Design and Digital

A recent project with the Digital Catapult, the AHRC and Innovate UK provided a great vehicle to test and develop some hypotheses about how digital companies do and don’t engage with design. Continue reading “Design and Digital”

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Culture, Government, Society

A new booklet was published by Demos yesterday, entitled ‘Culture Shock‘. Sam Jones, its author, said that he wanted to call the book ‘Culture and Government’ but decided that the former, and preferred, title would have more of an impact on would-be readers, and he also felt that it reflected some of what the pamphlet had to say.

Its thesis, very briefly, is that our definition of culture  has altered dramatically since Government first started ‘doing’ Culture – public policy debate has shifted, and there have been wider and more fundamental cultural and technological changes to how we engage with, consume and practise culture.  The pamphlet argues, logically, that the way in which culture is dealt with in Government needs to change to reflect this.  He recommends a range of mechanisms for fostering cross-Government commitment to a new, much broader, concept of culture.

All very well. Except of course, Government has changed its approach fairly comprehensively over the last 15-20 years. Continue reading “Culture, Government, Society”

The Three Cs – Cameron, Clegg, and Culture

With an eclectic array of references – from Grayson Perry to Shakespeare, Osip Mandelstam to Danny Boyle – Jeremy Hunt kicked off the new Government’s commitment to the arts in some style.

In an impressive speech at London’s Roundhouse, Hunt has demonstrated an understanding and empathy with a sector which has, historically at least, viewed Conservative governments with a significant degree of suspicion.  A far cry from the apparent philistinism of Thatcher, Tebbitt and co, this government is made up of enlighted, public school educated young men (mainly), who appear to share a more traditional Tory approach to the arts.

And that old, mainly philanthropic, tradition of supporting the arts for the masses is what underpinned what Hunt outlined.  While Thatcher’s Victorian Values provided echoes of the poor-house, Hunt talked of the role of public libraries and national museums, the benefits of private giving, the importance of supporting “good causes”, and the value of education.  A very different set of Victorian ideals indeed.

What will this mean in practice? Continue reading “The Three Cs – Cameron, Clegg, and Culture”

Thinking Design

This piece is in response to two recent contributions to the subject of Design, Design Thinking, and Design in successful companies. One was a blog by Kevin McCullagh following the recent Design Council/Economist conference, The Big Rethink, the other a ‘tweet’ by Clive Grinyer on Apple and Jonathan Ive.

Both shed light on the following two conundra:
* What is the role of Design in management?
* Is it possible to be a ‘design-thinker’ and not a designer?

McCullagh’s piece addresses the overuse and abuse of the term ‘design thinking’, and the extent to which the term has been hijacked by managers and innovators, at the expense of designers themselves – who have often felt excluded and de-skilled (‘design thinking’ is often positioned as a ‘superior’ type of design, which only certain designers can aspire towards).  He explores some of the history of the term, and the different ways in which it has been interpreted and applied.  Finally, he comes up with the no-less-intriguing alternative: ‘thoughtful design’.

Grinyer’s tweet on Jonathan Ive and Apple, though much shorter, also helps shed light on the conundra.  Here it is in full:

“Ive says design is not important, good design is important. But good design requires an organisation to be designed to deliver it. Apple is.”

Putting these two reflections together leads me to the following very simple conclusion which I think helps to make sense of the challenge of design in management, where design-thinking fits in (if at all), and the importance of – how can I put it – ‘proper design’.  Again, with reference to Apple (though one can apply this to various other companies):

Steve Jobs is a Design Thinker, whose insight into the importance of and contribution of design to business competitiveness has led him to appoint the very best designers and to put his Head of Design, Jonathan Ive, on the board of his company.

As McCullagh puts it: “Let’s forget about design thinking as a magic process, and focus on how designers and managers should best work together to deliver great quality outputs.”

CSR and all that – part 1

It’s difficult to pen a quick response to the CSR, which takes account of the wider impact it is likely to have on the cultural and creative economy. Not least because it will be 5-10 years before it takes effect.

