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Hasan Bakhshi, Director of the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre in interview with John Knell

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi
(Credit: Nesta)

Introduction by Professor Andrew Thompson, AHRC Executive Chair
The AHRC-funded Policy and Evidence for the Creative Industries is perfectly positioned to help us to understand the effects of the pandemic on the UK’s arts, cultural and creative sectors. Equally, the Centre has a vital role to play in influencing and informing future policy targeted at their recovery. This interview with the Centre’s Director — Hasan Bakhshi — highlights the vital role of research in stimulating and sustaining innovation in this dynamic and fast-growing part of the economy.

John Knell: What is the PEC?

Hasan Bakhshi: The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) is a network of over 30 academic researchers covering multiple disciplines and based in 10 research universities, spanning the nations and regions of the UK, with a central team at Nesta.

JK: What was it set up to do?

HB: It was launched in November 2018 to achieve a step change in the quality of data and independent evidence to inform public policies for the creative industries. Central to its vision was the timeliness of its research and policy advice: Industry and policymakers needed evidence and insight that was relevant for tackling the burning issues of the day but timeliness has traditionally been a real challenge for academic researchers, given the typically long and variable lags between beginning and completing and disseminating research. 

JK: That emphasis on timeliness and agility is really interesting, and it sounds like you’re meeting some needs of your key stakeholders. Is that how it’s worked in practice?

HB: Just over 18 months in, and I’m more convinced than ever of the need for agile research that addresses the changing priorities of the creative industries, yet meets the highest standards of independence, research ethics and academic excellence. The creative industries are not alone in having this need, of course, but the COVID-19 crisis reminds us just how fast-changing the research priorities for the creative industries can be. 

A recent example is our cohort study of digital cultural consumption behaviours in lockdown. In a matter of just a few weeks the PEC was able to identify an important research need for the creative content industries, reach out to a prospective partner (the Intellectual Property Office, IPO), agree a rigorous research design, contract with a data collection agency and commence fieldwork. The PEC’s strong communications function has allowed us to publish insights in close to real time over a six-week period which have received positive feedback from industry and policymakers alike. The project’s success has enabled the PEC and the IPO to secure additional funding from UKRI to extend fieldwork into the summer, so that we can capture impacts on consumption behaviours as lockdown eases. 

There are many things we have learned in this first 18 months, not least because what we are trying to do is so novel. We always knew we’d need robust research planning processes, given the wide-ranging nature of the creative industries and consequently of our research agenda. But ensuring that researchers can adjust their plans in light of industry’s changing priorities has not been easy.

One thing we have come to appreciate in this regard is the importance of a focused central communications and policy function, both to stay on top of the PEC’s expansive research programme but also to work more closely with the PEC’s researchers to identify impact opportunities and collaborate with them so their research activities reach a wider audience. A sign of our success, despite having no formal events staff or function, is that we have grown the number of seminars which PEC (and other) researchers can use as a platform for their work.

JK: Could you say a bit more about the PEC’s novel design in terms of building those relationships between industry, policy and academia. What are the challenges in creating a shared understanding of what’s required, and how to draw on each of their strengths?

HB: The PEC is in many ways a research mediator between the creative industries and government. We spend a great deal of time listening to what industry practitioners want out of public policy and framing their challenges as research questions that we try and answer to generate evidence for policymakers. Academic researchers, industry and policymakers have their own distinct vocabularies, occupy different social networks and very often work at a different pace. As such, the PEC has had to create new engagement models which can bring these very different parties together. Happily, our geographically and intellectually diverse network of researchers means we are typically just one or two steps away from key stakeholders so we have a good understanding of these different perspectives.

The PEC’s engagement models are already turning out to be of interest to other research centres with similar ambitions of bringing together academic research with practice and policy, such as the AHRC’s recently launched Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre. They recognise that our research mediator model is vital to adding value, and they are interested in how we’ve created key networks to support that model, like our Industry Champions network.

JK: Could you tell me a bit more about the Industry Champions network then? How is it working? And do you see long-term potential in this kind of engagement with Industry?

