Creative Informatics

The University of Edinburgh’s role in the City Region Deal helped strengthen a multi-million pound bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Council to make Edinburgh a centre of entrepreneurship in the creative industries.

Scotland’s creative sector brings invaluable economic, social and cultural capital to the country through its inherently innovative and entrepreneurial activities, but this can come at the cost of insecure employment. We spoke to Professor Chris Speed, Director of Creative Informatics, and Yasmin Sulaiman, Creative Bridge Programme Lead at Codebase, about how they intend to harness this entrepreneurial spirit to bring new, resilient businesses into the sector.

Creative industries, which span from advertising and publishing to theatre and music, make up 15,000 businesses in Scotland employing over 70,000 people and contributing more the 5 billion to the Scottish economy annually. The importance of this sector has been recognised by government funding both past and present, with the UK government announcing in July 2020 that it would put aside £1.57 billion to help the industries through the Covid-19 crisis.

Creative Informatics is a partnership between the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University, Creative Edinburgh and Codebase that received 5 years of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through their Creative Clusters Programme in 2018. The research and development partnership has since found its feet and launched various initiatives bringing together industry, academics, and entrepreneurs to inject data-driven innovation into creative industries with the aim of creating 60 new companies over 5 years. As founder and director of the project, Prof. Chris Speed, puts it, “our argument was that data-driven technology was going to run across all of the creative industries. We are probably the only cluster in the UK that takes a very horizontal approach and then reaches out to all the creative industries within the cluster/region to see who needs support, who needs development in terms of literacy, who needs money, funding, skills, so on and so forth.”


Creative, meet business

A key initiative, and likely the first one many entrepreneurs will encounter when they get involved in Creative Informatics is the Creative Bridge, run in collaboration with CodeBase, the UK’s biggest tech cluster. This 10-week pre-accelerator course bridges the gap between the creative industries and data-scientists, business models and investors to allow creatives to bring their ideas to life in the form of sustainably run businesses.

As Yasmin Sulaiman, the Creative Bridge Programme Lead at CodeBase explains, “I think what we do with Creative Bridge is allow people to believe that actually they could make money from their business. I think that creatives have become so used to being underpaid and underfunded that they don’t expect to make money. They expect, hopefully, to cover their costs and have a roof over their head but I don’t think people really expect to make money or to run a business. And I also think there is an element of the way the narrative goes in creative industries that means that people don’t think they should be good at business either.”

Speed discusses how this perceived dichotomy between creativity and business is manifested in the “language of value” which runs a knife edge between the warm notions of an enthusiastic audience and rich archives and more practical notions such as market demand and data sets. Creative Bridge runs six core sessions to help creatives find economic as well as cultural value in their work. These sessions span setting the context in a world run by software, identifying and reaching markets, identifying needs, testing ideas, and ultimately pitching for funding. A myriad of minimum viable products and new businesses have been born of the first Creative Bridge cohorts, with some participants receiving funding from Creative Informatics to get their ideas off the ground through the Resident Entrepreneur programme. For example, Delic uses blockchains to ensure artists are credited for their work, Scottie  helps producers with various ticketing needs, and Black Goblin Audio are working on tools that would allow non-audio professionals to create computer generated sounds from scratch.

Another key part of the Bridge is the inclusion of guest speakers, “half of it is the learning that we share and the stories, but the other half is having that community and being able to learn from other people’s creative experiences.”


Learning from each other 

Within the context of the Creative Bridge, guest speakers make up the remaining four weeks of the course. These speakers come from a wide variety of sectors, with past speakers including Narie Foster, founder of fashion brand MM LaFleur, Sarah Stenhouse, founder of Oodls which works with Instagram photographers, and Didier Sibellas, Lead Designer at Canva. As Sulaiman puts it “we try to cover different parts of the business journey and a lot of it is about hearing not only the good stuff, but the bad stuff as well.”

Speed also emphasises the broader role of Creative Informatics in facilitating what he calls ‘convening and mixing’: “What is fascinating about the creative industries is that they are prepared to talk and meet and network. They are usually very vivacious people, not always, but they get out there quickly. I am hopeful that in meeting new people, we all meet new methods, we watch, and we learn very quickly about how different experiments in new productions or new products or services start emerging.” This mixing of ideas is facilitated by events run by Creative Informatics, such as their recent Innovation Showcase and regular Creative Informatics Labs and Studio events.


Unicorns, resilience and sustainability

The new methods, products and services that emerge from convening and mixing will play a significant role in the way the sector responds to social distancing requirements, as Speed says “Post-Covid everything has changed and resilience is about having adaptable business models.” In this context, adaptable business models could mean adding layers to the user experience, “some of these layers may involve a live event that starts using pre-existing video, a live event that uses archived databases so that the past becomes present in the live performance. Sometimes it involves jumping and intermingling with other sectors: you can involve food and drink at home while you go on this experience into something that once was a live event. I think it is a really interesting creative moment.”

Sulaiman similarly highlights the need for start-ups to constantly adapt and sees the Creative Bridge programme as a solid starting point for entrepreneurs: “I think that the purpose of the course is really to make people, the way my colleague Steven Drost (CodeBase’s Chief Strategy Officer) puts it, ‘anti-fragile’. So, taking away fear of fast change. Even without Covid-19, things change so quickly in the world of work now and creative people need to be more resilient and be able to keep up with that pace of change as well. So really the course is about equipping people with the tools and processes to not just weather those changes, but to thrive in that environment. We do not just think about growth for growth’s sake, we don’t want to create a whole load of new unicorns. It is about creating sustainable businesses that are mindful of their effect on society and that can see the bigger picture.”

Two sound engineers look at a recording on a sound mixing desk

We do not just think about growth for growth’s sake, we don’t want to create a whole load of new unicorns. It is about creating sustainable businesses that are mindful of their effect on society and that can see the bigger picture

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