About Saint

I'm a flaneur and a sardanapalian.

Fusion: does it add up?

You do the math! I recently curated Creative Skillset’s transFUSION conference, and this article is a response to that event. We need to be aware that the growth areas for fusion skills are around data, and not technology itself.

We need to be careful we don’t downplay maths and science just because those of us in the creative industries haven’t yet developed ways to interact with or assimilate these skill concerns. This means new levels of skills collaboration and a new way of thinking about who our industries really are.


On December the 4th 2013 Creative Skillset held transFUSION: the first conference for Higher Education lecturers, management and stakeholders to come together to discuss Fusion, one of the most pressing high level skills issues of our time, and I was lucky enough to curate the speakers and workshops. Whilst a success in many ways, it failed in one respect- science and STEM tutors kept away, so wider dialogues were circumvented. In a way it’s understandable (who are we creatives to the STEM subjects?) and although there was a great energy to the debates and discussions we had, it felt there was a voice missing at times.

So what is Fusion? There have been various attempts to articulate aspects of this space; in the United States’ STEAM has taken off as a riposte to an education system that privileges STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) by diminishing Art, whilst over here the UK’s Council for Industry and Higher Education (now NCUB) uses the moniker of CDIT or Creative Digital Information Technology to represent this new converging space. We prefer Fusion as a nod to the CIHE’s own “The Fuse” report, which in 2010 first explored HE’s nascent responses to this digital disruption. To me Fusion has an extra dimension from all of the above; it’s the overlapping zones of Art/Creativity, STEM and Enterprise, which is the motor in our world of skills.NCUB



So why did we need a conference? Well, Fusion is all about the high level skills that universities impart, and it needs levels of interdisciplinarity and collaboration on a new scale, and in new ways. Today’s graduates are the next wave of entrepreneurs and innovators, so it makes sense to work with Universities to ensure that they are at the forefront of meeting this demand from industry.

The impact Fusion is already having on the world of work can’t be overestimated. The world now needs technical artists and creative coders in our creative industries, but every sector is effected. We need specialists with a broad knowledge of others in their pipeline and sophisticated team and project skills across all sectors of the economy. Employers across the economy need hybrid mixes of creativity, technology/STEM, forged with keen business awareness in their new recruits. These ingredients can be a challenge for HE, because it often demands the involvement of different disciplines and tutors collaborating across departments/faculties and even across institutions. I think that between Creative Skillset and HE we can work on Fusion to produce a new type of graduate.

CP Snow (1905-1980)

The lack of intercourse or fusion between Art and Creativity and Science or STEM isn’t new; it has long been reported on since CP Snow (who himself fused the two as novelist and scientist) shook the establishment in 1959 and the early 1960s with his expression of the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures”of modern society – the sciences and the humanities. The argument then was framed as an exhortation to compete more with German and American schools who were doing better than us at preparing their citizens equally in the sciences and humanities. Sound familiar?

Well, CIHE’s “The Fuse” author CEO and Chair of the Digital TV Group Dr David Docherty, said: “We believe that the UK has a window of opportunity in which to establish itself in the highly competitive, multi-trillion dollar CDIT market or be left trailing behind countries such as China, the US, Japan and Australia”. It’s the same fears that drive us now.

Looking back, the CP Snow debate may seem slightly rarified- bemoaning that scientists knew nothing of Shakespeare, (his lecture privileged literature) and conversely arts and humanities professionals knew nothing of the laws of thermodynamics or quantum physics. However the amalgamation of those parallel tracks of Art and Science probably only became critical exactly thirty years later when a certain scientist in CERN who had learnt about electronics (science) from tinkering with model railways (creativity) as a boy in south-west london went on to invent the World Wide Web. It’s the connectivity and the peer networks, open source technology and interdisciplinary skills that exploded out of this that essentially drives today’s fusion agenda.

The context and cadence of the world of work and leisure has changed immeasurably with the widespread introduction of affordable technologies and the internet. Technology became central to not only creative production, but also to distribution and new markets. Technology as the Internet was the great disruptor, the great transformer. As technology visionary Stewart Brand famously said “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road”.

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)



Napster presaged a crisis in the music industry

This disruption as everyone knows was first amply demonstrated by the complacent music industry who attempted to fight napsterisation, rather than accommodate or adapt. This was the first real battleground where digital technology disrupted both commodity and distribution simultaneously.

But this wasn’t fusion as we now know it. Creativity and Technology have always been fused, but what the internet and ubiquitous cheap technology did was create a third crucial element- that of new business practices, new ways to leverage and value cultural production, and exploit it. The entrenched middlemen and gatekeepers were either routed from the industry, or sensibly co-opted the networks and new business models. They were the first Fusion pioneers, who saw that there was only a profitable alchemy when technology and art were combined with enterprise and new business skills.

