Lighting the fuse

If you want to find out about how the arts, humanities and design can work together with digital technology and ICT, and make something greater than the sum of its parts, it’s a good idea to start by looking at where this is already happening. Brighton Fuse is a two-year research project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that is mapping Brighton’s thriving cluster of creative, digital and IT (CDIT) businesses, to try to find the secret of their success.

The City of Brighton and Hove is home to one of Europe’s most vibrant CDIT clusters. And since it has already successfully fused the cultural and creative sector with digital and technology industries, the city is an ideal place to analyse the contribution that the arts and humanities generally make to UK business innovation, and to test new ideas for future economic growth.

Dr Jonathan Sapsed is Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at the University of Brighton, and Principal Investigator for the Brighton Fuse project. He explains: ‘Brighton Fuse came out of a report produced by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), which identified issues around how arts and humanities skills can be combined with technical skills — something that’s vital for new economic growth in this country. The idea was that Brighton was already there as a pre-existing example of how this can work well, but there was only anecdotal evidence for why it did. With Brighton Fuse, we’re trying to provide hard evidence of how the arts, humanities, digital and IT work hand-in-glove in the most innovative companies, and to show that there’s a link to growth.’ The first Brighton Fuse project involved a consortium of University of Brighton, University of Sussex, Wired Sussex with CIHE (now NCUB). It is now in its 2nd phase

The project has involved a survey of around 500 companies in the Brighton cluster, combined with face-to-face interviews to get a sense of context. And some of the results, which have now been presented in a research report, have been surprising. Nearly half of all the entrepreneurs in the sector were found to have arts and humanities degrees. And those companies that were ‘superfused’ — that bundled creative, digital and business skills tightly together — were growing three times faster than those that were barely ‘fused’ at all (and ten times faster than the British economy overall), as well as having significantly higher levels of innovation.

Brighton rocks

So why should there be a digital and creative cluster in Brighton? According to Jonathan Sapsed, ‘clearly there’s an issue around quality of life here, with the town’s amenities and culture — the Brighton Festival, for example, is the biggest arts festival in England. Over 90% of entrepreneurs in the cluster have come to Brighton from somewhere else.’

Not that everything is perfect down on the South coast. The Brighton Fuse report also highlights some of the challenges facing businesses in the area. The high-growth, ‘superfused’ companies, for example, were shown to struggle particularly in finding people with the right skills — people who are comfortable with creative design, but also with technology and business management.

‘There are implications in this for education in this country,’ says Jonathan Sapsed. ‘The academic system, with its siloed departments, is not set up to be “fused”. The way that research funding is allocated needs to reflect interdisciplinary work much more. And we as universities need to rise to the challenge, and make courses more interdisciplinary.’

And while the Brighton Fuse report found an unusual level of connectedness between businesses and universities in Brighton, this too could be improved upon. ‘We don’t necessarily need more spin-out companies, but there could be more student placements in businesses, more guest lecturers from industry, more joint projects between companies and universities.’

Time to get wired

As well as the Universities of Brighton and Sussex, the Brighton Fuse project is run by Wired Sussex, a membership organisation for companies in the local digital, media and technology sector.

For Wired Sussex’s Managing Director Phil Jones, it was important that the business community was engaged from the start in the Brighton Fuse project — ‘we were involved in drawing-up the survey questions, which helped to ensure that an unusually large proportion of companies filled in what was a detailed questionnaire. Research like ours only has value if it has significant scale.’

Despite already working closely with many of the businesses in the sector, Phil Jones was surprised by some of the survey findings. ‘We expected to see some use of the arts and humanities by tech companies, but we were surprised at how clear it was, that those that were fastest growing were those that used them most effectively — they were significantly more successful than purely technical companies.’

The Brighton Fuse project has also involved piloting schemes to promote further innovation and economic development. Wired Sussex have been developing courses for a local innovation space, called the Fuse Box: ‘with the Brighton Fuse project,’ says Phil Jones, ‘we knew we couldn’t just produce a report — we had to take a lead in acting on its findings. We’re trying to turn the Fuse Box into something like an art school for technologists, taking a multi-disciplinary approach, and combining creative, digital and IT skills together.’ Wired Sussex is also helping to re-shape the Brighton Digital Festival, to make it more ‘fused.’

Hard evidence

What are the lessons, then, of Brighton’s success? Clearly, there is much that policymakers can take from it: we are living in an increasingly convergent world, where former distinctions between the arts and digital technologies are blurring, and education and training have to reflect that.

As for what individual cities could do differently, it might not be possible for them exactly to copy what Brighton has done. As Phil Jones says, ‘every city has to build on its own unique strengths.’ At the same time, though, ‘other cities can learn one particular lesson from Brighton – we see the arts here not as something that’s funded after people have made money, but as a core part of value generation in the city.’

And this links to the overall point that, for Jonathan Sapsed, the project demonstrates. ‘BrightonFuse provides hard, empirical evidence of the economic impact of the arts and humanities, as drivers of innovation and growth in the digital economy. The message of all this for policymakers is that there is a clear economic rationale for funding the arts and humanities.’

For further information, please go to www.brightonfuse.com

Click here to see short animations explaining the research findings.

Click here to read The Brighton Fuse report (PDF, 1.7MB)

Article by Matt Shinn

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