DESIGN LAB ONE: ACTIONS AND OUTCOMES

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ACTIONS AND OUTCOMES

Next steps for West Midlands Creative Screen Sector

The first Design Lab achieved a surprising degree of consensus on the problems, given the range of people and industries represented.

And the ‘scrum’ methodology also led to practical suggestions for solutions, many of which can be implemented or explored immediately.

Other ideas will be researched for future Design Labs with a view to creating possible pilot projects.

In all cases, what matters most is that the ideas that came from the lab are transformed into transparent actions and the results honestly and openly fed back.  

AN ACTIVE NETWORK AND INTERACTIVE MAPPING

If there is one core conclusion for the day that underpins all others, it is the pressing need to create a collaborative and active networkacross the sector that unites different businesses and disciplines.

"We need to take advantage of 'collision density', where we can find ways of meeting people with the skills we need.”

That network will be the backbone for future developments.  The vast majority of businesses in the region are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), struggling to find work.

There is also a lack of structured connections between different skills groups, and particularly across different sectors.

Those connections are essential in many ways, beginning with the clearest economic wins in attracting inward investment and commissioners through having easy access to core skills.

They allow for collaborative partnerships to create stronger products. A number of delegates had stories about how they discovered the very skilled person needed for a production was living just a few streets away, without them knowing (sadly, often after the fact).

“Steven Knight is Wembley, where are the feeder clubs?”

WMSB has already been building cross sectoral partnerships and is also involved with an initiative, championed by the LEPs, of a super-cluster, working across the creative sector. The idea was presented at the open sessions and would seem to meet some of the aspirations raised during the Design Lab sessions. (An initial, very positive meeting of a tentative super-cluster has since been held in Birmingham).

Any aspirations for cross-media IP growth rests on a connected network. 

In a more strategic sense, having a mapped and connected network makes it easier to carry out gap analysis of skills, finance, studio space, etc. and to share knowledge in a way that is focused and relevant.

“Spaces are not enough, we need people who have the technical knowledge”

WMSB is already undertaking a major mapping operation of business and resources and that needs to be more clearly coordinated with other research, partner organisations. There was interest in the development of an Interactive Network, which would turn the database of businesses into action, in terms of connecting businesses and talent along the value chain, and potentially linking into physical spaces for meetings and development. WMSB is looking at a pilot project.

In the current climate, however, most companies are working project-to-project, without the resources or knowledge to develop businesses strategies that can allow them to succeed.

The Lab made clear that critical to the connected network will be communication and WMSB will coordinate that work.

“The creativity is the hard bit. We can teach the rest.”

 The WMSB website, The Bureau, developed originally as a site mainly focused on promoting activity, needs to be reworked in the short term to become a place where knowledge is freely and openly shared with the network (supported by social mediaand a newsletter).

 The web activity should tie into the proposed Talent Platform. The idea was proposed as part of the LEP consultancy but its function remained unclear, which is unsurprising, given that it is still in an early stage of development. It seems to have a role in promoting emerging talent from the region

 But there are other options to be explored in how such a platform could be integrated into other areas of development outlined here. 

But most of all the network needs to become a resource for sharing ideas and approaches and for helping build a pathway programmeto support development of individual careers and business development.

“We are the people who can make things happen. Not waiting for someone else to solve our problems.”

 One of the ideas that emerged during the Channel 4 bid was that the West Midlands needed an Acceleratorsystem for developing talent at a certain level.

 That idea was strongly welcomed and essential to helping regional talent to reach – and indeed push – the standards to the levels needed to service leading broadcasters, design the games that can compete in a global market, and ensure that new studio spaces are filled with local content. 

 (An Accelerator programme was proposed as part of the Channel 4 bid and may be developed through new funding to help support industry growth, although no announcements have yet been made.)


COORDINATION: A ONE-STOP COLLABORATIVE HUB

 

Any ambitious strategy needs to have a focal point, where emerging talent can find the data and knowledge they need. Ad hoccoordination is a serious weakness, raising hopes before crashing. 

