Clare Reddington, director of iShed and The Pervasive Media Studio, explains how Heritage Sandbox, which is being showcased on Friday at the Watershed in Bristol, is bringing together academic research and creative companies to innovate in unprecedented ways.
On Friday, we will showcase six Heritage Sandbox projects, the first round of commissions for REACT, a Knowledge Exchange Hub funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to support collaborations between academics, cultural economy practitioners and creative industries over the next four years.
That’s a lot of buzz words – what we will actually be doing over the next four years is supporting more than 50 brilliant ideas which bring together academic research and creative companies, because these collaborations can uncover and push forward innovation in unprecedented ways.
Academic researchers devote large parts of their professional life to uncovering and exploring their chosen subject. From the story of the mysterious Ivory Bangle Lady in York (pictured above), to the forgotten stories of Bath’s exotic pleasure gardens, to an interactive approach to visiting cemeteries, since working on REACT I have met swathes of fascinating researchers who speak with passion and enthusiasm. University research provides rich pickings for those who excel in reaching audiences and telling stories.
Inhabiting a different world, professionals in the creative and cultural sector work to deadlines and on multiple projects. Deadlines are dictated by commissioners or funders and when projects are delivered we move on. Working with academics over longer periods of time allows us to codify and embed the things we have learnt, to create knowledge that is persistent and can be built upon by others.
Earlier this year we finished working with University of West of England’s Digital Cultures Research Centre on The Pervasive Media Cook Book. This website is the end product of two years of documentation, interrogation and evaluation, in order to share our learning with practitioners across the world how projects are funded, created and received.
Universities are big businesses and can afford machines and equipment that may be out of reach to the creative and cultural sector. From the Bristol Robotics Lab to the Centre for Fine Print Research, our collaborations with universities have allowed access to materials and machines like 3D printers, eye-trackers and touch-tables, which would otherwise have been too costly.
Collaborations with individual academics often spill out into teaching and work placements, which fill your workplace with energetic students who are hungry to get stuck in. This could be students wanting experience in production (as was our experience with a Bristol University drama student for Theatre Sandbox) or a real-world client brief (we have had masters students building iPhone apps with Calvium and Nu Desine recently). These collaborations help offer access to networks of talented students who may become potential employees and audiences.
So far so good, but why would Universities collaborate with cultural venues and organisations? Again the reasons are many: the researchers we have met are hungry to get their stories out to the wider world and collaborating with content makers is a very good way to do this. They are interested in communicating the value of research and also know that its real-world application is likely to teach them something new. And while the academic researcher has a depth of knowledge in the specialist subject, the temporality of university life means cutting-edge work is often happening within companies, rather than on campus.
So where do you find a friendly academic to start a fruitful discussion? University enterprise departments might be a good place to start if you know the sort of person you would like to speak to, but otherwise try events put on by the Research Councils or the Technology Strategy Board, your local university’s public engagement programme, friends of friends, or twitter. There are a range of ways you can work together from informally swapping ideas in the pub to more formalised (and funded) knowledge exchange programmes. But it’s always best to start with a common interest and enthusiasm.
I have written elsewhere about why and how these collaborations may be tricky. But part of REACT’s role is to catalyse a culture change that hopefully means in four years’ time we won’t need to do our job at all.
Enjoyed reading Clare’s blog? Read her previous blog for us on why Bristol and the South West are a “hot spring of innovation”.