Following on from MP3 came Last.fm, Spotify, and iTunes. New ways of doing business sprouted and with them, the ascendance of the entrepreneur and the start-up, freemium and monetisation. Business and enterprise is the multiplier effect that makes STEAM into Fusion.

Unless we can create value to the production processes that creative technology affords we aren’t really doing more than transferring existing processes into the digital arena. Imagine if in the move from celluloid to digital the film world had still insisted on distributing products in the same way, or if the TV sector had steadfastly refused to engage with VOD or multiplatform once digital. Whilst in the former you could arguably suggest a certain amount of tardiness, nevertheless it was the displacement of traditional distribution channels that these new digital connexions afforded that made fusion happen. Fusion is STEAM exploited. It’s a mistake to think Fusion is just about leveraging technology in new ways though. It’s about leveraging other parts of STEM too; Maths is a key element. Here’s an example.



EMC2 Data Scientist Graphic 2011

The role of Data Scientist has been growing exponentially in many advertising marketing and communication agencies. This is a response to the fact there is more data around to be analysed. The technology itself isn’t particularly new, – no radically new hardware has emerged to allow this in the last few years. Rather, it’s the algorithms, types of code and the maths which are the game changer. Last time I looked there were around 1,500 vacancies for data scientist jobs unfilled.

The 2011 McKinsey report into big data last year reckoned the US alone would need 190,000 deep analytical ‘data scientists’ – and another 1.5m data-savvy managers to make the big decisions. What’s this got to do with fusion? Well I’d argue that if we think fusion is purely around tech we’re missing a big part of the picture.

Monica Rogati, Data Scientist

Monica Rogati, Senior Data Scientist at LinkedIn who created and implemented the first version of “Groups You May Like” says “they are half hacker, half analyst, they use data to build products and find insights. It’s Columbus meet Columbo – starry eyed explorers and skeptical detectives”. Rogati states that whilst you have to have the programming skills and the ability to manipulate the data effectively, “what makes a good scientist great is creativity with data, skepticism and good communication skills. Getting all of that together in the same person is difficult – because traditionally, people different people follow different paths in their careers – some are more technical, others are more creative and communicative. A data scientist has to have both”.

Insight and creativity, seeing patterns, and telling a story are creative, ‘right-brained’ attributes, traditionally the repertoire of the artist. D.J. Patil, ex-LinkedIn, Skype, eBay, and now Data Scientist in Residence at Greylock Partners says “A data scientist is that unique blend of skills that can both unlock the insights of data and tell a fantastic story via the data”.

Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google as well as emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says “The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades, not only at the professional level but even at the educational level for elementary school kids, for high school kids, for college kids”. Free and ubiquitous data needs creative interpreters.

Stewart Pratt, Sapient Nitro

Stewart Pratt is director of data and analytics at SapientNitro who call themselves ‘a new breed of agency for an always-on world’ with a revenue of 1.01 billion dollars in 2013, and over 11,000 employees worldwide. Pratt is actually a Philosophy major. “It’s funny to hear all the misguided perceptions that outsiders have of a “typical data scientist” he says “The most common misperception about big data: That it’s a science. Extracting meaning from big data is equal parts art and science….Data scientists are the new storytellers for the digital age”. SapientNitro use their data to create what they term Storyscaping, “where art and imagination meet the power and scale of systems thinking”.




addinguppebblesI wrote this blog to try and articulate that fusion in the world of work is not always primarily about technology, and that’s why I tend to use the term STEM rather than technology. It is simplistic to say the boom in data analysis and interpretation that’s coming our way in terms of jobs is just about tech. It’s more about the Math and the Science, and how we add the other two points of the triangle, Art and Biz. If we think it’s just a case of teaching artists Hadoop technology we are doomed.

Another more disturbing observation is that we can’t chide Universities for not being fused enough, for not delivering interdisciplinary yet enterprise-grounded new talent, or for being silo’d and stuck in a Victorian taxonomy of ring-fenced disciplines of Science, Arts and Humanities if we ourselves also are. Data Science isn’t part of the SOC Codes and SIC codes we are in obeisance to, and are designed to support, although data scientists and analysts are increasingly prevalent in creative games and advertising companies. Fusion is an issue across the world of work, and those of us working on the skills agenda also need to get interdisciplinary about it, if our funders and masters will let us.

This is starting to happen by stealth- we have a fused apprenticeship on offer- our Interactive Design and Development Apprenticeshipfeatures creative, business and code units, some developed with standards from e-skills, our fellow Sector Skills Council, looking after Business and Information Technology (IT) skills.  Likewise the creative occupational standards we developed are used by e-skills and many other skills agencies in areas as disparate as construction and retail. The standards we developed for our creative industries are finding a new lease of life being injected into other industries. Slowly we are fusing, but at a glacial pace. Fusion may be our Napster, with all the implications that brings.

