Economies of Contribution and the Future of Research: Brighton Fuse

We do not yet know the future of research funding for the arts and humanities in the UK. But the likelihood is that a new regime will emerge that will be more experimental in how it builds partnerships both inside and outside of the academy. One possible direction of travel was suggested by Brighton Fuse a remarkable AHRC funded research project that concluded in October with the publication of a 60-page report summarising the findings of one of the most detailed pieces of analysis ever undertaken into a regional cluster of the creative and cultural industries.

October, 2013 marked the completion of a research project which carried out a comprehensive investigation Brighton’s creative, digital and IT (CDIT) cluster of companies, a constellation of art and technology that is transforming Brighton’s the local economy into one of the primary UK creative hot-spots outside of London.

The two years of research concluded with a public presentation of the main findings combined with an unveiling of a 60-page summary to a packed house in the grand theatrical setting of Brighton University’s Sallis Benney Theatre. The theatrics of the presentation should not detract from the fact that research undertaken by Brighton Fuse was one of the most detailed pieces of analysis of any industry ever undertaken in Britain, and points towards one possible direction for arts based research in universities wishing engage more dynamically with the wider community.

It is important to see that advocacy for this domain operates against the background of significant pockets of skepticism towards any scent of the now familiar concept of the ‘creative industries’. In very general terms the skepticism originates from two opposite directions. For the critical academic arts community these terms signify a suspension of critique and a sell out to the status quo. From the direction of professional policy makers and other senior decision makers, ‘creative industries rhetoric’ is frequently viewed as ‘boosterism’, designed to loosen the purse strings of the gullible by making exaggerated claims that do not stack up under scrutiny.

The accumulation of evidence not only from Brighton Fuse but also from the important NESTA Manifesto for the Creative Economy (2013), strongly suggest that both of these constituencies are quite simply wrong. Wrong in different ways and for different reasons. It is clear that a powerful new industry has emerged based on “highly specific forms of collaboration that combine art, technology and communications/marketing with particular emphasis on social media, and developing simultaneous real-time relationships between these platforms”. It is creative and it is an industry in that its contribution is on an industrial scale. Moreover it is crucially dependent on interdisciplinary collaboration of graduates drawn equally from technology and the Arts & Humanities. “The rhetoric of the “creative industries” is often met with skepticism by critical researchers and serious artists as a signifying a supine relationship to the status quo”. For critical researchers in the arts to act as though engagement with this sector is automatically a “sell out” to the status quo is as flawed as buying into a wholesale endorsement of these industries and their varied practices. However making good use of the data gathered in these reports does not of course mean accepting all their conclusions.

It is possible to draw less positive interpretations from the data which can be interpreted to suggest that the benefits and opportunities generated by these advanced sectors are currently confined to a far too narrow a section of the workforce suggesting an urgent need to extend still further gateways in education and beyond to open these practices up to society at large.

Part of the achievement of Brighton Fuse is that it talks directly to these challenges. This was evident at the somewhat ‘revivalist’ atmosphere at the launch of the report. It is rare to see a large auditorium packed to the “Brighton Fuse is not only one of the most detailed pieces of analysis of any industry ever undertaken in Britain. It also points towards the direction for arts based research in universities on ways to engage more dynamically with the wider community.” rafters for the launch of an academic report and even rarer to find that rather than academics the majority of the audience was made up of Brighton’s cultural and creative community, many of whom had actually participated. An optimistic perspective would suggest that the involvement of such significant fraction of this community in the process of knowledge creation could trigger a new level of reflexivity that could in turn result in what are currently loose networks of affinity forming into a more self-aware and assertive community.

The Scale of the Economic Contribution

Although there is no substitute for a close reading of the report, in tandem with the NESTA manifesto, there are a few headlines worth touching on. To begin with it is very useful to have statistical support for the scale of the economic contribution of this sector. The marshalling of available statistics point to the impressive scale of the contribution when we consider the fact that 32% of the sample frame were experiencing growth levels of over 14% a year, in the context of a median growth rate for the local economy of 3.8% per annum. And then consider these figures against a background in which, over the same period, the UK’s GDP grew by just 0.7%! This is useful ammunition with which to refute the persistent charge of special pleading and ‘boosterism’.

Fused & Superfused

Alongside this data was confirmation that the degrees of growth in ‘creative economy’ far from being evenly spread are highly differentiated with the fastest growing companies made up of a fusion of digital technology with creative and liberal arts skills. In the language of the report these are the so-called ‘fused’ companies, with the highest growth of all in companies in which this principle of ‘fusion’ was not simply present but was at the very heart of the offer. These companies were classified as “superfused”!

For the sake of clarity “the notion of fusion is more specific than mere interdisciplinarity. It is a very specific form of collaboration that combines art, technology and communications/marketing with particular emphasis on social media and developing simultaneous real-time relationships between these platforms”. To which I would add the sophisticated use of Big data sets.

