Nurturing the creative

December 3, 1999

Spin-off companies, creative crucibles, basic research and knowledge - all sound reasons for giving universities more cash in the spending round, THES reporters found The creative industries employ 1.5 million people, generate revenues of Pounds 60 billion a year and contribute more than 4 per cent of the United Kingdom's GDP.

Culture secretary Chris Smith said at the launch of a study produced for his department that "the creative industries are not a fringe benefit for Britain's economy - they are at the heart of it".

He believes 50,000 new jobs could be created if the sector were to exploit its strengths to expand its Pounds 8 billion revenue from exports.

Conspicuously absent from the report and from Mr Smith's remarks - as a disappointed Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, pointed out - was any reference to the crucial contribution of art and design colleges in ensuring that "we are one of the most creative countries on earth".

Professor Frayling said: "I cannot see how anyone can praise the vibrancy of the sector and think about a massive export drive without including art and design colleges. They are the crucible from which much activity emerges."

A key recommendation is the overriding need to ensure government departments work together to promote the sector at home and abroad. But, Professor Frayling asked: "If we are after joined-up thinking, why were the education and trade and industry departments not involved?" He would like to see government-backed projects that explore how the art and design colleges can work more closely with the creative industries to further their growth.

The only significant reference to higher education pointed to the special strength the "content" industries, such as computer games, publishing, software, film and broadcasting, have in drawing upon high-quality academic resources.

But Michael Jubb, director of programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Board, said such use of academic expertise takes place, often informally, across the whole of the creative and culture industries.

"They draw on an intellectual foundation to support much of what they do. The AHRB was set up to support the creative output of the UK. We are well positioned to do that by creating a coherent, well-supported framework for research and development across the arts and humanities," he said.

Professor Frayling believes art and design colleges can point Mr Smith to successful initiatives that are already making a major contribution to the creative industries. The Computer Related Design Research Studio at the RCA, for instance, has a long history of collaboration with industry. Current industrial partners include Hewlett Packard, Philips, Intel Corporation, IBMand Ericsson. The studio has forged partnerships with institutions worldwide, including Imperial College, the Domus Academy in Milan and the Netherlands Institute of Design.

Recently the studio, founded in 1994 by the Interval Research Corporation, announced it was launching an "industrial affiliates" programme to provide firms with direct access to its cutting-edge research programmes for a Pounds 10,000 fee. Director Gillian Crampton Smith said: "The programme draws on a similar scheme in the United States and aims to bridge the gap between the wealth of ideas emanating from institutions and the R&D function of businesses. The independent nature of our research at the studio - it is not tied to one company's brief - means the potential for the research to break new boundaries is greater."

The affiliates programme will support highly experimental, "off-the-wall" research in computer-based technologies as they increasingly move out of the realm of tools for professionals and enter people's everyday lives. Professor Crampton Smith said: "Different demands are now being made of computer-based products. How a product makes people think and feel is now just as important as how it looks and works."

Work under way includes a European Union-funded project to explore how digital technologies can help the elderly become more connected to their communities and investigations of a new generation of mobile phone devices in collaboration with Philips and Helsinki Telephone Corporation.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England Reachout Fund - which encourages institutions to collaborate with industry, business and local communities - has attracted interest from several art and design colleges and some will probably receive backing when the first two tranches of funding are announced in the next few months.

One bid for Pounds 675,000 is from Surrey Institute of Art and Design, which wants to set up a "creative industries incubator unit". Ian Dumelow, dean of design, sees this as a logical extension of careers guidance for undergraduates.

Mr Dumelow said most graduates from art and design colleges are creative, lateral thinkers with good ideas, who enter a sector where the overriding characteristic is tiny businesses and sole trading.

Analysis of Office of National Statistics data by the institute shows that in Surrey alone 95 per cent of companies listed under the creative industries employ fewer than ten people and more than 50 per cent are sole traders.

Mr Dumelow said these small enterprises, while original and inventive in their output, have traditionally lacked people or capital to undertake training, marketing and development that might transform their business. "What is needed is an opportunity to identify ideas and business concepts capable of creative and commercial development and provide the right environment for that to happen. Our incubator concept could help address that problem."

The institute is determined that the incubator, if it gets its money, will not be used as a means of providing sheltered workshops or for subsidising the cost of start-up firms. "Its focus will be entirely on examining the viability of creative practice as a business operation," said Mr Dumelow.

Neither is the unit intended to be a continuous extension of undergraduate or postgraduate education programmes, with students passing straight into it. "They will first be expected to gain knowledge of the workplace, to understand its constraints and possibilities and formulate business proposals to bring to us. The institute would then offer promising projects the support of creative, professional and business communities within its regional network of contacts," he said.

Art and design institutions, he continued, have increasingly developed degree programmes that support entrepreneurship and the acquisition of business skills, enabling graduates to enter the creative industries directly.

He added: "They are poised to play a much bigger role. We can look forward to many more of them creating environments where inventive artists and designers can work with industry to support and develop their business ideas and launch new companies that can support the big export drive that Chris Smith wants."

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