NESTA Creative Economy report 2012

Because of the interconnectedness of all the UK’s businesses we now need to ensure ALL the UK’s industries are fused. In their Manifesto for the Creative Economy NESTA said “Tomorrow’s creative economy will require an even richer fusion than today’s of knowledge and skills from individuals who are comfortable working across the boundaries of established disciplines. At all levels in the education system, from school curriculum design to university–business links, the lamb of the arts and humanities must lie down with the lions of digital technology and computer science” Likewise the Creative Skillset lamb needs to lie down with lions from across the UK industries if we are to embed fusion.

If we think the mission is to fuse the creative industries alone, we’ll be underestimating the disruptive nature of fusion, because to paraphrase (or mangle) Stewart Brand’s quote earlier – once fusion rolls over you “if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road”.roadmarking2.


Transfusion Conference speech

Here’s my opening speech to the transfusion conference, 4th December, 2013. It was a great opportunity for me to bring together many speakers and educational activists working in the field of combining STEM, Art and Enterprise for a new generation of learners. The day-long event was held at London’s Royal Society of the Arts.

courtesy of London Knowledge Lab

“In 1754 a group of what we’d know call entrepreneurs met in Rawthmells Coffee House in Henrietta St, Covent Garden about a mile away from here.

One of Great Britain’s main industries at the time was being held back by a lack of what we’d now call innovation. This group of artists, part-time inventors, businessmen and scientists had been brought together by drawing teacher and amateur inventor William Shipley.

William Shipley by W. Hinks

William Shipley by W. Hinks

Steam power had revolutionised the making of cloth, but dying was being held back by the lack of an indigenous source of bright red pigment, and there was a monopoly or stranglehold of so-called ‘Turkey Red’, sent across Europe via Flanders. In short, Britain was losing an industry.

The group who met formed a society to address this problem. They knew they had to solve this through arts, manufacturing and science. Their idea was they would seed fund and incentivise creative individuals to come up with homegrown solutions to issues like this. They would advertise and give out challenges to the creative population, and ‘premiums’ or financial incentives would be offered. Initially two challenges were what we’d now call crowdsourced

Firstly a reward for the discovery and the mining of substantial amounts of blue cobalt ore,

….and a Second reward for the cultivation of Madder plants capable of making red dye on an industrial scale.

This group essentially funded Great Britain’s capacity to dye cloth RED and BLUE and over a period of 20 years saved the British textiles and associated manufacturing industries.

At the time the group called themselves the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce in Great Britain, but we now know them as the Royal Society of the Arts or RSA.

They were the kickstarter of their age.

In the space of 20 years there was no longer a need to import, and further innovations blossomed. Even our military started to wear the bright red that this new technology created.

And so a mix of Entrepreneurship, Art/Creativity and the Science of the day, came together to create a new industry.

Transfusion conference 2013

Transfusion conference 2013

You can see the connection to today. Today, the challenges may not be so clear cut- (we have computers capable of 16.7 million colours and don’t need any more thank you)!

However, there is a new issue that we need to address that is hampering today’s industries, both digital and manufacturing.

All we’ve done is named it Fusion. It’s not as simple as crowdsourcing a new colour, but we think today the collective knowledge and experience in this room can help come up with a description of how we might address this intermix of STEM, Art and enterprise, -or whatever you call those three elements from your perspective.

We know that a substantial part of the answer to how we engage with the issue of Fusion will come from Higher Education which is why we wanted this conversation with you today- through a series of workshops and talks that’ll hopefully fire your imagination, and get us all talking and sharing.

There is no doubt that our industries need these fused individuals who can converse, work and thrive between the worlds of science, art and business. The answer isn’t as simple as propagating plants or mining cobalt ore, but the crowdsourcing and sharing of knowledge is the key, just like in 1754.

Today, just like then, is really an experiment- so we make no apologies for the eclectic mix of stimuli you’ll discover- both right and left brained stuff!

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the 16th century, and Fusion is really about the future. It’s increasingly difficult to trace trajectories over a 5 year time span, never mind the span of a 3 year degree!

But let’s try- I couldn’t think of a more thought-provoking video to take us out of the present to ONE near future than Superflux’s “Design for the new normal” talk at Next 2013 in Berlin, and we’re grateful to Anab Jain from Superflux for allowing us to show it. We hope there’ll be a lot more future talk later today, but this time from YOUR perspective.

Thank you all for coming, we hope you appreciate the video”.

Projectionist, please run the clip!banner_molecules_fusion2

Big Data + Creative Industries = Slim Pickings?