There is also a need for a one-stop collaborative hub to access information about commissions, prizes and awards, public sector funding schemes.

“We need a clear chain of communication with what’s going on locally, regionally and nationally”

It would also be the point of call for national organisations to explain and help implement national policies. That will include organisation of events.

There is currently no central resource, which will offer a clear lead in terms of. 

“We need defined groups, which can act as facilitators. We need to be able to quickly draw on support for projects and spaces.”

  • Available funding

  • Coordinating event

  • Analysing and sharing advice and findings from pathway workshops

  • Best-practice guides

  • Potential partnerships

  • A communication hub around apprenticeships

  • Link to national organisations

  • Link to international bodies

  • West Midlands branding

“We need a new model for collaboration in this region, which is not just focused on geography but also on the digital aspirations and projects we want to accommodate, so we recognise the need for a physical, central hub.”

The hub role might prove particularly important in linking up activities across the sector, and particularly ensuring that strategies for grassroot development plug into those at a higher level, around big investments in studio space. 

It would also help ensure to promote the work of organisations and to ensure that enquiries lead to connections to the relevant organisations, such as an expanded Film Birmingham.

The hub might run and coordinate workshopswith local and national partners. It is essential that the West Midlands understands the value and direction of national and international organisations, which are often deeply engaged with issues that affect local activity.

“We can look at co-working spaces and co-locating some of the space requirements, including facilities that are not currently in the region in audio and post-production, VFX etc.”

The hub outlined should not be a funder of workshops. It should be a neutral organisation offering impartial advice and becoming a repository for shared data and a knowledge base. The workshops being coordinated could be provided by a range of organisations with specialist skills. In some cases, users will have a choice of service providers.

What matters is that there is a shared approach to development, so that business can access known needs (see Gap Analysis) with pathways beyond individual training schemes.

“We need to share funding knowledge, knowing what is available, what the rules are and what the returns on investment might be.

New needs are emerging that need to be addressed. There was a clear call, for example, for access to expertise in bid writing for grants and public funding awards. At the emerging and developing end of the pyramid, there is clearly ignorance about where funding might be found and what kinds of investment might be available. That means public funds and private venture capital.

All the desire for pathways and coordination still rely on funding and fund and award tenderingis clearly a sectorial weakness that will need to be addressed through a number of means, including network mapping as wellbeing a core function of the one-stop hub.

“We need workshops, perhaps in an incubator type fashion, where younger independent companies are shown how to become more marketable and how to structure finance.”

Most funding for innovation, project support and public-funded business development work comes with a strict set of rules and a tough application environment. The West Midlands needs to identify where there is actual access to funds. And there needs to be a coordinated and collective approach to accessing those funds. 

A strong regional response to competitions and awards, coordinated along collective lines is essential to growing the confidence of the sector and the sense of a new direction.

“Our independent companies need to be briefed about what commissioners and sales agents are looking for and that we know how to pitch them.”

Other areas of concentration for a hub, mentioned at the lab, were:

>> Pitching skills:  The need to improve the level of pitching was a widely cited as a weakness, resulting in part to the lack of funding opportunities in the region. There was a feeling, however, that it represented an opportunity. A collective approach to developing pitching, using cross-media skills and a programme of workshops could make a big difference. Making the West Midlands a beacon for world-class pitching of projects could represent an opportunity

 

BRAND BUILDING

“The Creative Screen Sector itself needs to think like a brand in competing for investment in the West Midlands against other industrial interests. We need to show we mean real business.”

The narrative for the region’s Creative Screen Sector should not just be about individual projects and public funds, it should be about an entrepreneurial business culture that thinks in terms of IP.

It should make a virtue of diversity but not by pats on the back that we have a diverse, digital culture but that we know how to develop the best ideas from across our communities into ideas and IP that can make an impact at national and international level – to that extent we need a brand that is world class.