But it’s worth looking at some of the initial headlines, because they will help give us an indication of the shape of things to come.

This is the first of a number of responses over coming days.

* The headline is, and will be, the cuts to the arts.

Some say it’s 30%, others say 15.

ACE has been asked to restrict funding cuts to “frontline organisations” to 15%;  and has been asked to slash its core running costs by a massive 50% (this for an organisation which has shed lots of staff over the last couple of years, and reduced its regional office base from 9 to 3).

The first fight will be to determine who or what is “frontline”.

Education activity is unlikely to fit that bill:  Creative Partnerships, as was, has already gone.  So expect any educational or community-focused work to be considered ‘back-office’.

Second-tier organisations, supporting infrastructure or promoting partnerships across other sectors (for example, A&B) can hardly be called “frontline”.  So, their sterling work in leveraging support from other sectors, or advocating on behalf of a fragile sector is likely to suffer dramatically.

And, just to be clear:  a “frontline” company getting a 15% cut will be considered to be a very good deal.  Imagine that even just two years ago.

There will be a lot of blood on the arts carpet.

* Local authority cuts

That’s the national arts carpet, by the way.  The vast majority of arts organisations rely on local authority funding – alongside their own self-generated income.

DCLG was hit hardest of all government departments, and local authorities will be expected to bear the brunt of much of the public sector savings over coming years.

So, many, many arts organisations can expect to have funding cut, with all other opportunities for funding from other budgets massively diminished.

And libraries, and museums?  All under threat too.

So: so far, so bad.  Big cuts to what some might describe as core activities.

But the indirect and wider sphere of culture and creativity has already been damaged by earlier announcements:

* The Design Council has lost its NDPB status, and is being encouraged to be more entrepreneurial.
Although its core budget will have been hit, I can see new money being generated in response to various project initiatives. That may well benefit the Council in the short term, as it demonstrates the capability of design on a wide range of cross-departmental issues.
But longer-term: the loss of NDPB status will inevitably lower the profile of design, and will diminish the ability of the Council to argue the case at top tables.  The CEO of a Design charity will have a much tougher time making his or her case to Ministers and senior civil servants than one who sits, by right, on a number of inter-departmental panels and committees.

* NESTA was already operating in a different way from other ‘NDPB’s and has the benefit of an endowment to keep it going.  It has also recently identified creative industries as one of its three core programme areas.  All good news.  But the chances of it retaining its BIS funding for additional activities must surely be questionable.  Watch this space!

* UK Film Council.  For good or ill, that has gone.  Where the funding goes is not clear – but the BFI has taken a 15% hit on its already meagre funds (and of course funding for the National Film Centre on the South Bank has already been stopped).

* CABE:  funding has gone completely.  Presumably, it too can compete in the Big Society for some project funding, but this is likely to be very damaging longer-term to the profile and clout of design and architecture across the UK.

I will be watching forthcoming statements, announcements and commentary, to elicit more information and insight.  But so far, it is difficult to detect anything other than a very heavy hammer-blow for a sector which appeared to be in the sympathetic hands of Hunt and Vaizey……

Today and Tomorrow

I have recently been introduced to an absolutely fascinating series of pamphlets written at the end of the 1920s on the theme of ‘Today and Tomorrow’ (being re-catalogued here, as part of a major research project).  And I’ve been wondering about its modern equivalent.

Published by Kegan Paul, more than 100 pamphlets were written between 1924 and 1930, by a range of leading thinkers and commentators, addressing themselves to ‘the future of…’ their various areas of interest and investigation.  A dedicated and serious look into what the future held across a range of scientific and arts disciplines.  Imagining our future in order to better understand today.

It’s a fascinating period in our literary and cultural history, during which artists frequently took on the challenge of anticipating, projecting, or even predicting the future.

