Global R&D Effort For Creative Technology Must Be Stepped Up Post-Covid

covid museum

By Andrew Thompson and Lord Neil Mendoza

The pandemic has highlighted creative industries’ innovative capacity and the extent to which we rely on culture not only for our livelihoods but to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Around the world the creative industries are poised to drive societal as well as the economic recovery, yet not without more focused attention and targeted government support. As part of that recovery, we need a concerted global R&D effort for creative technology, says Professor Andrew Thompson and Lord (Neil) Mendoza.

As governments around the world have resorted to various forms of lockdown to stop COVID from spreading, theatres, concert halls, festivals, heritage sites, galleries and museums have all had to close their doors. At the start of the pandemic productions skidded to a halt. Tours were rescheduled. Staff were furloughed or faced redundancy. The pandemic and live performance were simply not compatible; a major public health crisis constituted an unprecedented blow to the cultural life of many societies. But, for the UK at least, that is only a part of the story. “In dark and cloudy times”, to quote Mary Beard, “we really did harness technology to open up the best of what arts and culture have to offer on a wider and grander scale”.

Chairman of ITV, Peter Bazalgette, argues that we under-inform ourselves on the scale and value of the creative industries in the UK. In 2019 they represented 6% of national economic output. Moreover, they were growing at three times the rate of the rest of the economy. Even during COVID sectors like film, television, computer gaming and book publishing continued to flourish.

The pandemic and live performance were simply not compatible, and a major public health crisis constituted an unprecedented blow to the cultural life of many societies.

Rapidly advancing digital technology and the revolution in data science were already with us before the pandemic – analysing, optimising and customising, forcing us to look at the economy of tomorrow into which governments will have to help their citizens to move. This is true. It is equally true, however, that the response of the creative industries to the pandemic has given us tantalising insights into the possibilities of podcasting, the streaming live performances, the staging of virtual exhibitions, online multiplayer games, and new forms of augmented and mixed reality.

There has in fact been an unprecedented expansion of digital offerings. A report by the Economist revealed that a staggering 25 million people in the UK visited a cultural site online or attended a virtual event in the first eight months of the pandemic alone. People have gained access to things they had never experienced before. Cultural organisations have reached new and more niche audiences. Consumers have been turned into producers, with platforms like Instagram and YouTube. If there is a single lesson to be learnt here it is that where creativity meets technology is the place is where great cultural and material value is going to be derived over the next twenty years.        

In the spring of 2020, we launched the Boundless Creativity project to provide real-time intelligence and comprehensive data on the pandemic’s effects on the UK’s arts, cultural and heritage sectors. Over a period of eighteen months, we spoke to many organisations, up and down the UK, large and small, private and public. Our final report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport emerged last summer when we had hoped there may be the first signs of exit velocity from the virus. But with the emergence of new variants, life amidst COVID continues to prove distinctly unsettling, like living in a science fiction movie not knowing what the ending will be.

In rich and poor countries, North and South, East and West, citizens have been turning to culture for comfort and consolation, to process what is happening to them, and to express their emotional responses. Whatever the restrictions and protections deemed necessary by the government, culture has fought back and helped to keep us all going.

When we began our project the actress Fiona Shaw spoke of “culture as everything, a way of travelling, even at home”. Despite closing their doors, cultural organisations were quick to adapt and innovate just when we needed them most.

The evidence we have gathered for Boundless Creativity shows a marked increase in digital cultural consumption over lockdown, even if problems of unequal broadband access and digital literacy remain. The demographics of change merit particular attention. Twice as high a percentage of the under-45s in the UK have engaged in cultural activities online compared with the over-45s. That said, across the entire age range, casual and marginal users have been converted into more intensive users of technology in search of satisfying digital cultural experiences. Watching filmed performances, looking at art online, or attending Zoom readings of plays – two-thirds of Britons now think it is possible to have a meaningful cultural experience online.

The evidence we have gathered for Boundless Creativity shows a marked increase in digital cultural consumption over lockdown, even if problems of unequal broadband access and digital literacy remain.

Not all forms of cultural product have translated. Digital is no substitute for live performance; artists sometimes chafe at its constraints; content needs to be adapted, or sometimes entirely rethought, and online experiences work best when they have intimacy and authenticity. Yet many of those organisations we spoke to expect the future to be a hybrid one. Virtual reality and reality itself will evolve alongside each other; performance to live audiences will be integrated with streaming to global ones. This more hybrid future is set to be a distinctive global marker of the creative economies across the globe.

The extraordinary demand we have witnessed for cultural products, services and experiences since the virus first arrived points to the potential for the creative industries to power a post-Covid recovery. What biomedical science is doing to tackle the primary physical effects of the virus has its analogue in what the arts, cultural and creative sectors can do to tackle COVID’s social and economic fallout. The key recommendation of our report, therefore, is that an equivalent effort be made in the domain of R&D for creative technology as is being made for the digital applications for climate, health, or security.