“There has got to be substance behind the brand, not a logo and pretty pictures that are more about wishful thinking than reality.”

The relationship between brand and business is a complex one. Brand can both inspire activity and emerge and evolve from it and the Design Lab was clear on the need for Branding research, identifying the most effective mechanisms for brand building and maximising its impact in the UK and abroad.

One really important element of brand is the visible manifestations of it in terms of events. Sheffield has its DocFest, Manchester has its  Manchester International Festival, while further afield, one might look to Austin in Texas and South By Southwest, or Sundance in Utah. All are relatively new and have helped shape how their regions are seen.

“We ought to be bloody good at branding because we are storytellers.”

There is an extremely strong argument for creating a major cross-cultural eventin the region, or looking to expand existing ones. 

The Design Lab was not clear on the exact nature of the event but there was a call for discussion with other groups within and beyond the Creative Screen Sector about an event that would be able to mobilise communities and have a global reach.

“Branding is a practical necessity for regional growth. Recent failures are a demonstration that we are in direct competition with other regions for funding, but individual business are also fighting to make themselves heard at international markets.”

Echoing the open session presentation from StoryFutures, there was a sense that a festival embracing the opportunities of emerging immersive technologies and platforms, and development of fresh cross-media thinking would have value.

Others mentioned the power of e-Sports and role-playing gamesevents as a potential key component.

 

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

The approach suggested by the Design Lab clearly puts great emphasis on Research and Development, which would need to become a core strength. 

“Before deciding what we will invest in, we need to aggregate current and future requirements and to understand the resident demand. It is no good second-guessing what the industry needs.”

Targeted researchwas seen as essential, particularly when developing ideas outside narrow industry norms.

Steve Stopps, with his experience in innovation in gaming and business said a lot of attention needed to be focused on the ‘D’ of R&D. New methodologiesmay now be necessary to develop new areas, that take account of the realities of a changing ecosystem and to draw on the successes there have been in areas, notably gaming. 

The WMSB and partners need to look at fresh thinking and to report back to the network.

“We need to focus more on the ‘D’ of R&D, so we get research that supports specific development, rather than yet another consultation document.”

A big part of R&D success will need to be a more structured relationship between industry and policy-making in the region.

One of the themes was that the sector needed leadership, and inevitably there would be organisations and individuals leading in different areas of growth. Steven Knight’s studio, for example, would require areas of specific knowledge and approaches that required a degree of high-end specialisation.  But there was a feeling that the sector needed to pull together to ensure that  those vital developments are part of a broader agenda of sectoral development.

“The world changes so quickly, research and sharing knowledge has got to be happening all the time.”

There is concern about a top-down, disconnected policy and a need for policy discussion with key stakeholders to ensure a joined-up approach.

Relationships with academic institutions were another focus of attention. While they are considered an asset there was also a feeling expressed by some that the link between academia and industry in the region was weaker than it could be.

“The reality on the ground needs to be understood and reflected all the way up the chain.”

Again a more structured approach on equal terms was deemed important, given both recent disappointment, such as the AHRC bids, and a widely expressed sense of the value of strong partnerships.

 

CROSS-MEDIA IP DEVELOPMENT AND SKILLS

There is a strong sense of potential in new media models. That includes the development of new immersive forms of content, such as VR and AR, in their own right.

“We need to develop agility and flexibility into our work and the spaces we create.”

But there is a belief in the potential for developing IP around stories that work on more than one platform. That might mean cross-media support for a central product (such as a game with a film, or a graphic novel with a game).

“We need to ensure we have academic resources we can tap into and working out how incorporate those into models that include more traditional models.”

 It might also mean exploring cross-media models, designed to create IP through content across platforms. Such thinking went out of vogue in the independent sector but has since taken its place in the mainstream. 

“We need to build bridges across the different sectors and platforms and to get past siloed groups working separately and we need to know what facilities and spaces are available."

