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Creative Fuse: A Road Trip

At the height of England’s World Cup success Alistair Brown ,one of our Research Associates from Durham University, joined colleagues from all five North East universities at the Creative, Knowledge, Cities Conference in Bristol.

Read about how they all got on down South and how the North East might not be ready for a penalty shoot out just yet…

It’s a beautiful thing to see players from many different clubs come together and start to perform for the same team, winning over the hearts and minds of a sceptical public. But enough about England’s progress through the recent World Cup.

Similar phrases could equally apply to the Creative Fuse North East partnership, ten members of which set off for Bristol (flying from Newcastle just late enough to witness the tantalising drama of England’s last-16 penalty shootout) for the Creativity, Knowledge, Cities conference from 4th to 5th July. To continue the football analogy, Creative Fuse North East has brought together the region’s five universities who often play competitively against one another, to forge innovative partnerships with local creative, digital and IT audiences, who have sometimes found it hard to build friendly relationships with those behind the ivory walls.

Creativity, Knowledge, Cities took us away from the region, to showcase Creative Fuse North East as a case study in collaboration, while also continuing to learn about one another’s work. As the current phase of Creative Fuse North East draws to a close, it was also an opportunity to look towards future prospects, particularly in the light of the government’s Creative Industries strategy which promises unprecedented funding to boost a creative sector which now employs 1 in 11 people in the UK.

Bristol’s Watershed was an appropriate venue to host such an event. Threatened with demolition in the 1980s, this apparent relic of the first industrial revolution was saved by the vision of the City Council and British Film Institute who recognised that digital media might provide a new spark for the next revolution in our economy. Watershed now hosts a cinema, meeting and conference rooms, and the Pervasive Media Studio that incubates early stage companies in partnership with UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol.

Space was indeed a pivotal theme to emerge from the conference. Creativity is often imagined as an abstract process, an invisible genius firing in the mind of the lone thinker; digital can give the impression of activity floating through the airwaves and unbounded by geography. But, in reality, the swathe of businesses branded under ‘creative’ – from advertising to crafts to games design – are rooted in places – usually, cities – which both affect and in turn are affected by those businesses and individuals. A key theme of the conference was the need to build cities, as well as places within universities within cities, that nurture creativity over the long term.

All of Creative Fuse’s contributions gestured to this theme. Indeed, while our project has been unique in collaborating as a North East ‘brand’, one of the inverse strengths and indeed crucial research findings has been the way each university has had to use different techniques to respond to the character of their institutions. Distinctive approaches range from Durham University that teaches few applied creative subjects like arts or design, to Northumbria that excels in them, and the specific locales in which they are rooted – from rural County Durham and Northumberland to urban Tyne and Wear, to the Tees Valley.

This variety was reflected in our dedicated Creative Fuse North East panel, ‘Collaboration in Recasting the Third Mission’, chaired by Principal Investigator Eric Cross. Here Sam Murray and Paul Stewart described how they worked with cultural partners to help them to innovate in light of the particular political networks that are at work in the devolved Tees Valley. By contrast, the Durham team of Alistair Brown and Ladan Cockshut talked about their Culture Hubs approach, a way of delivering the support workshops provided by Durham University – which is fixed within the ‘bubble’ of its city – out to artists and craftspeople dispersed through the rural County to the west and the post-industrial parts of the east. Meanwhile, in Northumbria, the team represented how Northumbria University, with its pool of talented design graduates, was able to bring students into collaboration with businesses. Finally, Rebecca Prescott offered her findings of how businesses and the public perceived Creative Fuse North East. One important reflection, given the diversity of universities and region, was that Creative Fuse – including the website on which this is published – has worked as a portal, a single point of contact through which businesses could then reach or be pointed to the most appropriate institution or individual.

The second Creative Fuse North East panel, coordinated by Sam Murray, looked more specifically at Creative Policy in the Devolved Tees valley. Sharon Paterson set the scene: the Tees Valley has a combined authority, which draws together five council leaders; digital and cultural businesses and organisations within this area are seen as vital to the region’s future economic success, but triangulating them with universities such as Teesside and the complicated institutional politics can be a challenge. Paul Stewart talked about how MIMA (Middlesborough Institute for Modern Arts) was trying to work with the community to shape the development of future housing policy. In a similar vein, one local arts organisation, Tees Valley Arts, have been working closely with Creative Fuse to influence policy and develop a possible City of Culture bid in 2025. Sam Murray and Suzy O’Hara teased out the implications of the government’s recent ‘Culture is Digital’ report and the ways in which five of the Creative Fuse innovation pilots had been from cultural or heritage organisations – such as Festival of Thrift or Theatre Hullabaloo – seeking to better embed digital into their strategy.

As with the conference as a whole, all of the Creative Fuse papers indicated the importance of thinking locally about the big issues of innovation, digital, creative industry. Ultimately, we all hope that these local interventions will have widespread economic and social benefits. However, it was notable that many of the keynotes visited stressed the importance of long-term, responsible engagement, and the risks that short-term projects to support the creative industries lend a temporary latté-coloured glow of hipsterish entrepreneurialism to an area or university while having permanent negative consequences.

Universities contribute at their best not by helping to develop the next great album or art masterpiece for immediate consumption, but by sharing knowledge that will permeate down in invisible ways, and that takes time and sustained relationship-building to work. In this light, Creative Fuse North East’s contribution also had a sobering aspect. Working together over the three years, we have created a remarkable number of collaborations between universities and businesses. Yet, sustaining these connections will be hard, and nobody can really predict the unexpected impacts that will emerge long after the project’s close. This unknown serves to emphasise the importance of securing continued support and funding, so that the connections we’ve built on the ground can be sustained and further innovations genuinely emerge and embed into the North East.

To return to the footballing clichés, we don’t just need extra time. We haven’t even got to the end of our first half. Our second half will be when we truly achieve our goals.