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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.

Redefining R&D in the arts

We hosted the Digital R&D Forum in Manchester yesterday with 300 people in attendance, and with introductory speeches from our partners, Alan Davey from the Arts Council and Rick Rylance from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. At the Forum we published findings from the Digital R&D pilot programme and announced the first nine successful applicants to the £7 million Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, some of which you can read more about in this BBC piece.

At the start I said that the reason for the fund was in some ways obvious. Digital social media are the sea we all swim in, and they've already transformed many areas of daily life. 

But for the last few decades many arts organisations have seen them as a competitive threat - pulling attention, energy and money away from live music and theatre, galleries and museums. Yet the surprise of recent history is that the explosion of online networks has, against expectations, coincided with rising audiences for sports, music and theatre. People like intense face to face experiences perhaps more than ever, and the most successful organisations have often been able to connect the on and offline.

The premise of the fund is that clever use of digital technologies can help arts organisations find bigger audiences and more revenue, as well as prompting creativity with art forms themselves. The problem is that the only way to discover what works is to experiment. Companies like Google and Amazon do this all the time - trialling new services and measuring the results, assuming that many apparently good ideas won't work. 

But this type of R&D is fairly new in the arts, and the idea of linking arts organisations, technology providers and researchers is unique. We hope that the fund will create space for bold experiment, alongside rigorous assessment and rapid learning. We also hope that it will encourage a culture of honesty and openness about innovation, something which has been made harder than ever by an often over-rigid performance management culture, in which any admission of failure is seen as too risky. 

The report on the pilot projects - published this week - is a great example of why this can be so valuable. It contains honest analysis of what worked and what didn't, and of the ways in which new digital tools challenged arts organisations' assumptions. But it also provides innumerable pointers to how arts organisations can do better. As someone once put it - every great success looked like a failure in the middle, and without experiment there is no way to get to brilliant ideas.

R&D in the past meant missiles and medicines (half of all public funding for R&D still goes to defence). But there's no reason why it shouldn't become a normal way of organising funding in fields where creativity runs in the blood. I hope we'll see a flood of inspiring applications, and before long an even larger flood of other organisations adapting and copying the best ideas. The next few years will be very tough for many organisations in the arts.  But with the help of the right kinds of funding let's hope that necessity really can be the mother of invention.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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