HB: The PEC’s network of Industry Champions plays a central role in our engagement with industry. It is made up of a diverse group of creative industry practitioners with varied specialisms including art and design, production, talent development, business management, making, marketing and R&D. As well as serving as a general gauge of industry issues that research should address, the PEC convenes Industry Panels made up of interested Industry Champions to advise on particular research questions, give feedback on specific research insights and advise on policy recommendations. We write up these industry perspectives and combine these with our own takes as policy experts. 

So far, we have convened three such Industry Panels: on the value of creative Higher and Further Education; on the importance of local development policies for creative businesses; and on the need for business model innovation in creative content industries in the post-COVID-19 world. Our Insight Briefings on these Industry Panels (Oct 2019 and Feb 2020) make for really interesting reading – I’d encourage readers to take a look at them to judge for themselves. 

If in time industry can see the value of engaging with academic research in this way the Industry Panels may be a transferable and potentially scalable model of enhancing the value of research to industry as well as policy impacts. But my hope for the Industry Panels is that the engagement with industry does not stop with the publication of the Insight Briefings. If they succeed in leading to better policy ideas I see the Industry Champions helping us to disseminate the recommendations and working with us to influence policymakers to bring about policy change.

JK: It sounds like the PEC’s USP is becoming clear, in terms of this agile mediator model. As you’ve tried to build and flex that approach, what have been the tensions and key learning points for you and colleagues? 

HB: At the outset, the UK-wide nature of the PEC’s consortium recognised that policy priorities and governance structures varied widely across the regions and nations. To conduct locally relevant research and policy advice I wanted the PEC to have strong local knowledge and networks in all parts of the country. However, the PEC’s researchers are in the main on fractional appointments to the PEC working in their particular areas of research expertise. This has meant that the universities have not generally felt able to serve as local ‘nodes’ for the PEC in the way I had envisaged. Much of our work to date has therefore focused on central government (even if a lot of that work has related to local policies). In future it probably makes sense for the PEC to develop strategic partnerships with local stakeholders, including other universities, in a smaller number of regions where we can achieve most policy impact.

JK: What’s been harder than you anticipated, and what’s been easier, and what does that tell us about how to make the PEC an ongoing success?

HB: The PEC’s vision is unashamedly ambitious. In recent years, the creative industries have made strides in getting the attention of UK industrial policymakers, accounting as they do for 2.1mn jobs and £112bn in GVA (before the present crisis). But with that ambition we have found prioritising our work even more difficult than we had imagined it would be. Put simply, we have been successful in reaching out to the many different sub-sectors that constitute the creative industries, but the policy agendas touch on a very large number of issues and with constrained resources we are unable to research everything (despite our desire to be responsive and our natural intellectual curiosity telling us we should do so!). It’s a cliche to say this, but the PEC will have to do ‘fewer but better’ research activities if we are to achieve the impact we desire to have on policy.
(See a summary of our Year 2 research plans).

JK: If the PEC reaches its full potential over the next few years, how will it have changed the quality of evidence for the creative industries?

HB: A proximate indicator of the PEC’s success is whether it grows the creative industries evidence base in critical areas like diversity and inclusion, the future of work, industrial organisation, productivity, R&D, international competitiveness, spillovers, content regulation, business models and risk finance – areas where in many cases there is currently next to no research. However, ultimately the PEC will only have succeeded if it uses its relationships with decision-makers in industry and government to ensure this research is relevant and impactful in policy terms. 

The PEC is really an experiment in networked research centre design, testing new models of partnership, engagement and impact: academic research that addresses in a timely way the policy needs of a fast-changing industry. 

JK: COVID-19 has been a real-time test of the PEC’s model and approach. How has the PEC been affected by the crisis?

HB: Like all organisations operating in the creative industries ecosystem, the PEC needs to reflect on how the evolving crisis will affect our work. We have aimed to act with agility through immediate actions including establishing a resources page on our website signposting policymakers to different data collection efforts on COVID-19 impacts on the creative industries and publishing tips for trade bodies on survey design. We quickly designed and launched a major cohort study on digital cultural consumption behaviour during lockdown (and tracked the importance of culture in keeping the public engaged and well during the crisis). In parallel, we have been engaged in developing a longer term strategic response through the establishment of a consortium-wide PEC COVID-19 Research Group. The group is working to shape how the PEC can best help as a platform, including the identification of both potential new research projects and where planned or existing work can address COVID-19-specific issues. We have also responded by migrating the PEC’s events online with two postponed joint research frontiers seminars held in June on the topics of gender imbalance and intersectionality with King’s College London.