There is a compelling research agenda to get stuck into. How to reach new global audiences digitally? How to broaden digital access for producers and consumers? How to overcome entry barriers to the digital market faced by freelancers and smaller creative organisations? And how to bring the benefits of cultural access and participation where they are most needed? We don’t yet have satisfactory answers to these questions.

As governments around the world engage in the vast and risky experiment of reopening society, lives as well as livelihoods could be transformed by a major new drive for “science for creativity”. There is already precedent in the UK with the Creative Clusters and Audience of the Future programmes which were set up when one of us when previously CEO of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Together these two programmes are transforming university interactions with their cultural hinterlands and bringing cutting-edge technology into museums, theatre, animation, and gaming.

It is almost a truism to say the pandemic has changed how we lead our lives. But will this global health crisis also change the way we think about art, culture and creativity? The future for the creative industries is unlikely to be a simple extrapolation of their past. Indeed, we are already witnessing three powerful trends which promise to accelerate the pace of change.

First, innovation is emerging from small scale “creative tech” enterprises as much as from the internet majors, perhaps more so. These companies are fast-moving and dynamic; the fruits of their labours are making their way into our lives in ways of which we are largely unaware. Many are hiding in plain sight: Factory 42, the Imaginarium Studios, Tiny Rebel Games, and Marshmellow Laser Feast, to namecheck just a few. Only a handful attain the size of the visual effects company, Framestore, with offices worldwide. Yet although they often employ less than twenty people, they are partnering with some of the world’s largest and leading performing arts companies, heritage organisations and major retail outlets. Compared to the automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors they also receive miniscule amounts of public R&D funding.

Second, the growth of start-ups by young creative entrepreneurs taking on the world of business is as likely to come from smaller and specialised arts institutions as it is from some of our larger research-intensive universities. In fact, the UK universities with the most graduate start-ups in the creative and design sectors are places like the Royal College of Art or the University of Arts, where students like to use their creativity to solve real world problems. Forging partnerships between these types of arts-focused institutions, offering mainly vocational courses, with more traditional universities, possessing major strengths across the humanities and computer sciences, will be vitally necessary to be at the forefront of the creative technology, to pioneer interactive and immersive entertainment, and to spread the benefits of cutting-edge design.

The growth of start-ups by young creative entrepreneurs taking on the world of business is as likely to come from smaller and specialised arts institutions as it is from some of our larger research-intensive universities.

Third, we must for once and all relinquish the “two cultures” way of viewing the world which artificially pitches the arts against the sciences as if they were entirely separate things. The UK recently adopted the acronym STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics. STEAM recognises that it is at the intersection of disciplines that many of the most exciting innovations of the future will occur – researchers in the arts and humanities joining forces with those working in the fields of digital and data science. This is the philosophy that is driving the ten newly-commissioned projects shortly to be showcased by Unboxed – a UK festival which will bring millions of people together in 2022 via a series of free, large-scale events, installations and globally accessible digital experiences during next spring and summer.

The rhetoric of STEAM urgently needs to be turned into the reality of a step-change in cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral ways of working. STEAM truly hard-wired into the way we think. Any country able to fuse the arts and sciences together will see benefits flow not only to cultural consumption but to spill-over effects into other parts of the economy. For digital technology-enabled platforms are set to transform many aspects of leisure, transportation, and the world of work.      

The story of the vaccines is making it clear that COVID is a global crisis demanding global thinking and global response. While the virus exists in one part of the world it remains a threat to us all. What is true for our physical health is also true for mental health and well-being. We don’t live in isolation. Part of the COVID crisis, as testified by growing concerns worldwide for the psychological effects of successive shutdowns, is cultural. We need cultural participation to help us see beyond the difficult times in which we are living. We need cultural participation to lead meaningful and purposeful lives. We need cultural participation to remind us of the values that make us human.

A global R&D push on the creative industries therefore holds the promise of enhancing exit velocity from the pandemic both economically and socially – of benefitting lives as well as livelihoods. If, as seems certain, a series of tough public spending choices lie around the corner, governments would do well to keep that in mind.

This article was originally published on 27 January 2022.

About the Authors

Andrew Thompson

Andrew Thompson is Chair of Global and Imperial History at the University of Oxford and former CEO of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council; Andrew and Lord Mendoza co-Chaired the joint AHRC-DCMS Boundless Creativity Project. For their final report see

Lord Neil Mendoza

Lord Neil Mendoza, Neil is Provost of Oriel College, University of Oxford. He is the government’s Commissioner of Cultural Recovery and Renewal and Chair of the Culture and Heritage Capital board for DCMS. He led two government reviews into the museum sector in 2017. He is Chair of the Illuminated River Foundation. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.