 Music, for example, has shifted from a model based on selling physical formats, such as a CD, or downloading, into a multimedia model, with live events, video, film, social media.

"We need to train and educate agile digital workers to work across sectors, including the public sector.”

“We need to create media producers who understand huge opportunities because at the moment we are too narrow in our thinking.”

 Suggested core actions generally revolved around researchand pilot scheme developmentto test models. There was particular interest in cross-media structures and adaptation models in developing IP.

 A lot of attention was devoted to agile skills development.

 The audiovisual sector is constituted along very narrow lines and inside silos that fail to see the opportunities beyond. 

“Where does theatre, TV and gaming all come together? We don’t know what that looks like but we need to know.”

 Often emerging talent is relying on relatively low-grade secondary employment to stay solvent, while they try to develop the projects and businesses that they hope will make their name. It is a problem that is a diversity issue, because those who do have time often have access to independent wealth, or personal connections.

 Training and mentoring courses were generally valued but they often felt ad hoc, without creating pathways for development. Those courses were also seen as rooted in individual parts of the value chain in siloed single industry structures.

“There are common denominator skills right across the sector and we need to create a Venn diagram to show everybody where they cross over.”

The Design Lab recognised there were many areas of excellence, from education, diversity training, new entrants mentoring, etc, though coordinating training and mentoring was seen as needing attention. WMSB will aim to be a voice in developing those areas and, where possible, supporting work.

But the emerging ecosystem requires new kinds of approaches, which are less rooted in the silos of individual industries. 

 One potential area of significance is a strategy for Agile Digital Workers, which looks at how to develop ‘creative professionals’ as well as ‘professional creatives’, who are able to work across industries and the public sector, fulfilling a growing need for digital storytelling skills in an increasingly audiovisual age.

 The other suggestion is anIP Development Plandeveloped by experts from across sectors. There would need to be a steering groupto help devise and lead policy development.

 

RETURNING AND NEW TALENT STRATEGY

A question asked a number of times during the sessions was how to attract back talent and business, which have left the area in pursuit of facilities, commissions and business prospects elsewhere. 

In an international industry, there will always be people leaving the region and that should often be a cause for celebration, rather than disappointment. Global success has the benefit of inspiring the next generation of talent (and indeed may clear the way for talent to fill their former positions.)

“The question is what would convince people who have left the region to come back here to set up their business and share what they have learned elsewhere.”

It was mentioned that Liverpool had managed to build an entire industry around The Beatles, who while born in the city, left at early ages and only intermittently returned, even for visits.

The opportunity might come in two areas: 

1.      Bringing back successful West Midlands entrepreneurs and production talent to bring their established businesses to their home region.

2.      Create mechanisms for those who have made a success elsewhere to come back for events and workshops.

3.      Involve talent, which has left the region in strategic planning.

“We don’t just need spaces that will service what we have here now, we need to promote that regionally, nationally and internationally to say we are open for business and we have a ready-made infrastructure.”

A parallel strategy ought to be to try to attract the most promising emerging talent from other areas of the UK, or elsewhere in the world to come to the area. This might be particularly important, given the desire to become a development area for new business models, fresh kinds of IP and cross-sectoral business.

An immediate strategy might be to ‘scout’ the most promising talent from art schools and film schools and often them incentives. 

The Design Lab was reminded that the Creative Industry regeneration of areas of London, such as Shoreditch, was built on relatively low-cost spaces for young British artists. The money eventually followed the creativity. 

“We should go to the art schools and film schools to convince the best talent that they have great opportunities to realise their ambitions here. We are a region that has thrived on incomers and immigrants.”

Given that the Midlands, and particularly Birmingham after HS2, will be less than an hour from London by train, there is every chance of gaining interest.

Attracting new talent  strategy does require some investment in incentives. That might mean dedicated zones, where relatively low-cost space can be rented, or other forms of subsidy (perhaps through competitions.)