UK creative industries are R&D powerhouses—they urgently need more support, says Peter Bazalgette
‘Bish Bash Bosh’ would be a good name for a video game, a fashion label, a children’s animation, a music video, or many other products of the UK’s burgeoning creative industries. But what I’m actually referring to is the dictionary meaning: getting a job done in double-quick time.
That job is to exploit the creative sector’s huge potential, and in particular the rapidly developing fusion of creative design and technology known as createch. This needs a turnaround in research provision, a boosting of university spinouts, some far-sighted skills policies and a much better dataset. There needs to be a sense of urgency around this great opportunity for economic and cultural growth, hence bish bash bosh.
Sharing a stage with me at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) this week were a games producer, the designers of an innovative medical device, the creator of screen-sharing software and a pioneer of sustainable 3D printing in fashion. They all owe their success to interdisciplinarity—createch, in other words—and to finding a source of finance.
The UK’s creative industries have a branding challenge: they’re known for entertainment, but not as the R&D-led sector they are becoming. They should be as synonymous with R&D as the life sciences, automotive and aerospace sectors already are—and, as it happens, they’re worth more to the economy than all three put together.
The astonishing success of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) 2019 investment of £56 million in nine creative clusters led by universities rams this point home. The clusters have attracted £252m in funding from industry and other sources, connected to 2,500 small and medium-sized enterprises, carried out 700 R&D projects, and launched 227 startups and 558 products and services.
Business of Fashion, Textiles and Technology, led by University of the Arts London, has worked with companies to turn textile waste into yarn. Clwstwr, a collaboration between three Welsh universities, helped develop a virtual reality product to reduce pain and anxiety on the labour ward.
Creative Informatics, headed by two Edinburgh universities, included research to improve robots’ sense of touch. Future Fashion Factory includes two Yorkshire universities and assisted in developing a leather substitute derived from fungus.
Future Screens NI has two universities from Northern Ireland curating a digital platform to track and encourage children’s physical activity. InGame, with three Scottish universities, let citizens redesign their neighbourhoods using games tech. Story Futures, a partnership between Royal Holloway, University of London, and the National Film and Television School, collaborated on the National Gallery’s Virtual Veronese exhibition.
XR Stories, led by the University of York, investigates immersive storytelling at the boundaries of theatre, film, gaming and visual arts. And four universities in the West Country formed Bristol and Bath Creative R&D, developing an open-access tool to embed inclusion in a wide range of projects.
In its new Investment Zones, the Treasury has made the creative industries one of five priority sectors. The research establishment needs to take notice, not least through a second phase of UKRI-funded clusters. Currently, the creative sector gets a tiny share of the research cake.
As chair of Arts Council England, I saw how universities were defining themselves as place-makers. Now that I’m chair of council at the Royal College of Art, I am seeing the potential of university spinouts in the creative sector. The college’s InnovationRCA programme has delivered more than 80 funded createch spinouts. Particularly fruitful is its joint programme with Imperial College London, allowing engineers to rub shoulders with ceramicists. We could have so much more of this.
The Creative Industries Council, which I co-chair, is shortly to publish a sector vision. Alongside marking the fruitfulness of clusters and spinouts, this will endeavour to carry out an audit of current and future skills needs. Hitherto, the UK has failed to define the many career pathways into the creative industries for the next generation of talent. The rapid drop in pupils studying design and technology in school must be understood and reversed.
The sector vision will also pledge to greatly improve our data. As a nation, we tend to over-inform ourselves on traditional sectors, many of which are in decline, and under-inform ourselves on sunrise sectors. The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, hosted jointly by the RSA and Newcastle University, will help address this.
Adding arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics turns Stem skills into Steam. Didn’t steam prove wonderfully powerful before, in powering an industrial revolution?
Peter Bazalgette is co-chair of the Creative Industries Council and chair of council at the Royal College of Art. This article is based on his 19 April president’s lecture at the Royal Society of Arts
A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight