to name two of those levers) are being pulled in entirely the right directions.

Also worth referring back to the minutes from the ACE National Council Meeting Will pointed out.

3. buy-in from bureaucratic leaders

We hear plenty of nice words, and money is being spent in the direction of digital stuff (the R&D Fund, The Space, Canvas), but I do wonder how much the people in charge of those levers see an urgent issue that needs addressing. Is it even their job? Should it be?

Maybe the issue is that few people see a problem in need of fixing. As I said with GDS, there was a clear financial imperative and a recognition that the user experience needed to be fixed. Nobody’s claiming that queuing at the Post Office to pay your car tax is the true, authentic experience.

On the other hand, it’s not so clear that digital transformation is either going to significantly reduce costs or bring in untold riches. The only thing that’s being missed out on is the more nebulous concept of ‘opportunity’, and there are many people who are adamant that the core experience (the concert, the theatrical production, etc) is just fine and a shift towards a more digital presentation would be a terrible thing.

So there we go. In conclusion, it’s worth reading Will Perrin’s thoughts and having a think.

Oh, and it’s also worth pointing out that the other half of Will’s submission had to do with transparency in grant giving. ACE have since announced plans to share more of their data. Which is good.