We have also taken a good look at our publication pipeline and have prioritised the publication of research which addresses current needs. A good example is our 'Charities Speak' report which maps the different missions of charities working in the arts and culture space. The analysis applies natural language processing and clustering techniques to the information that charities provide when they register. This allows for a more detailed understanding of what charities are doing, and what they are trying to achieve, than is available from existing classifications. The research reveals the diversity of the social challenges addressed by these organisations, including isolation and community cohesion, alongside arts and cultural activities. These functions are crucial during this COVID-19 crisis, with these organisations reaching out to and supporting those most affected. But despite having an important role to play during and after the pandemic, arts and cultural charities are under significant threat due to the crisis’s economic implications. Our report reveals that the majority of arts, culture (and heritage or science) charities are small and are therefore likely to have fewer resources to fall back on.

JK: One of the features of the response to COVID-19 has been heightened collaboration within and across sectors – for example the race to a vaccine has been characterised by unprecedented levels of early, widespread data sharing between countries, and their research and commercial sectors. Do you think that kind of response is going to leave a legacy?

HB: It is too early to say what the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be for the nature of research collaborations. Thought leaders like Professor Diane Coyle at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University have argued that it has exposed the need for greater multidisciplinary research. The speed with which COVID-19 became a global pandemic has also forced academics, and outlets for academic research, to reduce their lead times for publication if they want their research to have maximum impact and influence policies. In some areas, notably health and epidemiology, we have seen research teams – often across borders – joining forces and sharing data to tackle the challenges collectively. The creative industries would benefit from such trends, and as a research centre that was set up to undertake multidisciplinary, timely research to address the biggest challenges facing the sector, the PEC has a role to play in championing these.

JK: It sounds like the PEC’s internationalism is therefore important. What role and value has its International Council played? Is it a model for the UK research community post-Brexit, maintaining a global perspective and field of vision?

HB: The PEC’s International Council of thirteen global creative industry policy experts and super-connectors, convened by the British Council, plays an important role in the PEC’s ability to grow the evidence base needed to develop effective policies for the UK's creative industries. As increasing numbers of governments across the world adopt active policies to support the creative industries in their countries, the International Council helps the PEC learn from that international experience to understand what is best for policy in the UK. The group provides a unique range of insights drawn from their experiences in their own countries, and connects the PEC with others to help to fill further gaps in research and evidence. In the COVID-19 crisis, the International Council has allowed the PEC to quickly scan the globe for interesting policy responses and share these with UK policymakers. The Council’s membership spans both the Global South and North including experts from the EU. It should also provide an important forum for knowledge sharing at the global level when external developments in the environment, including the UK’s exit from the EU, may act to impede exposure to international lessons.

JK: One of the features about the recovery narrative has been the very live public debate about ‘building back better.’ What might that aspiration mean for the creative industries? Are there any ‘innovation leaps’ and new approaches that could emerge post COVID-19?

HB: A striking feature of the crisis is how it has exposed longstanding structural deficiencies in the creative industries, including regional and socio-economic inequalities which PEC research warns may be further exacerbated by the economic difficulties. We have suggested that policymakers need to intervene actively eg, by investing in secondary creative clusters outside London to protect the growth advances these places have achieved in the years before the crisis. 

The economic stakes are much greater than securing strong creative industries, however. A growing evidence base, which the PEC is contributing to, suggests that the creative industries can generate positive spillovers on other sectors too. For example, creative sub-sectors which are business- rather than household-facing – think design, software, advertising and architecture – can be seen as providing innovation services to the wider economy (see websites: Taylor & Francis Online and ScienceDirect). As such, the UK’s creative industries – if they can survive the crisis – will have a potentially important role in helping businesses in other sectors to adapt to new economic realities.

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