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How do you best support digital innovation in the arts?

May 2019 - Please note: the Jobs Innovators site has now closed and links to it have been removed.

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Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of running the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts in Wales. As we announced at our showcase event last Wednesday, I’m pleased to say that we’re going to be doing this for another two years, in partnership with Arts Council of Wales.

But we won’t be doing it in quite the same way as we have up until now.

The R&D fund, as well as supporting experimentation within the arts, is something of an experiment in itself. Before 2011 and the launch of the pilot Digital R&D fund for the arts, R&D in the arts was focussed more on the creation of new work and less on how we might develop audience reach or new business models and revenue streams.

At Nesta (and in partnership with Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Wales and the Arts and Humanities Research Council) we set out to explore how we might support and encourage new forms of experimentation in these areas through the use of digital technology.

In Wales, we’ve learnt some really interesting lessons around how you support innovative projects - we’ve demonstrated the value of collaboration between the arts and technology and we’ve explored the challenges and opportunities that digital technology holds for the arts - both of which are covered in more detail by Prof. Hamish Fyfe in his overarching report on the fund which you can download on the right of this page.

Our projects have shared their lessons openly and honestly and this has helped us understand how we might foster a culture of innovation within the arts in Wales. In order for this culture of innovation to spread more widely, we want to ensure that we bring the lessons we’ve learned into our thinking for phase two.

There are four key areas that we want to look at as we design the second phase in Wales.

Support the innovation process at an earlier stage

First, we want to make sure that we provide more support to arts organisations in the earlier stages of the innovation process. If we view it in terms of the wider innovation process, The R&D funds sit somewhere in the middle - developing and testing and building the case.

Our application process required organisations to have defined the problem they were looking to solve, formed a team and developed novel ideas that deal with the challenge. As we reviewed the applications across the first two calls for submissions it became apparent that this was a lot to ask of many organisations.

Where many applications fell down was a lack of a clear, testable proposition that tackled a challenge faced by the sector, derived from tangible challenges or opportunities that they faced. Clarity of thought here, in the form of a concrete reason to be undertaking the experiment and with a clear target audience in mind, can help us to:

  • improve the quality of conversations between potential collaborators –provide clarity of vision;
  • improve the quality of applications to funders;
  • helps us avoid solution led design - we deploy technology for the right reasons and in the right way, not because we can.

To help provide support earlier in the innovation process we’re looking at how we provide the skills necessary to identify a clear research proposition to arts organisations, in the form of workshops. We’re also looking to stagger the process – asking for the first application to come from an arts organisation, setting out their research proposition before they approach technology partners or start thinking about how the opportunity or challenge might be realised.

Plan for success from day one

Two things became apparent around the summer of last year. First, we realised that some of the projects we’d funded had scalable projects on their hands – they were creating products that could have a life beyond the R&D Fund. Secondly, we surveyed the projects to ascertain how ready they might be to take their projects to the next level and found that there were some key skills missing almost across the board. Mainly, these were the entrepreneurial and business skills necessary to take a product to market.

To help projects overcome some of these gaps, we focussed the final two workshops on planning for the future; however, this came too late in the day and there’s now been a period of relative stagnation within the projects as they work out what to do next.

To prevent this stagnation, we need to make sure that projects are thinking about the long term from day one when it comes to R&D. As well as making sure that we make the most of any opportunities that R&D creates, doing this will ensure that:

  • we maintain a focus on why we’re doing what we’re doing and who we’re doing it for;
  • prevents loss of momentum at the end of the R&D phase, especially if additional funding is required

To make sure projects are ready to move into the next phase when their R&D funding comes to an end, we’re looking at how we provide business support to projects from day one of the R&D fund, rather than just at the end.

Create an environment that’s supportive and facilitates learning

Having said that, one of the major successes of the R&D Fund is its ability to create an environment within which failure is supported as part of a learning process.

By making sure that we plan for success, we have to ensure that we don’t lose the opportunity for projects to take risks, to fail where necessary and to ensure that the knowledge that’s generated from that failure is shared with the wider sector. This sort of opportunity was cited by most of the projects as one that they rarely get and the freedom to experiment has to remain as a core value of the R&D fund.

Our workshop programme for funded projects is a key part of this. As well as providing an opportunity to share lessons, the workshops that we ran over the course of the fund created a peer network for our funded projects, allowing them to share lessons and knowledge in their own time. It’s also created new collaborations outside of the fund. There is real value in this sort of network for the participants and it’s something that we need to protect.

Therefore, our next phase of work will ensure that:

  • projects are given time and space to take risks, capturing, learning from and sharing success and failure along the way;
  • project plans can change and adapt but are always challenged constructively and monitored appropriately;
  • we build on the value of a peer network, creating a space for learning to be shared during the process and new collaborations to form afterwards.​

We’ll maintain our workshops as part of the next phase of work and ensure that we create a protected space within which risk taking and experimentation is supported and encouraged.

R&D is part of a much longer journey

Finally, we need to view R&D as part of a much longer journey for both the projects that we fund and for funders. For some organisations, the R&D process will yield learning that needs to be recycled into their organisation, allowing the R&D process to start again; for others it will create new opportunities to scale and grow. Some may fail outright and we need to ensure that this remains a positive experience so that further R&D isn’t discouraged.

Part of our work in phase two will look at how we support those projects who have the chance to scale the work they’ve done so far. We want to look at how risk-based finance might be applied in this situation, and also to look at the non-financial support required to ensure that projects scale sustainably. We’re providing each of our seven funded projects with access to business support over the next couple of months, to properly define their next steps and to assess the market potential of their project. We’ll also be providing one or two with some small risk-based scaling finance to help them take that next step.

We’ll also be undertaking more research of our own to understand how lessons from these projects are being understood and applied across the wider sector and how we can do more to facilitate this.

Next steps

The second phase of work in Wales is in its final planning stage. We’ll formally launch the new programme this summer, before applications close in the autumn. To make sure that you’re aware of any new announcements, make sure you’re signed up to the Nesta and Arts Council of Wales mailing lists where we’ll make the information available in due course.

Author

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Head of Y Lab

Rob is Head of Y Lab, the Public Service Innovation Lab for Wales.

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