Re-imagining place through immersive and participatory experiences that re-contextualise memory assets

Colleagues and I have awarded funding from the AHRC-EPSRC Immersive Experiences call. As the call document outlines, the focus of the funding round is on:

"...encouraging research proposals exploring immersive experiences in three areas where the UK has world leading creative assets and technology partners [memory, place and performance]. These three areas have arts and humanities research at the core of developing experiences and practices. They also represent areas in which the benefits of research offer significant cultural and economic value for the UK."

The immersive industry is built around the use of a range of technologies including virtual and augmented reality, 3D audio effects, haptic technologies, machine olfaction, gesture and speech recognition, and bespoke software.

Northumberland Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. (From  Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection )

Northumberland Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. (From Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection)

Project Introduction

Our project seeks to develop a new framework to support the creation and application of immersive memoryscapes: multi-sensory and participatory experiences within public spaces that re-contextualise heritage assets, and reimagine and reinvigorate public spaces as destinations. These will provide connections with the past along with the capacity for users to contribute feedback and their own memories.

Our framework will combine academic understandings of the construction of these memoryscapes with practical guidelines for their creation and application. It will be scalable and offer not only new pathways for memory based organisations to disseminate their collections, but provide new approaches to enhance urban (re)development projects through the inclusion of immersive and participatory experiences. Through a series of interviews, desk-based research, collaborative workshops and public engagement, we will explore and evaluate ideas, challenges and opportunities for immersive experiences that employ memory assets to reinvigorate place as a destination. By examining the intersection of immersive experiences, memory assets and place, the proposed research aims to establish the potential application of immersive experiences to:

  • re-contextualise and increase access to, and dialogue about memory assets by bringing them out of the museum/gallery/archive and presenting them in new ways and in new locations
  • reimagine and reinvigorate our public spaces contributing to their character and identity, and our relationship to those places by utilising memory assets

Our key outputs will be:

  • New interdisciplinary partnerships which can go forward to the next round of funding to develop immersive experiences
  • A framework for understanding the generation of immersive and participatory memoryscapes, including 'prototype(s)' to illustrate potential ways forward

To help us we're working with two project partners:

Partner 1 - Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums is a major regional museum, art gallery and archives service based in North East England. They operate nine museums, support a further 55 and manage the region’s archives. Their collections are of international importance in archives, art, science and technology, archaeology, military and social history, fashion and natural sciences. TWAM will provide valuable insights and access to their collections, as well as expertise on user experience and curation of pasts.

Partner 2 - FaulknerBrowns Architects

FaulknerBrowns are a multi-award winning architectural practice with over 50 years of experience working nationally and internationally. They are recognized for their design, masterplanning, placemaking and strategic expertise, and have worked on multi-million pound projects for public and private sector clients. FaulknerBrowns bring to the project extensive research from their collaboration with Newcastle City Council on masterplanning the development of Newcastle’s principal retail area.

We'll also be working with immersive experience providers (including VRTGO members), urban designers, heritage organisations, civic bodies, artists, designers and academics

The project lasts for nine months and will include a series of workshops to develop our outputs. If you're interested in this project we'll have a dedicated twitter and website up and running soon. In the meantime feel free to contact me.

Project team

Jon Swords (Principle Investigator) - Senior Lecturer in Economic Geography, Dept of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Northumbria University

Richard Watson (Co-Investigator) - Senior Research Fellow, Dept of Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University

James Charlton (Co-Investigator) - Lecturer in Architecture, Dept of Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University

Claire Nally (Co-Investigator) - Senior Lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature, Dept of Humanities, Northumbria University

Kay Rogage (Co-Investigator) - Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in Digital Living, Dept of Computer and Information Sciences, Northumbria University

David Kirk (Co-Investigator) - Professor of Digital Living, Dept of Computer and Information Sciences, Northumbria University

AHRC Creative Industries Clusters Programme

Yesterday I attended the AHRC’s Newcastle briefing for their Creative Industries Clusters Programme. It was held at the Sage Gateshead which wasn’t a great start, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog. What prompted me to write this is the potential this funding, together with the Bazalgette Report, has for redefining the creative industries, what they are celebrated for and how they might develop in the future.

