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Describing a problem first: supporting digital innovation in the arts

We are asking all arts organisations funded by the Digital Innovation Fund for the Arts in Wales to share the results of their work as they progress, so that the wider arts sector is able to learn from their experience. We feel that it is important that we do the same – collecting and responding to feedback at every stage of delivery, sharing the data we have gathered and publishing our initial interpretations. 

Next month we will publish our interim report on the first phase of the fund. Over the next few weeks, we will post a series of short articles exploring some of the themes we have identified in the feedback from arts organisations.

All quotations in this article are taken from a feedback exercise carried out immediately following the application deadline, in which we asked for feedback from all organisations we have engaged, including those who submitted applications and those who did not.

Identify challenges and opportunities

The present Digital Innovation Fund is the successor to the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts in Wales, which ran from 2013-2015. The change in name reflects a change in the structure of the fund, and particularly the inclusion of an additional phase of activity prior to the call for applications.

We have called this first phase ‘identify challenges and opportunities.’ It included workshops and application surgeries open to any arts organisation with an appetite to explore new ways of using digital technology in their work.

“The process felt very different from the usual funding applications we're involved with. It was a challenge - although useful - to approach the process by describing a problem first rather than proposing a fully thought out project of activity and outcomes.”
- Senior/Mid-level manager, Powys

The call for applications at the end of the first phase of the present Digital Innovation Fund did not ask arts organisations to submit fully-formed project proposals, but rather to identify an important strategic challenge or opportunity facing their organisation. 

The first-stage application process for the previous Digital R&D Fund (2013-2015) required organisations to have defined the problem they were looking to solve, formed a team and developed novel ideas to deal with the challenge. On reflection, we felt that there were many arts organisations who could benefit from exploring new ways of using digital technology but who were not in a position to develop a proposal to this stage without additional support.

Many of the proposals we received for the previous Digital R&D Fund had arrived at technological solutions without clearly defining the problem that the technology would solve for their organisation, making it difficult to see what the proposed project would aim to achieve.

The workshops and one-on-one application surgeries delivered during the first phase of the present Digital Innovation Fund were designed to encourage a process of critical reflection and the development of a clear strategic focus. It was our hope that this clear focus would help successful applicants to guide the development of a full proposal at the next stage in the process. 

A different approach

In feedback, arts organisations told us this was not what they were used to in applying for funding, and some found it to be somewhat confusing or uncomfortable.

“Focusing on a challenge or need that needed to be addressed without initial regard for a solution was initially counter-intuitive… The [workshop] helped me to think in ways that I had not thought before.”
- Senior/Mid-level manager, Wrexham

We are aware that organisations seeking grant funding will often define the broad outlines of a project before identifying funding opportunities. This then requires a process of ‘retro-fitting’ a rationale around a project proposal to fit with the criteria for funding, whilst maintaining the integrity of the original idea. 

In contrast, the activities during the first phase of the Digital Innovation Fund were instead asking organisations to re-assess their original idea, or even to approach the fund without a specific project idea in mind. 

“The application process encouraged us to develop our idea clearly. In fact, it would be feasible to argue that the application process even prompted us to see the idea in the first place.”
- Senior/Mid-level manager, Cardiff

We feel the feedback to date is an early indication that the fund prompted a genuinely different way of approaching the development of digital projects in the arts. In subsequent articles, and in the interim report itself, we will explore in more detail the nature of the support provided, and ways in which it could be improved.

Starting a process of learning

At the end of the first phase of the fund, we received strong applications from organisations with limited previous experience of digital, and we saw organisations who initially approached the fund with a fixed idea of a digital project change their thinking to incorporate a sharper strategic focus and a willingness to be flexible and open to new ideas. 

We believe that this openness is essential to making sure that a digital project is able to find the best way of realising the intended benefits. Some technology firms have told us that they often find they are asked to produce websites where user needs and behaviours have not been considered, or even where there is no clear rationale as to why a new website is needed when other tools might address the strategic challenge more effectively at a lower cost. 

“By focusing on the challenge or problem it was actually quite liberating and it seems a good way to start a process of learning.”
- CEO and Artistic Director, Vale of Glamorgan

The first phase of the Digital Innovation Fund asked arts organisations to identify a clear strategic basis for exploring new ways of using digital technology, before finding technology partners or developing a full project proposal. From our initial interpretation of the feedback to date, and from our assessment of the quality of applications, we feel this is an improvement on the process we had used previously.

Over the coming weeks, we will post further articles that explore in more detail the nature of the support provided during the first phase of the fund, and the ways in which it could be improved. And next month we will publish an interim report, including transcripts of all feedback received from arts organisations. 

We would be very pleased to hear from others who have had experience of supporting arts organisations in this way, to see how your experience compares. We would also like to encourage others to consider whether adding a comparable additional phase to their own grant funding programmes might help to improve the quality of proposals received. 

If you would like to learn more about the fund, you can head to our new website, which is available in Welsh and in English

Author

Dan Butler

Dan Butler

Dan Butler

Research and Evaluation Lead, Digital Innovation Fund for the Arts in Wales

Dan Butler was the Research and Evaluation Lead for the Digital Innovation Fund for the Arts in Wales.

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Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Senior Innovation Programmes Manager

Rob is the Senior Innovation Programmes Manager in Y Lab, the Public Service Innovation Lab for Wales.  Y Lab is a partnership between Nesta and Cardiff University. Rob manages a por...

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