Knowledge is the engine of our creative economy, and Big Data is its fuel. Are our creative companies getting enough?

slim4“The IT revolution is evident all around us, but the emphasis has mostly been on the T, the technology. It is time to recast our gaze to focus on the I, the information”, (Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Kenneth Cukier)
In order to be successful the Creative Industries need to be able to connect to their users, audience or clients. The best clothes, videos, books, plays, or computer games are not successful unless someone further down the line wants those products enough to make an economic decision to recompense the creator.

In the skills arena, if we want to see our industries grow and prosper, we need to look after two components of this process- a) enable the creative talent to emerge, and then b)  give it the tools to find and connect to the market.

It’s fair to say traditionally we have rightly put more emphasis on the first section- building new creative talent. This makes absolute sense; we trust great talent will find an audience or willing users of their skills and services, or a market. The assumption is also that most people will take their skills into existing companies and organisations, where their skills are performed in roles very demarcated and separated from marketing or selling and leveraging the tangible or intangible goods and services they generate.

The picture I have presented above, of companies composed of the two species of creatives and marketers each performing their functions works only if there are such companies to house this symbiosis. Think again; if we examine this through the perspective of nurturing an economy of entrepreneurs, start-ups, freelancers and micro-traders then a different picture emerges. The second component of selling your wares gains in importance. No matter how great the creative talent, if it lacks the skills to sell itself, to find and exploit markets, then that creative talent is eventually lost to the economy. So maybe we need to recalibrate the attention we spend on these two elements- skills for creating talent and skills for selling that talent.

Discoverability may become a major factor in the survival story of our industry’s lurch towards an atomised constellation of entrepreneurial start-ups. Lower entries to market are one thing, but being discovered by the consumer when you are there in the marketplace is another. It’s like you are just one star in a galaxy of products, or one line in a giant unalphabeticised Yellow Pages. If you can’t connect to an audience or user, or even gradually grow that base, then you are not going to survive long.slim11



Discoverability, targeting the right demographic, starting productive conversations with customers, finding your specialist niche, these are all the new black arts of marketing yourself.

Big Data might just be the key factor in enabling our star talent to shine. The more data you can obtain on the market conditions and more importantly your potential customers the more intelligent and focused your marketing can be.

So what is Big Data and why is it so important to this new start-up ecosystem that is forming in key sectors? The same driver of digitisation that caused the high-tech start-up boom is enabling Big Data too.

Huge amounts of data are starting to be generated automatically. The everyday data vapour-trails each one of us leaves behind as we traverse the net – the likes, friends, endorsements, click-throughs and logins we create, the products we browse or buy, combined with the increasingly ubiquitous sensors that record us throughout our perambulations in supermarkets and transport hubs, and the geotemporal information that is collected creates an unparalleled granularity of behavioural detail that  is emerging on all of us. This is complemented with low cost computer memory, faster processing and the multiplying of networks into a meta-network that means whole datasets can now be mined and interrogated. Whilst much of this data is anonymised, its value is that correlations can often be drawn and invaluable conclusions on what users or customers do can be harvested with the right tools.

slim2The acceleration of processing power means whereas it took scientists a decade of work to decode the three billion pairs in the human genome in 2003, today, only a decade later, it would take around a day.

How big is ‘big data’? “Scratch the surface and the figures will blow your mind” says EE’s CEO Olaf Swantee “A study at the end of 2012 by IDC predicts the ‘digital universe’ will reach 40 zettabytes – that’s around 45 trillion gigabytes – by 2020, a 50-fold growth in a decade”. Of course, not all this is about people, or even publicly available, but you get the picture. Big data analytics are revolutionizing the way we see and process the world in an economy increasingly predicated on data flow. 90 percent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years alone.

In Brussels, May 2013, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda stated “the world is generating 1.7 million billion bytes of data per minute. That’s over 6 Megabytes per day for every man woman and child on the planet…. Quite simply, knowledge is the engine of our economy. And data is its fuel”.slim3

We can “extract new insights or create new forms of value in ways that change markets, organisations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more” exclaim Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in the landmark text “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” This can change the way we make decisions and run our businesses.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier's book charts the explosion of information that digitisation has sparked

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s book charts the explosion of information that digitisation has sparked

Big Data is about applying math to huge quantities of data to infer probabilities. The real revolution is how we interpret it. We can discover patterns and correlations in the data that offer new insights and conclusions. In previous eras, we had to choose a small sample of say, the tv watching public if we wanted to construct a ratings system. Now, we can interrogate the whole dataset- by unprecedented number crunching we soon will not only know exactly how many watched a certain programme, but also how many tweeted and commented on facebook too. We could probably also correlate sales of fashion or food the next day that related to the adverts during the show. If we were a production company we could apply the knowledge of audience behaviour to improve the next show (“we know one fifth of our audience turned off after the car chase- so let’s ensure the main action always happens after the ads, not before”). If we were an advertiser we might appreciate the chance to offer a reward to those that purchased in-show products.