Think of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).  The self-acclaimed Futurists were addressing similar issues slightly earlier.  A period of 10-15 years during which there was an extraordinary interest in the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this inter-war period which saw massive changes in technology and in global politics should become transfixed by what the future held.  A mix, perhaps, of fear and excitement.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with the history of the world over the last 10 years or so, and the next.  The fear and excitement of technological change, climate change, and the ongoing tensions in world politics.  Where is our future being foretold?  Where is our ‘Today and Tomorrow’ series being written?  Where are our modern-day equivalents of Huxley and Wells – projecting into the future in order to help think through the challenges of the present?

Initiatives such as TED provide space for discussion and debate, not unlike the Today and Tomorrow series;  but the focus of discussion rarely moves beyond the world of the known.  TV would be an ideal space to explore some of these challenges, but there appears to be more of an interest in our past (whether Andrew Marr, David Marquand, or the genuinely interesting ‘Who do you think you are?’ series) than in our future.  What of the written word?  Science Fiction does not have the mainstream acceptance that writers like Wells, Huxley and others had.  And our obsession with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings over recent years suggests a longing for a magical other world, rather than a genuine look into the future.

Which brings me to film and, in particular, to James Cameron.  He, perhaps more than any other artist over the last decade or so, has sought to think into the future.  The first Terminator movie – though set in a contemporary LA – is played against the backdrop of a future state in which there is an ongoing battle between the machines and humans.   That future scenario is one which shapes and politicises the film’s main female character.  By implication, it’s by imagining the future that we can begin to understand and re-think our relationship to the present.  The Alien series takes on a different theme, but with Avatar, Cameron has moved back into that space which deals with the future and the present.

Avatar is about the battle between the US Army and the natives of a future, far-away land, for the exploitation of the planet’s scarce resources.  Although more obviously a product for a contemporary special effects-and-adventure-loving market, the film nonetheless takes on that ‘Today and Tomorrow’ theme.  Indeed, as in the Terminator, it’s that tension between the present and a possible future which creates a certain feeling of discomfort on which the fear and excitement in the film can be generated and sustained.

Perhaps, as The Terminator and Avatar suggest, looking into the future is too frightening a prospect to take on in anything more than mass consumption movies such as these.  But, as I read yet another newspaper article about the anticipated failure of our world leaders to strike a deal in Copenhagen, credit to Cameron that he’s willing to give it a go.

Economic impact and humanities research

Much debate in the education and, sometimes, mainstream press has been given over to the government’s new focus on demonstrating the ‘economic impact’ of university research.  Arguably not enough though.

According to HEFCE, it is not just ‘economic’ impact that needs to be more clearly emphasised when making the case for research funding, but impact on ‘public policy, culture and quality of life’.  But, diluting the nature of the measure is unlikely to make the task of arguing the case of the value of in-depth arts and humanities research any easier.

Why should the state support a 21 year old undertaking research for a PhD on, say, the use of rhyme in early medieval poetry?

Assessing the worth of cultural endeavour has never been a straightforward task. The AHRC and DCMS are about to advertise for a research fellow to undertake work on this theme. This blog has highlighted research and other contributions on this issue.

But it won’t go away.

Maybe we have got the terms of the argument wrong.  The contribution said 21 year old can make to our economy is likely to be little different from a 21 year old studying, say, nuclear physics.  What further ‘impact’ or value might that research have on the wider economy?  What will it tell us that we don’t already know?  It is not the ‘research’ which has an impact, it is the ‘learning’.  The value, surely, is in the activity of research – not the focus of that research. Human endeavour is what might push the boundaries of our knowledge, generate new ideas and innovations, and expand our economic (and human) potential.  Whether it be in medieval poetry or nuclear physics.  The latter is likely to have a more obvious and identifiable impact, but it may not be more important.

However – so long as the inspiration and fascination generated by Anish Kapoor or the Matthew Passion (or Chaucerian poetry) outweighs our ability to articulate it in quasi-bureaucratic ‘economic impact’ language, then the quest for alternative measures will go on.