From the perspective of the arts a particularly important finding was that, despite the significance of the technological component, a significant percentage of these superfused companies are led by former arts and humanities graduates a fact which, if rationality prevailed, would kick into the long grass the coalition’s prioritization of STEM subjects in Higher Education.

The original ‘fusion’ hypothesis can be traced back to 2011 and the CIHE Fuse report and later we find more detailed development of these the themes fleshed out in more detail, along with a clear set of policy recommendations in Nesta’s Manifesto. A vital presence presence in the Brighton Fuse research team was Juan Mateos-Garcia who as Creative industries Research Fellow at NESTA was one of the authors of The NESTA manifesto. Mateos-Garcia’s participation not only contributes a personal research perspective but his role in NESTA also ensures that the empirical evidence drawn from Brighton is then deployed to inform a wider national debate. It contributes to the virtuous circle of attracting investment and continued migration into the Brighton hub.

Software is Culture!

More concretely, findings highlighted in these reports identify worrying inconsistencies in key data sources and classifications. The most glaring of which is that currently software development is not classified as part of the creative sector in the official Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, despite the fact that it is the essential component of the highest growth sector within the van garde of creative industries, a fact that has huge consequences when it comes to decisions on government or University resource allocation.

Shaping Partnerships

Brighton Fuse holds important lessons about research leadership and partnership building through a strategic approach to the composition and spread of the researcher team. To begin with there was collaboration between the two local Universities with Sussex University represented by Prof, Paul Nightingale and University of Brighton by Dr Jonathan Sapsed, of CENTRIM, University of Brighton and principle investigator. From the national perspective important expertise was also forthcoming from Georgina Voss, a Senior Research Associate at the Royal College of Art. Crucial to the success of the project was access to the local creative economy and this vital contribution was made by the project’s ‘Industry Director’ Phil Jones, of Wired Sussex’. Phil Jones’s pivotal role in presenting the findings to the public in October indicates the importance of an equal partnership role in the research played by Wired Sussex. It points a maturing of relationship, in this field between academic and non-academic forms of expertise. All of which helps to articulate important guidelines for building the research communities of the future.

Next Steps

The generally upbeat tone of the report can occassionally obscure some less positive aspects of the new creative economies. Although the numbers individuals employed in this sector are growing, even in the largest digital companies, we are still not seeing anything like the volume of employment and relative security we find in more traditional sectors let alone the industrial giants of the past. Moreover many, perhaps most, participants are employed under a regime of precarious insecure conditions and relatively low incomes. The concern is that this regime of ‘precarity’ is not just a cyclical feature of the current recession but a structural aspect of a new political economy.

Caveats aside (for now) the exciting story is that the spirit, the methods and the approach of Brighton Fuse in conjunction with the NESTA manifesto point to the emergence of a new research model based on experimental decentralized partnerships between universities governments and small firms which can play an important part in disseminating the most advanced practices of superfused companies to a far broader sector of society and the economy.

Taking full advantage of the insights in this report means the next steps will need to be on a number of fronts simultaneously “we have the beginnings of a model we can build on based on a decentralized partnership between governments and firms in order to disseminate some of the most advanced practices to large parts of each national economy”in order to open new gateways of access and address the precarious working conditions of participants.

Challenging Boundaries

The report demonstrates how understanding Brighton’s highly specific demographics connected, in part, to its proximity to London, are crucial to understanding the complex character of the community. Interestingly most of the new generation of fusion companies had migrated to Brighton from elsewhere, frequently London. And one of the drivers for companies to relocate was what was perceived as an attractive ‘life-style’. However, despite this fact, many respondents sited, felt disconnected from the sources of that ‘life style’, Brighton’s pluralistic creative subcultures.

The report goes on to describe a sector constituted of communities of practice often separated by invisible Chinese walls. Given that this would work against the importance of multiple networks and interdisciplinary collaboration there is a clear need to create even more opportunities for bridge building. There is a great deal already in place but more could be done to capitalize on the role of Brighton’s important festivals in conjunction with the cultural spaces that can successfully broker cross sector networking and collaboration. There is a particular need to look closely at those spaces that have already gone beyond the simple co-working model towards more experimental approaches to collaborative practice such as Lighthouse Fuse Box and Dream Factory each of which offers a distinctive approach to the design of supportive environments, each one suggesting a different conceptual gateway to link the wider creative sector to the advanced practices of the ‘superfused’.

In parallel to these bridging initiatives there is an equal need for a greater awareness of how difficult life can be for individuals operating in such a volatile economy. Even as the local economy flourishes, conditions for most ‘creatives’ remains precarious with structural insecurity as a part of daily life. This is particularly true for free-lancers, whose important contribution was a notable absence from the report, despite their importance to the growth and vitality of this sector.

Without slipping into 19th century solutions to 21st century problems, the insights of this important research could awaken us to the need to work more keenly for the emergence of a regime better able to protect, represent and organise those working within this sector whilst enabling the many benefits to be more widely distributed.

David Garcia 2013