Let’s not get sentimental about a previous age of unsullied artistic expression despoiled by predictive maths- it has always been this way, except now we are nearer to solving the apocryphal conundrum of “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I don’t know which half”.

But when we think of Big Data we often think of the mighty gatekeepers like Google, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn- the sites that have global and seemingly complete footfall. This may prove the biggest challenge- big data is here to transform business but access seems denied to the small companies in the creative industries to harness.

Lanier argues that today's information economy can ruin markets for the rest of us.

Lanier argues that today’s information economy can ruin markets for the rest of us.

Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns The Future?” makes the point that the danger is that those who own the fastest servers create an imperious and unassailable position for themselves. There’s an arms race escalating, where we digital subjects give our information for free to what Lanier calls the ‘Siren Servers’. He points to a world where “data is analysed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the world to advantage” Lanier suggests “Great fortunes are being made on shrinking the economy instead of growing it” and “We aren’t creating enough opportunity for enough people online…the wide adoption of transformative connecting technology should create a middle class wealth boom…Instead we’ve seen recession, unemployment and austerity”.

To prove the point, Lanier gives the example of WalMart, an early adopter of big data. Their servers gathered information about logistics, and both buyer and supplier behaviour. “The company gradually became the sculptor of its own environment” and was able to process this information to dictate price and delivery targets even to the suppliers of its suppliers. The customers got cheap prices, but small suppliers were forced to reduce to as near to the bone as possible. The advantage is always with whoever has the information in this new world. If you don’t want to get steamrollered you need to make big data’s possibilities work for you.slim6



Translate this scenario to the creative industries. How will our fragmented and atomised start-ups prosper in this one-sided battle against the Siren Servers? How do we ensure a more level playing field of access to customer information so our innovative new companies can grow by interpreting and leveraging smart info on their customers and the market they find themselves in? Well, you can ensure you ‘data-ify’ what you already do.

Big data is already being used to tailor games. After trawling the data on its players Zynga, makers of Farmville discovered that people bought more translucent fish than any other type in the game Fishville. So, it offered more translucent varieties, making a bigger profit. This might sound trite, but this approach propelled Zynga from 45 staffers in June 2008 to 600 by the end of 2009 with its 100 million players. By 2010, Zynga had more active users than Twitter. “We are an analytics company masquerading as a gaming company. Everything is run by numbers” said Ken Rudin, Zynga’s analytics chief.

Even relatively ‘hunch based’ creative industries are starting to become data driven. The-Numbers.com gives film executives data on budget, cast, crew, revenues, overseas rights, but it’s more than a repository of 30 million items. It will analyse and correlate data as a service. It can tell you that romantic comedies gross on average 3 million more than other comedy but have 18% less market share. It can advise if a project at the planning stage should be changed. Famously, founder Bruce Nash advised an IMAX movie to cut its budget from 12 to 8 million since the analysis showed this is how it would make a profit in the difficult and specialist documentary marketplace.slim7

But if anyone can help level the playing field, the Government can. After all, the information economy sector contributed around £58bn to Gross Value Added in 2011. In the Government’s new Information Economy Strategy (June 2013) big data is only mentioned 6 times in 53 pages, but any assumption that it is not a concern is mistaken. The Government knows it needs to empower small businesses to be data-driven. It wants to see “…small and medium enterprises (SMEs), confidently using technology, able to trade online, seizing technological opportunities and increasing revenues in domestic and international markets”. It’s aware currently only a third of SMEs currently sell products and services online.

The Big Data is there, available to be analysed and used by the creative industries. The UK is leading the world on open data, through its data.gov.uk portal which brings together over 9,000 datasets into one searchable website.

Other support is available to the small creative business through the Technology Strategy Board’s Connected Digital Economy Catapult which promises to be “a new force to accelerate the success of UK digital innovators and SME entrepreneurs realise the commercial opportunities in the growth areas of the connected digital economy”. The Government is targeting small companies who are either already online and looking to scale up, or yet to commit. The intention is to reach 1.6 businesses in the next 5 years.

slim5Part of the problem is that companies don’t know what data is out there, but also they don’t know how to exploit it. There are analytic tools available- tools like Hadoop, an open source data distributing and processing software that is very good at reducing processing times of very big data. Visa used it to reduce the time to process 73 billion credit card transactions (over a mere two years) from one month to 13 minutes. It’s a truly disruptive technology. It’s also an accessible tool for the creative industries.

Big Data won’t replace creativity, inspiration, guesswork, creative hunches, but it will support them. It will enable our small companies to find their customers, to improve their products, and to adapt to be seen and experienced in the creative universe. It’s not something just for the large Telcos or IT companies. Our start-ups have a secret weapon in Big Data- and the kind of creativity they bring to bear on their products now needs to be applied to numbers.

