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Making Digital Work: A Nesta Event

Chris Marr is an alumnus of Spektrix.

Image by Tom Grinsted 

A couple of weeks ago the Digital Futures event in Birmingham showcased the huge range of projects funded by Nesta, ACE and the AHRC’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. From talking statues and flying drone installations to projects improving accessibility in venues, the event very clearly made the case for innovation and R&D in the arts.

The arts is an innovative sector, but when it comes to digital tech (and certainly when thinking about digital innovation through R&D) the arts has struggled to keep up with more commercial sectors. Lack of resource is, as ever, at the root of this. Enter the Digital R&D Fund: a £7 million pot of cash that has sought to redress this imbalance by funding new projects whilst producing valuable research for the rest of the sector.

Spending the day learning about these projects led me to wonder – what can the arts do to embed innovative, R&D-focused projects into their every-day work? Having earmarked funding to work on a specific project is one way of going about this, but as the R&D Fund is no longer open and few comparable funding sources exist, it’s worth looking at how an ongoing commitment to R&D might work in the arts.

R&D in other sectors

We often look out to other sectors on this blog, but it’s particularly useful in this context to see how other industries approach R&D. Although clearly on a different scale, the BBC have an entire department dedicated to R&D. Responsible for innovations across the Beeb, this department explores new opportunities in their content output and programming, as well as in accessibility, new distribution methods and business models. Their work underpins everything else at the corporation, investing resource in R&D to find the next iPlayer, new ways of creating content for the radio, or developing new features for their news app.

The same goes for the world of software development. Here at Spektrix our engineering team follow a number of principles from the Agile methodology, allowing for rapid development of new features and the ability to react quickly to change. If the needs of our users or the wider industry changes in some way, having a focus on ongoing R&D gives our team the chance to find new solutions much more quickly than we could otherwise. We’re not exactly advocates of Facebook’s famous motto “Move fast, break things”, but something a bit like it.

But what about the arts?

Obviously, an arts organization isn’t the same as the BBC. Or a software company. That’s why it was fascinating to hear from Deborah Bull at the Nesta event, speaking about her work at the Royal Opera House. Deborah ran ROH2, an artist development programme designed to develop skills, knowledge and innovative thinking in a thoroughly traditional organization. You can learn a little bit more about ROH2 and what some of its R&D projects achieved here.

While ROH2 demonstrates the importance (and potential) of R&D in the arts, what was most interesting about Deborah’s presentation was her focus on failure. We don’t much care for failure ordinarily, if it shows us where we’ve been unsuccessful where we really needed to be successful. But if we’re working on a project with an R&D focus from the outset, a failure is a new sort of success – it’s something new that we didn’t know before. There’s no risk without failure, and no success without risk.

Not all of the Digital R&D Fund’s projects have been a complete success – at least not in comparison to the project that kicked off Nesta’s focus on digitally-focused R&D in the arts, NT Live. But even a quick look through the Fund’s website shows lessons learned right across the sector by arts organizations who took a step out of their comfort zone to try something new with digital tech.

R&D in the arts can clearly lead us to new and exciting places. As a way of approaching new ideas (and embracing failures), having an R&D mindset can open new opportunities regardless of your organization’s size or scope. New ways of rotating your box office staff, for example. A new report you might not have considered before, or a Facebook offer that could target a whole new audiences. Do you allow time in your week to experiment with anything like this? R&D doesn’t have to be on the scale of the ROH or the BBC, when even small innovations can make a huge impact on your business.