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Digital R&D Fund for the Arts: What we've learnt

Throughout this year Nesta, Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council will be sharing learnings from the projects supported through the £7 million Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

Since its launch in 2012, the fund has supported 52 individual projects, bringing together organisations with arts projects, technology providers, and researchers. Each project is testing how digital technology can be used to enhance audience reach and/or develop new business models for the arts.

As the projects reach completion, our focus moves to capturing the learnings and disseminating insights to the wider arts sector. Today we are excited to be launching the first set of reports from five of these pioneering projects.

In the true spirit of research and development, the projects have shared what has worked well, as well as what hasn’t, so we can all learn from their experiences. The learnings from these projects are a huge asset for the whole sector – so a big thanks and congratulations to all those involved in getting the projects to this stage.

The five projects sharing their results today illustrate the breadth of collaborations the Digital R&D Fund supports:

  1. The Royal Opera House: A new mobile service which allows existing and new audiences to enjoy rich media content about ballet and opera
  2. Sheffield DocFest: An online, immersive game in Sheffield investigating what is needed to turn public places into spaces for interactive digital art works
  3. Pavilion Dance South West: A location-based gaming app, which encourages people to film themselves dancing, upload their video to a website, and geo-tag their location
  4. Unlimited Theatre: A digital publishing platform which takes play scripts and applies techniques of digital storytelling, live theatre and co-design to create new reading experiences.
  5. Knowle West Media Centre: A data toolkit produced by a group of young people that explores how live and open data can be used as the basis of community-based creative projects.

The research element of this R&D Fund plays a critical part in ensuring we make maximum use of all the learnings. Already some interesting themes are emerging from the projects. It’s clear that creative uses of digital technology have the potential to really delight new audiences. All five of the projects have been met with positive responses from the public – from the residents of Sheffield who stumbled into Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital art space, to the young people encouraged to play with creative data practices by Knowle West Media Centre.

However, just like in the real world, achieving large-scale commercial success is extremely challenging. Pavilion Dance South West cautions us not to overestimate the power of social media alone to build audiences online. Along with the Royal Opera House experience, their story makes essential reading for any organisation looking to enhance their mobile offering.

There are also some important take-aways for anyone contemplating digital projects of any kind:

  • Unforeseen technical issues can arise during projects, and often take time and resources to resolve. It’s important to include adequate contingency in budgets and timelines to allow for troubleshooting.
  • Early user testing is critical. Rigorous user-centred research to test key assumptions up front can help us prioritise activity and reduce risk on ambitious projects.
  • Well-developed user experience and design are key ingredients for success. The ROH found that simple tricks like emphasising calls to action can have a big impact.

One thing that really stands out from the projects is understanding the new relationship between digital and physical experiences. These projects illustrate how digital and non-digital activities can work hand in hand and complement one another for increased impact.

Those of us working on this project are really excited about the year ahead, as we prepare to share outcomes and learnings from all the projects. As well as publishing all the final reports in the way we have today, we are also planning to create a range of articles, guides, toolkits and videos to help the entire creative sector to learn from all the projects as they complete. We’ll also be hosting a number of face to face events across the UK to showcase some of the projects and share learnings in workshops and masterclasses.

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Tim Plyming

Tim Plyming

Tim Plyming

Director, Digital Arts & Media

Tim was a Director in the Innovation Lab where he oversaw Nesta’s portfolio of work supporting digital arts and media.

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