As Dug Campbell say on his Digital Thinking blog “The digital world has afforded us all with an unparalleled opportunity to research, monitor, analyse and improve every aspect of our businesses. As a result, the businesses that will succeed are those which are able to maintain high quality and relevant data and use this vital information as the foundation for designing the content of the business”.

We know how to train great creative talent quite well in the UK. Now, because of start-up culture, we need to examine how big data can help the creative industries connect and grow. We’ve got to learn to love numbers.dot

Transmedia Europe Express


Creative Skillset has recently been involved in research into the new imperatives in skills engendered by the ongoing disruption and digitisation of our industries. The new skills frequently needed are probably usefully exemplified by the triangulation of Creativity, STEM and Enterprise, a mix we’re calling Fusion skills. (The etymology comes from the CIHE’s 2010 report “The Fuse” which first attempted to delineate these new skills, but after research we added more emphasis on enterprise/business practice than the original document).

In its widest sense it’s the inter-mix of art, science and business drive. It’s what our industries increasingly report they need- exemplified by the demand for creative programmers, technical artists or specialists in one domain who can team up and collaborate with those from another disciplines and speak a common language. Fusion skills are increasingly needed- roles that used to be firmly pigeonholed as creative, or engineering, or business-only now need large portions of all three. Imagine if you will a Venn diagram of three intersecting circles- Creativity/Art, STEM, Enterprise and in the middle area is what we’re calling Fusion. Who needs Fusion skills? Well, not just the creative industries but everybody according to IBM’s Global CEO study (interviewing more than 1500 CEOs from 33 industries worldwide) which showed that Creativity was seen as the most crucial skill needed by industry leaders- above management skills and vision.

the author's take on Fusion skills- an overlap of three domains

the author’s take on Fusion skills- an overlap of three domains

Also, Google and McKinsey readily admit that Data Scientists (in short supply) need creative skills, and even storytelling skills to be able to see patterns in their statistics. It’s the same in the creative industries, where engineering and mathematics are increasingly crucial. Nowadays, often at the heart of the film set you’ll find the data wrangler- an engineer who needs to increasingly understand the subjective and poetic languages of colour and light as well as the science of compression and pixel math. Then there’s all the new data analyst roles in advertising and marcomms that are needed to mine data and understand the psychology of the customer or client, and help design meaningful experiences for them. A mixture of mathematic yet empathetic, code-steeped inventive designer is emerging in the online space. Combine these art/sci mixes with the need to be enterprising and do business in an increasingly freelance or short-term project world, and more jobs than you think are gravitating towards fusion skills, especially in media.

You’ll be hearing more from Creative Skillset about fusion skills in the months to come, but one of the striking conclusions is that the subject and faculty structure (or rather unkindly, silos) in our schools and universities can necessitate against our teachers and trainers teaching these cross-disciplinary skills. So it was important to Creative Skillset that we found some outliers, examples of people teaching these Fusion skills, even if they named them differently, and had different models. A couple of names kept coming up when we talked to industry about exemplars they knew- design leaders d.school in Stanford, and ‘cross-media’ school Eucroma in Denmark.

As Eucroma were about to have their end of course show, we thought we should pay a visit and see for ourselves.



eucroma_logo_webCommencing in February the EUropean CROss-Media Academy is an intense four and a half month european transmedia training programme focusing on synthesizing games, animation and entrepreneurial skills. It delivers 30 credits via the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) meaning existing students can apply those credits towards their degrees. It brings together students from across the EU to work in teams to develop real transmedia IP via what they term Storyworld development, and training and collaboration in new pipelines. The programme, which  has just under 50 participants this year, (growing to approximately 75 next year) takes students through four phases on their way to a convincing and professional product; Prologue, Design, Production and Presentation. The website declares the outcome “is a breed of cross media professionals who can capture new opportunities and package them as “ready to roll” projects”.

the minimal central corridor of EUCROMA- hidden on an industrial estate in Copenhagen

the minimal central corridor of EUCROMA- hidden on an industrial estate in Copenhagen

Eucroma’s difference can be exemplified by its accent on firstly developing and iterating a storyworld first and foremost, with creative and business thinking springing forth from this starting point. The storyworld will then demand a particular pipeline and with it, new forms of collaboration between roles through development of a “production ready” cross-media/transmedia project produced by an international team. Within the curriculum students are exposed to a continuous line up of media experts and top games, animation and business professionals. Students also attend lectures at the Danish Film School with speakers from the film and TV industries, blending in with the rest of the school. Workshops train individuals for their roles. There are nine possible roles in the concept department- from animation or game director to level designer or production designer and music composer. There are also twelve roles in production, from animator, rigger, programmer to audio or vfx designer.

