Can the Midlands creative industries revolutionise the UK economy?
Can the Midlands Creative Industries revolutionise the UK economy? Joanna Birch reports
What do Charles Leadbetter, author of We Think, David Harris, Executive Creative Director of Wunderman and Toby Barnes of Midlands based Mudlark have in common?
Apart from leading the conversation in the Big Debate on November 2, they represent a cross section of nationally recognised thinkers across the breadth of businesses that operate under the umbrella of the Creative Industries. Their different skills sets, perspectives and experience highlight the range of opportunities that exist within the sector and also the challenges and tensions that potentially exist between infrastructure, content and participation or in the words of the Digital Britain report: Poems, Pipes and People.
The West Midlands has a vibrant creative economy growing above the UK average in terms of economic output, with 19 per cent growth compared with a UK average of 13 per cent and now worth £7 billion according to ONS.
Award winning agencies such as Clusta, Fluid, McCann Erickson Birmingham, sit alongside consultants with growing reputations for innovation such as Stefan Lewandowski, Chris Unitt, and Nick Booth.
Leading production companies like Kudos Film and Television Junction, exist alongside leading games companies and web entrepreneurs from blitz games to Mudlark. With the creation of Fazeley Studios, home to Digbeth’s growing elite of cutting edge digital media experts, Birmingham is no stranger to leading the way.
Birmingham was active in contributing to the Unconferences that fed into the Digital Britain report. Birmingham was the first city to welcome Lord Carter, the author of the Digital Britain report to the ICC the day after the report was issued.
Birmingham hosts a range of leading academics, like Paul Bradshaw and Jon Hickman at Birmingham City University who are providing international advice to publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to The Guardian and have developed the first MA in Social Media.
It is widely recognised that great content, leading infrastructure and participation need to blend in perfect harmony for the true economic benefits to be realised.
If the Midlands’ creative industries are to influence the UK economy consideration needs to be given to some of the challenges ahead. Nationally 17m people aged over 15 in the UK are not online. Of those, 6m are also socially and economically vulnerable. Seventy per cent of people in social housing have never used the internet. But, for many, ignorance is bliss. A survey by the regulator Ofcom found that 42 per cent of people who don’t have the internet at home were not bothered. Another 30 per cent said they couldn’t afford it. The rate at which people are becoming new users is slowing. It is clear that the problem is not just about infrastructure but one of apathy and disengagement.
Non-users are becoming less likely to engage with technology such as the internet saying they are just not interested in being online therefore our ability to deliver content to the nation is compromised as a result.
Journalist Chris Bowsby quotes the term Refuseniks – those who won’t use the internet because its impersonal – it destroys family life, is too invasive, stating that computers are not designed for wider audiences to use and that the overwhelming stream of information is off putting. Research shows that there appears to be some scepticism that the digital switch over is seen to be driven by the governments desire to drive down costs rather than aid consumer choice, suggesting that individuals do not appear to see value in the content and its purpose.
The potential role of the Midlands creative industry has to be about how it uses its expertise in content generation, its investment focus in infrastructure and its expertise in engaging with all aspects of its community to build a bigger picture about how to build the reason for engaging.
Martha Lane Fox, the new champion for Digital Participation, is quoted in various articles as agreeing with the importance of content development – saying she is less bothered by how people log on, than why, highlighting the importance of bringing relevant applications in the online world to life.
Content that is interconnected across different platforms is becoming a key consideration. Ofcom reports that Britons spent an average of 225 minutes a day watching TV last year, just a minute longer than in 2003, but internet usage has ballooned to 25 minutes a day from just 9 minutes in 2003. TV reach among younger audiences has been falling as they divide their time between more media activities such as downloading music or watching TV online.
A number of production companies in the Midlands are developing content that can work on multiple platforms. Television Junction are currently in the Beta phase testing of a multi platform production called Wee Vee, an online mash up tool using moving image archives which enables end users to take quality content and put there own take on it, making it relevant to them. The facility recognises the value of using existing social networking platforms and focuses on the need for relevance and quality.
Such initiatives are supported by a range of training and assistance from public providers and education. For example Birmingham City University, working in partnership with Screen West Midlands and AWM, will be launching its first igamer camp for would be game makers to support Apple’s iphone platform with the support of Guy Wilday ex Studio Director at Sega. Inter agency working, supported with training and knowledge, puts the sector in a strong position to lead the way in addressing content issues.
However, in addition to content we need to think about access. Outreach, skills training and demonstration of how people can get the most out of the digital revolution, using existing networks will be key to realising true economic benefits.
This is as relevant for all businesses as it is for the cross section of communities that make up our region. The more inclusive and easier the communication is to access, the more we will benefit as a region from our ability to connect and do business.
Some of these issues are being teased out with a focus group set up by Birmingham City University who are working with a range of specialists, from freelancers, developers and academics to public funding agencies. Their focus is to establish how they can use their collective expertise and networks to best advantage by setting up a Centre for Excellence in Digital Participation.
The Midlands region has an incredible amount of talent in terms of expertise and knowledge in all aspects of content development.
There is real evidence to support a leadership position in digital participation, utilising our cultural engagement, award winning content generation and our significant and enlightened creative community.
The Big Debate is an important opportunity to bring together practitioners across all areas to establish and construct a dialogue which will unleash new opportunities to issues that are of national significance and Birmingham City University will be looking to establish what action is necessary to support a prosperous position for the sector.
For more information about Birmingham City University’s digital expertise and The Big Debate go to www.bcu.ac.uk/discoverdigital
* Joanna Birch is Birmingham City University’s Head of Corporate Relations. Working across the creative and cultural sector, Joanna has established initiatives such as the New Generation Arts Festival and conceived Trends, an international touring exhibition to showcase new themes for the interiors industry. Joanna is on the board on the Birmingham Cultural Partnership and contributes to a range of think tank groups on the development of the creative and cultural industries, working in partnership with the regions public funded agencies.