I should start by saying i've not had a chance to deeply interrogate the call documents and i've not watched the videos from other briefing sessions, so this is a set of early thoughts... which may not be that coherent!

The creative industries as we know them now have a long history and they have gone through various round of re-definitions to be called the creative industries. These definitions have evolved from academic and policymaker’s interest, and as a result of technological and industrial change. Generally speaking we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on the economic value of creativity, especially since the DCMS’s famous mapping project, at the expense of cultural and artistic value. It’s almost automatic that whenever the creative industries are discussed in a policy context there are accompanying statistics about them being the fastest growing sector of the UK economy for GVA and employment, producing huge exports (insert British TV show currently being enjoyed by Americans) and big employment numbers. The political and discursive shifts about what counts as a creative industry and their role for the country have been reflected in, and reproduced by the organisations tasked with fostering their development and sources of funding to achieve this. The AHRC’s Creative Industries Clusters Programme (CICP) has the potential to harden this shift.

The AHRC describe the programme as “ambitious research and development investment to establish up to eight Creative Research & Development (R&D) Partnerships within existing creative clusters across the UK.” Partnerships are expected to be consortia of universities, businesses and “other key partner organisations”. The funding is from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund which means there are strings attached. As Andrew Chitty (AHRC creative industries champion) put it, access to this money means fitting creative industries development into what government finds acceptable to spend ISCF money on. To put it more explicitly: achieving medium to long term economic growth through research and development. Yes, that’s economic growth funding run through the AHRC, not the ESRC, and neither artistic value or audiences were mentioned at the briefing session. A potentially fascinating institutional shift - i'd love to know why the ESRC aren't involved.

Chitty explained the R&D element is primarily about research for creative industries (rather than about or with them) by/through higher education institutions (HEIs). This differentiates it from programmes which Creative FUSE NE which includes elements of research about, with and for, and from knowledge exchange hubs. Knowledge exchange hubs focused primarily on SMEs, but there is an emphasis in the CICP programme on what were referred to as ‘large corporates’, ‘national partners’ and ‘big players’ (Google, Youtube and ITV were mentioned at various times). The reasoning is that larger companies can provide scale for SMEs, while the latter can more nimbly provide innovation and talent for the former. So this is economic growth led by key challenges faced by firms, harnessing HEI resources. My immediate thoughts were what’s going to stop larger corporations extracting all the value at the expense of SMEs? What role for freelancers who represent a major part of the sector? And what about third sector organisations?

A second key element of the call is that rebalancing the economy and driving regional economic growth through bids is key. [Is regional development policy back under the Conservatives!?] To do this funding will be channelled through existing clusters. Potential bidders were told that: “We [AHRC] aren’t going to tell you what your cluster is, that is up to you.” However, it was made clear the AHRC understands clusters using NESTA's very broad definition based primarily on measures of co-location and networking, rather than tangible relationships between firms you might find in the business studies or economic geography literature. But if you’re examining national datasets it is difficult to do the latter, so it makes sense to leave it up to bidders to make the case for what they consider to be a creative cluster as they are closer to the ground. That said, we were shown some new data the AHRC is going to provide bidders to help them prepare their proposals which maps hot spots of different creative industries (based on location quotients for firms and employment). We were told suggesting you have a cluster in a ‘cold spot’ would be treated with suspicion and require further evidence. There was also a great deal of emphasis on the collaboration and networking potential of clusters – chance meetings at various events was mentioned a number of times – and the role of knowledge exchange. The role of competition wasn’t really addressed. Given NESTA’s influence this isn’t surprising, and a quick search of their The Geography of Creativity in the UK reveals the word competition only appears once (in the title of Saxenian’s 1996 classic about Silicon Valley and Route 128). World class clusters have competition at their heart and it is central to Porter’s work on clusters which is the most popular theorisation of clusters amongst policymakers (and the reason why various types of agglomerations are referred to as clusters in policy discourse). Afterall, competition drives firms to innovate and to outdo their rivals in search of market share, the best workers, funding etc.