EUCROMAshowEucroma sees its mission as adding something extra to the media professional’s armoury- resilience and adaptablilty. “By providing all the competences necessary for riding the upwinds in a market that expands at ever increasing speed EUCROMA place you at the forefront of development. And now is the time to be here because professionals who can handle the constant technological and conceptual breakthroughs are in high demand. The arrival of a new creative potential or business opportunity always creates a demand for the right people to step up and capture it”. Eucroma is supplying future-proofed new talent who it is intended will stand out from the crowds of media graduates.

One of the main objectives of the EUCROMA program is the final project. Once finished, students will have to give a half-hour oral presentation that covers the basic concept, business plan and select prototypes of their project. This year’s two project themes were a re-working of Sherlock Holmes, and Lost and Found, a kind of The-Borrowers-meets-lost-toys-living-underground amalgam. For both themes there were games, web and animation outputs, led by Games, Animation or Storyworld directors.



Storyworld-triangle1The Storyworld concept  is axiomatic to the Eucroma programme. To Troels Linde, Director of Eucroma, the seed of an original idea needs to germinate into all the environments, characters, languages, history –in other words a whole world- before a story can truly emerge. This storyworld or diagesis develops from the themes of conflict, characters and setting. No media is selected nor script versions written until this preparatory world is scoped.

A group of directors and story designers are then tasked with establishing the motivations and ethos (or values) that makes the world and its agents tick. In this methodology some kind of conflict needs to drive the story through time. All this is scoped and thought out to ensure both games and films can equally harness and leverage this world.

So often in other training courses the character or the script comes first, or a game is grafted onto a narrative when the storyworld won’t really support it. To Linde this World-first approach means ensuing games, animations and films are coherent and successfully engaging.



Eucroma clearly has a methodology that the curriculum reflects, but does that filter through to the students? I met three students just before their final show. I was keen to find out about their personal journeys and what the course had added to their specialist skills. As you’ll see, their personal learning histories show a broad education with several false starts before they alighted on animation or games study. This may well have informed and enriched the transmedia content they were now engaged in.

Kris_Lewis_HannahKristoffer Malmsten (Conceptual team) had come from Stockholm. Originally he’d found his way to getting involved with computer music and dropped out of high school as he had major success with his band (which won 2 Grammys in 2001). By the mid 2000’s he had re-entered education, keeping his music going,  studying Art History and Cinema History, then moving into film production. “I needed to get creative” he explains- the academic approach he experienced wasn’t close enough to the creative process. In 2011 he was a location co-ordinator for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Finally he applied to Stockholm for a Screenwriting course. Through a university lecturer he heard about the EUCROMA initiative, and how they needed Screenwriters and Story designers. He was aware through his studies of Henry Jenkins’ work and so had an interest in the possibilities of transmedia and this is what attracted him. “I was surprised how market driven the work was, but with a firm academic base” said Malmsten “there were many lectures in the first two months. We started with a coherent storyworld first, which as a script writer isn’t such an alien concept, but is crucial if you are working across media”.

EUCROMAemptyviewIt was striking how exhausting it often is to work with ideas- sorting, modifying, leaving behind, promoting. Some people aren’t used to the amounts of energy you need to devote to this before diving in to a project. Also, listening is vital.”

Lewis MacInnes-Middleton (Production Team) was one of a number of students from University of Abertay’s Games courses. He will return to his fourth year in October. Lewis’s path started with a fusion of subjects at school- Maths, English, History, Product Design, Business Management, before a two year spell at Dundee University studying architecture. “At the time it seemed to make sense, but the pace was slow and I didn’t find it exciting. However, it’s easy to see with hindsight that I’d always made games and the thread from architecture to games to storyworlds is  interesting”. By luck he found himself move from Dundee University to the city’s other university- Abertay – to study games. He got a scholarship for Eucroma, and was selected as a Game Director.

Hannah Drummond, another Abertay student, previously studied business management, English, biology and music at school, with an advanced higher in music before taking an Open University course in Psychology, and then enrolling at Abertay. “At Abertay I discovered Production management was my forte, which is what I’m doing at Eucroma, with a team of almost 50

All three recognised the notion of fusion skills that Creative Skillset is researching. Kristoffer recounted how entrepreneurial skills had been something that previously had helped him navigate and prosper through the digital disruption of the music industry. They all recounted how Eucroma had focused their creative and technical energies on products and audience/users. “In the first 5 weeks we learnt about Storyworlds, and how this concept changes the roles of the director and production designer. In some instances we had to unlearn ways of working, and we had to be adaptable as roles changed as we progressed, and build new ways of working with animators and riggers” said Hannah.

