R&D for creative technology must be stepped up post-Covid

The pandemic highlighted UK creative industries’ innovative capacity. Public research spending choices should reflect that, says Andrew Thompson

July 28, 2021
Three thinker statues stare at a computer screen
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At the launch of the Boundless Creativity project last spring, the actress Fiona Shaw spoke of “culture as everything, a way of travelling, even at home”.

The project was launched just over a year ago by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to provide real-time intelligence and comprehensive data on the impact of the coronavirus across the UK’s arts, cultural and creative sectors.

Theatres, concert halls, festivals, galleries and museums were all silent. And despite a welcome government rescue package, an upcoming generation of actors, artists, comedians, dancers, designers, singers and writers often had to seek alternative forms of employment. In this sense, Covid-19 represents an unprecedented blow to cultural life; social distancing just isn’t compatible with full-scale live performance.

Yet speaking to leading figures from many organisations, public and private, large and small, up and down the country, revealed that culture has fought back and kept us going. Life in lockdown proved distinctly unsettling, like living in a science fiction movie not knowing the ending. It is to culture that people turned, to process what was happening and to express their emotional responses. Despite their closed doors, organisations adapted and innovated, whether to educate and entertain or to comfort and console, just when we needed them most.

Their ability to do so derived in part from the fact that we have at our disposal more advanced technology than ever before. The digital world was already moving very fast before the crisis, forcing us to look at the economy of tomorrow into which citizens will have to move. If no one knows exactly what the “new normal” after Covid will look like, the UK’s cultural and creative industries are providing some tantalising glimpses, especially in the realm of augmented and mixed reality. In the words of Mary Beard, “we will look back to these dark and cloudy times as the moment when we really did harness technology to open up the best of what arts and culture have to offer on a wider and grander scale”.

The evidence we have gathered shows a marked increase in digital cultural consumption over lockdown, even though significant problems of unequal broadband access and digital literacy remain. The demographics of change merit particular attention. Twice as high a percentage of the under-45s have engaged in cultural activities online compared with the over-45s, with digital technologies turning consumers into producers via platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. But across the entire age range, casual and marginal users have been converted into more intensive users of technology in search of satisfying digital cultural experiences.

Watching filmed performances, looking at art online, attending Zoom readings of plays, or adopting a pop star’s avatar in a video game – there has been a striking diversification of what’s on offer. Two-thirds of Britons now think it is possible to have a meaningful cultural experience online.

Not all forms of cultural product have translated, however. Digital is not a substitute for live performance. Artists have sometimes chafed at its constraints. Content needs to be adapted, or entirely rethought, for digital platforms, and online experiences work best when they have intimacy and authenticity. Yet many of those we spoke to expect virtual reality and reality itself to evolve alongside each other, with performance to live audiences integrated with streaming to global ones.

This hybrid future is likely to be a distinctive marker of the UK’s remarkably adaptable cultural sector.

The extraordinary demand we have witnessed during the past year for cultural products, services and experiences points to the potential for the creative industries to power a post-Covid recovery as the government engages in the vast and risky experiment of reopening society. What biomedical science is doing to tackle the primary physical effects of the virus has its analogue in what the arts, cultural and creative sectors can do to tackle its secondary social and economic effects. The key recommendation of our report, therefore, is that in the forthcoming autumn spending review an equivalent effort be made in the domain of R&D for creative technology as is made for other digital spheres.

Where creative meets “tech” is the place where great cultural and material value will be derived in the next 20 years. There is a compelling and consequential research agenda in exploring how to reach new global audiences digitally, how to broaden digital access for producers and consumers, how to overcome entry barriers to the digital market faced by freelancers and smaller creative organisations, and how to bring the benefits of cultural access and participation where they are most needed, including for those struggling with the pandemic’s effects on mental health.

Lives, as well as livelihoods, would be transformed by a major new cross-sectoral and collaborative drive for “science for creativity”: university researchers in the arts and humanities joining forces with the latest digital and data science, in partnership with a powerhouse of the UK’s economy. There is already precedent for this, with UK Research and Innovation’s Creative Clusters and Audience of the Future programmes transforming university interactions with their cultural hinterlands and bringing cutting-edge immersive technology into museums, theatre, animation and gaming. These programmes provide a springboard for something even more ambitious.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the true value of one of the UK’s crown jewels, its creative industries. If tough spending choices on R&D are around the corner, we would do well to keep that in mind.

Andrew Thompson is chair of global and imperial history at the University of Oxford and co-chair, with Lord Neil Mendoza, of Boundless Creativity, whose final report was published last week.

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