Is culture digital?

Digital and Culture meet, a crowd of people in a museum taking photos/filming with their phones

Written by Will Saunders, Consultant & Executive Producer for WPS Ltd

How does the world’s most exciting cultural destination marry the technical and creative advantages we have in the UK and seize the opportunity in front of us?

That was the challenge we were set  in the DCMS “Culture is Digital” report,  published last week and one which I spent a lot of 2017 mulling. My own conclusions are that those opportunities for the Cultural Sector will only be found if we question what it truly means to work digitally, if we renew our focus on underserved audiences  and if we respond positively to the changes happening around us.

Tom Loosemore captured what it means to work digitally, in a single tweet;

Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

And peoples expectations have been raised. The age of being surprised by the ability to accomplish anything on the internet has long since passed us by. The public expects to be able to catch up on TV and Radio its missed, it expects to browse the categories of libraries, museums and galleries. Meeting people’s expectations is the currency by which our public institutions are valued. To remain relevant it is vital that the interactions with those institutions evolve as expectations do.

Taking Part Data & other evidence tells us that our physical and digital cultural offer is largely reaching the same or similar audiences. We are distributing cultural experiences digitally to the same sorts of audiences who would attend physically or who are already high cultural consumers. We are super, serving a particular non lottery ticket buying demographic. Conversely we are in an era when the internet savvy public is now in the majority in the UK. 76% of the UK population now have a smartphone, 80% of us use the internet daily or almost daily, 3 in 4 of  the online population now have a social media account. 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 adoption of digital technologies and platforms is shifting traditional power relationships and putting more power into the hands of our audiences. They are no longer passive receivers of culture, they can select when to watch it on demand, they can interact with it, and they can help create it. The internet raises expectations because its technology empowers people & behaviours are evolving as technology advances.

The UK cultural sector needs to marry the user based approach adopted by most digital businesses along with the artist led outlook of many arts & cultural organisations. The prize on offer is to put audiences and audience service design at the heart of future content strategies That is going to be best achieved by adopting the norms of many digital businesses & organisations; by fostering a culture of playful rapid scale experimentation, by establishing  standards and approaches around innovation that may not currently exist, and by better understanding audience need states and to learn from the content, both digital and linear that they already consume.

This years Digital Culture survey data commissioned by the Arts Council & Nesta revealed a reduction in R&D investment at the same time that those organisations that had innovated reported positive impacts in the audiences they reach, the way they operate and in their creative capacities.  Innovation across the cultural sector needs a boost and a committment to innovation processes, not just a series of innovative ideas. The next generation of creativity will be inspired and attracted by creating networks of shared infrastructure, and adopting an approach to innovation that would avoid the fragmented support for small initiatives that do not join up. Rather than invest, it might even be possible to borrow from what already exists.

Launched just over three years ago BBC Taster was a new approach to open innovation at the BBC. Its purpose is to allow new experimental ideas to be tested by users and for audience feedback to inform whether or not an idea merits further development. Since launch BBC Taster has had 14 million visitors to its website, 179,000 ratings and user feedback requests, with 46 different teams inside and outside the BBC using it. Around one third of the pilots have gone onto secondary development and it has helped lead the way in  fast moving new areas like immersive storytelling in virtual & augmented reality & voice led experiments for the likes of  Amazon’s Alexa. It has already partnered with the BFI ,  The Royal Academy & The Space & is currently promoting an AR App featuring partner content for the flagship television series Civilisations. Creating a cultural sector coalition of the willing using Taster as its user testing & innovation platform is surely within reach.

The publication of the Culture is Digital report is a great first step but sometimes it can feel as if the cultural 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 culture in all sorts of different ways, but we have little evidence that is shifting the dial on cultural participation in the UK. The key to unlocking digital opportunities lies in closer working relationships , in a simple and routine method for encouraging innovation, and a firm realisation that to work digitally is not about old things in new ways. It’s about focussing on the needs of your audience, its about a rapid, flexible, iterative approach to development where its generally better to be 80 per cent right & quick, than 99 per cent right and slow – and the trick is to know what kind of mistakes its acceptable to make.

This blog was from Will Saunders.

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