Once upon a Time in the West

Today is the last day of REACT. Below Jon Dovey and Clare Reddington, Director and Executive Producer, reflect on what we set out to do and what we hope the future holds.

Jon: The last blog post? Really? I can’t believe we are at the end of the REACT journey. Seems like just yesterday I was sitting in an airport in Washington reading a text from Clare that said ‘WE GOT IT!’ I knew what she meant but immigration control were bemused by my boarding gate war dance. Since then we’ve been working every day with a remarkable team to light a fire under the creative economy and to challenge the way that universities and businesses work together. We’ve built a network that exceeds 500 businesses and 300 academics. We’ve funded 53 collaborative projects featuring 57 creative companies and 73 academics. We’ve involved more than 25 different academic disciplines. As of today (and this figure is set to grow) these projects have drawn in  £5.4m of investment, sales and research funds.

Clare: Today is the last day of something pretty special, and I suspect it will take us a few months yet to reflect, understand and celebrate what has been achieved. Four years is a delightfully and tortuously long time to do anything. As we say goodbye to this mammoth project, this feels like one of my biggest learning points. The purpose of REACT was always to get people collaborating. But as one of four hubs established to get academics and creative businesses working together, we also wanted to play with temporality. We wanted to address the differing timescales of academic research and commercial imperative, to find gearing mechanisms that smoothed out different ways of working and give ourselves time to learn, reflect and iterate. To invent something new.

And we have - four years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the breadth, strength and quality of the projects we have supported. Or that our last big hurrah would be a Festival – of the scale and ambition of the Rooms. Of course four years necessarily defies imagination when you set out and we have all got braver over time. We rather typically began the REACT programme early (people from our peer hubs referred to us as Cowboys – the gun slingers of the knowledge exchange wild west) doing things quickly and bending the rules.  Perhaps the resilience and stubbornness of being cowboys has kept us going. More likely it has been the joy and energy we draw from being part a network of brilliant people with unusual ideas. A network that these days look less like separate groups of academics and creatives, and feel more like a community.

Into the Sunset: In the 21st Century knowledge is increasingly produced by different kinds of people working together to address big challenges and design sustainable futures. The University should always make room for the lone scholar burrowing into a deep hole of original and highly specialised knowledge; but the value of the University will be increasingly found in its ability to contribute to these new processes of collaborative production.

Innovation and originality can emerge from anywhere. The bedroom roboticists, maker-movement pioneers and new experience designers find their way to places where like-minds can meet free from institutional pressures. They form teams where designers, social scientists, engineers and artists work together to produce new products, services and critical approaches for the world we all share. What’s more these next generation innovators won’t have the same kinds of constrained way of thinking about not for profit or commercial operations – a service is truly smart when it’s socially useful and can find a market, that could be public or private. Collaborative teams of the new knowledge economies extend to our audiences. Media businesses, public services, and universities are all beginning to understand that their value is created with people formerly known as audiences, clients or students. We are all called into increasingly intimate relationships with the end users of our enterprises. This can feel like a Wild West, a chaotic and often wasteful process, where start-ups come and go. Great ideas get trashed in the competitive rush to succeed. Microbusinesses collide and shatter in the churn of the competitive landscape. In the meantime, massive monopolies – Amazon, Google, eBay – emerge from the chaos to appropriate the value produced through shared information and turn it into insanely speculative stock market valuations.

We want to build a different future, a kind of knowledge commons, where Universities and creative business can collaborate and support one another to make a real contribution, not to a Californian global corporate, but to the lives of the people here in the West. A regional knowledge commons is about community and collaboration. It can start new businesses, create jobs, generate new research and lead to new ideas for universities, businesses and citizens. Together.

So where do we go next? Do we fold up our tents and disappear into mists of cultural history allowing our different institutions to default to business as usual? I think not. We’ve seen the future.

Clare Reddington, Executive Producer of REACT, Creative Director of Watershed. Outlaw.

Jon Dovey, Director of REACT, Professor of Screen Media UWE Bristol. Outlaw.