Brave-art: a tale of Scottish innovation funding

If a painful familiarity with the 6 Nations’ Wooden Spoon is anything to go by, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Scotland when it comes to digital innovation hubs. But Hadrian’s Wall delineates more than a penchant for sheep entrails; as the money pots of England dry up in these austere times of tightening Tory purse-strings, Scotland is in rude health when it comes to R&D handouts. Let us not forget this country, still blighted by deep fried stereotypes, hosts the world’s largest arts festival.

NESTA, Creative Scotland and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have pooled their resources and come up with half a million quid. This funding lovechild has a name befitting of its somewhat schizophrenic parental tryptic : hereby presenting the NESTA Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture, Scotland.

Why were Thought Den involved?

Thought Den’s involvement, without wanting to confuse the situation further, was to provide inspiration and perspective given our non-Scottish, non-London and pro-culture agenda. For more on what we’re doing with arts and cultural organisations go clicking mad : Tate, Wildscreen, National Galleries of Scotland, Southbank Centre and Bristol Museum.

In a whistlestop 20 minutes I tried to convey what we learned in pursuit of entertainment, education and innovation for the cultural sector. The first bit is great fun, exploring the content and expanding the possibilities, then it gets tough, stripping it back to find the essence of an idea. Prototyping is the fun bit again, testing testing testing! And then back to the hard graft of refinement and polish. This entire process is predicated on:

4 Important Things (that aren’t crap)

  1. Audience – Get to know them, personally. What else do they like and what do they want. Let them play with stuff.
  2. Content – This is what often defines the institution, so find the stories, play with the friction points, mine the hidden gems
  3. Context – Not just physically (where and when does this designed experience happen?) but socially, politically, other influencing factors
  4. Technology – The real challenge is to make it human! We are sophisticated creatures, but incredibly fickle. Simple wins.

Over the last fortnight I have spoken at three events in Scotland, taking in Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Though largely delivering the same schtick each time, it was incredible how different the three events were. In honour of Scotland’s alleged status as the binge capital of Europe, each event is briefly summarised in drinking metaphor:

Perth; imagine a late afternoon buffet at the beautiful country house of a rich a relative; distant cousins pulled from across the country, but conversation a little awkward and not quite enough alcohol.

Glasgow was the after-work drink session that gradually gets rowdy; the cheeky half that becomes a full-throttled debate.

Edinburgh had the feel of a swanky cocktail party, everyone on best behaviour, but surreptitiously searching over their bone-china teacups for an excuse to loosen their ties.

Unsurprisingly Glasgow was the best event and hosted at the Scottish Youth Theatre. Apart from the subtle smell of sweaty thespians, it was a great afternoon, lots of healthy discussion following the presentations, and a real sense of excitement among the delegates. This was in part because of the people that attended, but also the room layout. Haphazard ten-to-a-table groups trumps raked seating any day.

So what’s going down up there?

Among many others, I talked with a team looking to establish the world’s first comprehensive digital circus skills program, an architect with an incredible iPad prototype and the marketing manager of The Arches, Glasgow’s answer to the Watershed. This place is an epic underground art’s centre-club-theatre with sticky floors, cavernous ceilings and bargain nachos.

With fantastic workspaces such as SocietyM (a hot hatch with racing stripes to the PMStudio‘s Audio estate) and modest movers and shakers like Suzy Glass (Trigger, Sync) and Rohan Gunatillake (Culture Hack, Buddhist Geeks) Glasgow seems like the place to be right now. Incidentally, Channel 4 appointed Colin Macdonald as their first Head of Commissioning for Games, based primarily in Glasgow. That image is a giant anglepoise lamp. What’s not to like!?

Despite the confusing and overly complicated arrangement of money pots, sub-programmes, support workshops and offshoot schemes, you’ve got to applaud how determined Scotland is to support innovation in their booming arts, culture and digital sectors. Behind the array of glitzy Powerpoint presentations is a funding programme with innovation at its heart and a very real desire to give arts and cultural organisations the support they need to flourish in a world of 140 character news flashes, fart apps and F******k.

PS – After the talks I thought I’d step into infinity. It was pretty cool. Camera Obscura in Edinburgh is a place of magic, mirrors, lasers and vortexes. Excellent fun and nicely topped up the inspiration juices.


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