About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Going global: inspiration for innovation in the arts

Two years ago the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts was put in motion with the premise to support innovative digital projects that would benefit the arts. Fast forward to 2014; 24 funded projects and hundreds of applications later we took a moment to pause and reflect on how the UK arts and cultural organisations innovate and how their attitude has evolved throughout the past few years.

Undoubtedly, UK arts orgs have been among the most entrepreneurial in the world and have introduced numerous innovative ideas to their audiences. Therefore the question that comes to mind is, ‘what more can we do?' How do we make sure that we do not get locked in our successes and that we continue to experiment?

We believe that an answer to that is keeping ourselves open to discovery and serendipitous inspiration which will allow us to exploit the following two opportunity areas:

1. Making use of the learning from other organisations significantly reduces the risks involved in a digital R&D project without limiting the potential for creativity. NT Live, the National Theatre's programme of digital cinema and one of the signature arts innovation projects in the UK, was inspired by a similar scheme at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. NT Live aimed to explore whether theatre broadcasting can reach new audiences and provided robust evidence on how this type of distribution could benefit the wider sector, without necessarily ‘reinventing the wheel’.

2. Being constantly on the lookout for inspiration means organisations are more likely to make innovation part of their DNA even if ideas are not subsequently translated into fully fledged projects. By exposing themselves to new and diverse stimuli, they develop their creativity skills and expand their boundaries. This happens not by generating new ideas but by connecting unconnected bits and pieces that are relevant to their organisation and applying them in a new context.

Learning from projects across the world

To respond to this challenge we are working with the British Council with the mission to discover projects from all over the world and develop a collection of international case studies of the arts using technology in new ways. More specifically, we’re looking at arts organisations that have used digital technology to engage people in a meaningful way and reached some kind of success in terms of the process or impact. Through these case studies, we want to see how innovation responds to a specific challenge, on an organisational, economic or social level and how R&D learnings might be taken further to help existing activity become scalable.

We are keen on discovering projects in Asia, South America, Africa and countries where the arts sector is significantly different to the UK. The level of availability in technology in some of these areas may have implications on the type of case studies we’ll have to look at. Some countries and their audiences are not as well resourced as here. However, this by no means implies a step backwards. On the contrary, we believe that cases of frugal innovation in the arts can offer invaluable lessons. They might help us understand how local teams turn existing constraints into advantages leading to innovation and how simplifying the way we respond to a challenge may be more effective than one might think.

Pre-ScholaR, a creative business in South Africa and winning idea in Culture Shift Johannesburg, provides a range of ‘preschool in a box’ tools to mothers and primary caretakers of children aged three to six to prepare early years children for literacy and creative expression. This is a great example of how a local team, without making use of particularly sophisticated technology, rethinks how to engage young children in the creative process and educate the arts audiences of tomorrow.

Steve Jobs once said: "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things".

In line with this idea, I suggest that if we want to see ourselves transforming from facilitators of innovative projects to facilitators of innovative organisations and even sectors we need to be thinking one step beyond technology. The application of creativity on technology is only beginning and no one has the right answers. But it is fair to expect creative people to be better equipped than anyone to come up with new ways to reach and delight their audiences by spotting things that might have been applied elsewhere first.

Do you have an idea about an international project that seems to fit? Please leave a comment with the project title and link and we’ll be happy to have a look at it. 


Athina Balopoulou

Athina Balopoulou

Athina Balopoulou

Intern, Creative Economy

Athina was a Creative Economy Intern in the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts team.

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