What it means to work digitally

by Will P Saunders

“Digital solutions will last forever, or for five years. Whichever comes first.”

So said Stuart Brand one of the founding fathers of the Internet. And whilst the modern day web may have lost some of his frontier spirit, he’s probably still right.

Disruption and discontinuity, moving fast and breaking things and the rising and falling of once great digital empires is not the new normal it’s just normal online. Where there was FarmVille, now there is Fortnite, where there was Flickr now there is Instagram. Vine withered and now Tik Tok takes hold. Or to put it another way Pixar’s Toy Story franchise pre-dates Google, Facebook, YouTube, and even Yahoo.

New Things in New Ways

When you compare it to working in the cultural sector or traditional screen industries the digital content universe can appear, youthfully confusing, fragmented and difficult to navigate.

But don’t let looks deceive you. A former BBC colleague Ralph Rivera used to say that actually there were only three types of content experience that everything fell into.

  1. Old things in old ways
    We still watch and love BBC1, enjoy a trip to the theatre & LP’s are having a bit of a renaissance.
  2. Old things in new ways
    We watch BBC 1 on iPlayer, we can see the National Theatre’s latest production at the local cinema and pretty much all recorded music ever made is at our fingertips on Spotify or Apple Music. What the web has made possible is new forms of digital distribution, for old forms of content and subscription services like Netflix and Now TV are reaping that reward. In fact according to Ofcom nearly 47% of the UK population now subscribe to one of these streaming services
  3. New things in new ways
    Where the web and emerging technologies makes all sorts of new storytelling and future wizardry possible. In this bucket you will find virtual and augmented reality experiences, (Oculus Quest, Magic Leap, HTC Vive), voice led interaction (Alexa, Siri, Cortana) and interactive video stories (Netflix’s BanderSnatch). New content experiences, new ways to experience them and new business models to exploit them.

If you’ve come to TRANSFORM! looking to improve your relationship with audiences, build new businesses and start to navigate that uncertain future then you must work through that journey from old things in old ways to new things in new ways and respond positively to the changes happening around us.

Raised Expectations

In order to do so, you should take Tom Loosemore’s definition of what it means to work digitally to heart. Tom was the architect of much of bbc.co.uk and then gov.uk and he said that he was in the business of “applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.” And people’s expectations have been raised.

Across Europe, the internet savvy public is now in the majority; 76% of the UK population now have a smartphone, 80% of us use the internet daily or almost daily, and The Natural History Museum already reaches more people in a single month through social platforms than visit the museum in person during a whole year. The public expects to be able to catch up on TV and radio it has missed, it expects to browse the catalogues of libraries, museums and galleries, and it expects to see at what times films are screening at the venues nearest them.

Meeting people’s expectations is the currency by which our cultural and creative institutions are valued. To remain relevant it is vital that the interactions with those institutions evolve as expectations do. And by associating working digitally with the expectations of your audiences greater opportunities will emerge.

Increasingly, funding bodies and governments alike are making the association between reaching new audiences and working digitally explicit:

  • On 26 October, DCMS announced a new research grant that clearly linked reaching new audiences with emerging technologies and that would support the Museums of The Future.
  • Creative Europe recently piloted a scheme to bridge the audiovisual and cultural sectors and explore new audience opportunities with next generation technologies.
  • Two of the large scale immersive demonstrators funded by UKRI’s Audiences of the Future programme rely on cultural organisations such as the RSC & The Natural History Museum innovating with emerging technologies to reach new audiences.
  • And the value extends beyond just delivering to new audiences. The 2017 NESTA Digital Culture Survey showed that organisations that innovated and committed to R&D had reported increased impact across all areas of their organisations as a consequence.

Sometimes though it can still feel as if the cultural and traditional screen sector is responding to something that they don’t quite understand. As if “digital” is something you do around specific technology challenges, or around the curation and commissioning of a digital arts website. Yes we can digitise and distribute traditional forms of culture in all sorts of different ways, but we have little evidence that it is shifting the dial on cultural participation.

Audience-led approaches

The key to unlocking the transformational opportunities in front of us lies in marrying the user based approach adopted by most digital businesses along with the artist led outlook of many arts and cultural organisations.

This stretches from understanding the value of a connected customer management system or CRM that can connect the people you reach to the activity you deliver as evidenced by Arts Admin’s Project Kiwi or in the case of BBC Taster a platform that was developed by the BBC to specifically road test new storytelling formats, new technologies and new talent all in front of an audience in order to understand what might scale and what could quite legitimately fail, but fail fast and at relatively low cost.

In order to unlock the opportunities that working digitally will make possible, organisations must put audiences and audience service design at the heart of future content strategies. They must understand who they are trying to reach, what outcomes they want to achieve, and how they can measure and test from the inception of an idea to the development, prototyping and delivery of that idea.

You are not alone

And the good news is that you need not make this journey alone. Across the arts/cultural landscape organisations such as The Audience Agency, The Arts Marketing Association and The Space all support capacity building in audience and digital development. Within the audiovisual sector a series of Creative Clusters were announced by DCMS in 2018 that fuse academic resource and expertise with emerging technologies and regional SME’s to boost the UK’s creative economy and realise economies of scale.

The Clusters inherently understand that successfully navigating any digital landscape can only be improved if we foster a culture of playful rapid scale experimentation, by understanding that it is generally better to be 80 per cent right and quick, than 99 per cent right and slow – and the trick is to know what kind of mistakes are acceptable to make.

The cultural and audiovisual sectors find themselves in a world of plenty fighting for the currency of attention in a fast moving and constantly disrupted landscape. The speed of change is not slowing down, nor can it be ignored. The opportunities in front of us will only be found if we respond positively to all of this change. If we apply Tom Loosemore’s definition of what it means to work digitally and if we embrace the fact that digital solutions are rarely permanent.

The mindset should be one of continuous innovation, not only in what services are offered, but also the business models and partnerships that deliver them. Through TRANSFORM!, Creative Europe Desk UK want to raise awareness of and encourage engagement in networks that enable this collaboration across traditional boundaries, between different parts of a sector, between different sectors and between local, national and international bodies.

About Will P Saunders

Will Saunders is an independent media consultant, and executive producer working with organisations and companies who want to understand the storytelling potential of emerging technologies. In 2018 he co-authored the DCMS “Culture Is Digital” report. As Creative Director, Digital, BBC Studios he ran Digital Development and Production for the UK’s leading media company. He is currently Creative Industries Lead for a number of industrial strategy consortia projects exploring the future of the UK screen based industries and that include; Sony Interactive Entertainment, iLMx, BBC Studios, Pinewood Studios, The National Film & Television School & Royal Holloway, University of London as partners.

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