The emphasis on collaboration and the downplaying of competition leads to a potential issue in relation to R&D. “Creative R&D Partnerships to…Produce new creative content, products and experiences that are frequently the key driver for digital technology innovation in the creative industries.” Why would a firm collaborate with an HEI if the new product that partnership produces is going to be shared with rivals? There are reasons which might motivate a firm to do this, but balancing collaborations with competing firms is a hard task and it might constrain the types of R&D done by consortia.

This also leads to a further question, is the programme about development of clusters or firms? This is a common problem identified in the regional development literature from the late 1990s and 2000s which highlighted the subtle, but important differences between growth of firms in a region versus development of a region. If I get a chance I’ll interrogate the call documentation more closely to try and bottom this out.

The rebalancing element of the call suggests we’ll see a decent spread of successful bids around the country, but if this is the case I wonder how national players will fit into things. Bidders were told that they don’t need to worry at this stage about engaging large corporates as the AHRC was doing this and they’d potentially help match-make partnerships once bids were shortlisted for the second round of the process. Many of the biggest firms in the creative economy are based in London/SE England but Chitty explained that this wasn’t a barrier for partnerships with clusters elsewhere. It may not be a barrier, but relationships between regional clusters and large partners from London/SE will need to be managed carefully to minimise exploitation of the former’s resources.

A geographic spread around the country is relatively straightforward to achieve, but balancing that spread with the range of creative industry sub-sectors is going to be harder. If consortia from Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool-Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast all go with film/TV/screen sub-sectors, will the AHRC allow it? These areas can justifiable lay claim to significant hubs of activity in this field, but it would be more than half the partnerships. It will be interesting to see what negotiations happen between the first and second rounds of the bidding process, and how long the promise to led bidder define their own clusters lasts. 

This is going to be a challenging programme to respond to, let alone deliver (which is the point). And it is important to get right - as a couple of speakers made clear - because there might not be a second bite at this level and type of funding from government. Furthermore, the content of successful bids will shape how creative industries are defined by UK policymakers. I’m pleased to see the creative industries getting multi-million pound investment as they are important, but what is left out of this programme of funding could alter their shape in the years to come.


En_counter Secrets

At our exhibition in May/June we had a map on which visitors were invited to write secrets and cover them with a post-it note.

We photographed them and made a short video.

Mapping at Swalwell Primary School [Reblog]

This is reblogged from

Last week (Thursday 30th June) we had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Year 6 at Swalwell Primary School. A big thank you to the class and Mrs McCall for hosting us.

Year six is the youngest group we have worked with and we were a little apprehensive they'd understand our ideas. But once we got started the pupils were as enthusiastic as any we've mapped with, and they thoroughly enjoyed becoming cartographers.

We started by asking the children to draw their own worlds. Plain sheets of A3 were distributed along with pens and pencils. The thinking began and tentatively they started to map their lives. Once we gave out gold Sharpies, however, things became more exuberant (we hope it is the allure of the brand, rather than the smell).

As you can see below the range of worlds mapped was huge. Online and offline merger, fantasy lands came to life, houses were redesigned, and local streets were given a fresh look. Some of the maps were unfinished, but as we explained to the class, no map is ever complete.

After a short break, we asked the children to form pairs and gave them maps of the local area. We described the power cartographers have to erase mountain ranges and entire continents, and to make small things appear more significant. Then we gave each group two pens: one light pen to highlight the areas they would show to visitors, one dark to erase entirely places they didn't like. The power immediately went to the children's heads as rival schools were eradicated, the golf course destroyed and industrial estates deleted. At the same time nature was protected, the Metro Centre's already dominant position by the river was accentuated and it quickly became clear how special Swalwell Primary School was to them (they only have two weeks left before heading to secondary schools).

The final  the class undertook was to jointly map out their futures. The aspiration and variety was really encouraging as universities were drawn, future jobs planned out, Olympic ambitions revealed and Youtube kingdoms developed.

We had a great time with this year group and we're delighted Mrs McCall has invited us back.