Viral stickers produced by the Lost and Found team.

Viral stickers produced by the Lost and Found team.

They agreed the pace was intense. Lewis noted that “Every week we had to present our work to Danish Film School tutors, and then had a week to react and accommodate what they said” Kristoffer agreed, adding “In the conceptual team the biggest skill was negotiation- we had three directors working in different media, and two mini-teams, and lots of people floating in and out, as well as assets being shared or modified across different media, so communicating and negotiating a look or a character or a background across the team was incredibly important. Transparency and version control became key elements as our directors wanted to see everything

Hannah remarked “there are many acronyms and phrases that only certain roles use- and there are even some acronyms that have different meanings in different media, which can be confusing. It took a while to pick these up

When asked how the teams might be restructured or changed- possibly for the next cohort, there was a consensus regarding the need for a carefully defined producer role, and also a review of workflow at director level- who could unintentionally create bottlenecks for getting work greenlit. There was also discussion about the possible impact of including film media in the next cohort- and how the possible conflict of different methodologies might play out- (film with its emphasis on pre-planning, and games with its reliance on scrum and rapid iteration).  It is planned for next year’s cohorts to set up fully working studios too. Thus it seems that Eucroma will continue to be an alembic to test out what it means to create transmedia projects, as yet there is no orthodoxy emerging. It’s a salient point to remember how many years it took from the invention of film and tv until relatively stable and duplicable team structures evolved.

EUCROMAbikesOf course, Eucroma aren’t the only ones grappling with the methodologies and pedagogies of transmedia- the Media Academy Wales’ Transform@lab (an intensive cross-platform idea development lab for emerging creatives) also has a European cohort, and roughly the same duration, but moves through European locations and doesn’t focus on animation and games. However, the strengths of these programmes are somehow amplified by having a pan-european cohort- the different cultural sensibilities and the way different schools have different strengths may make for a higher degree of unpredictability and innovation in outcome. Within university courses, cross-media projects are a challenge of organisation and synchronisation, and sometimes getting buy-in from students themselves who join a specific course for that  discipline and see their future in that. Interestingly, as of yet there are no Transmedia courses listed as such on UCAS . Why? Word is getting out, and prospective students will soon see the value in being a transmedia producer as opposed to a tv or film producer for instance. Into this gap private providers will enter the market. Alternatively, more University degree courses may want to see Eucroma type courses as Finishing Schools.



EUCROMAinspiration…but I guess any new media form which hasn’t established technologies or pathways tends to use more fusion skills- for instance if there isn’t the right software around you code your own solution, or if there isn’t an established business model you need to improvise, or use rapid prototyping instead of rigorous planning. What was interesting about Eucroma is that it calls on ‘Fusion’ skills more than a single media course like film, tv, animation might do because  transmedia is so nebulous as a concept. Eucroma compensates for this by having a strong methodology (Storyworld) and a narrow spectrum of media (games and animation). However, its only just finished it’s second cohort, and is in the enviable position of being able to modify the curriculum whilst still offering 30 ECTS credits.



Our investigation into Fusion skills will hopefully lead us to many more outliers like Eucroma. On 17th July Creative Skillset are launching “Fusion Skills: Perspectives and Good Practice” a research report report is based on desk research that explored a wide range of current programmes, curricula, associations and institutions active in the ‘fusion’ field, (including Eucroma). This was created from interviews with a wide range of academics and professionals who are experiencing ‘fusion’ in the workplace.

The research acknowledges the need for a framework to help make sense of what is going on, with the intermixing  or collision of STEM, Creative Practice and New Business.
As a response to these aspects, the report recommends some ‘principles’ for skills development in worlds of education and business management at organizational and individual levels. We hope to create collective action to take forward some of the recommendations. You’ll be able to see more on http://www.creativeskillset.org/research/ in due course.


Thanks to Troels Linde, Gunnar Ville and the Danish Film School for their hospitality.

British SAMR time: a way to redefine digitisation in the creative industries?

One of the most useful reports this year has been Booz&Co’s “The Digital Future of Creative UK: The Economic Impact of Digitization and the Internet on the Creative Sector in the UK” (Künstner, Le Merle, Gmelin, and Dietsche 2013). The report provides a comprehensive view of the impact digitisation has had on the creative sector with analyses of its effect on consumers, creators, distributors, and publishers in the U.K. and Europe. Digitisation (I’m insisting on the English spelling, sorry!) is described as a megatrend by Booz, with the race away from analog still having profound repercussions to products and services in the creative industries.

Whilst that is undoubtedly so, I wonder if the narrative of permanent digital revolution and disruptive digitisation is useful or even accurate to assist in addressing skills gaps or needs in the creative  industries.

pi_large-750x416Digitisation as a blanket term is too broad and because we all feel we share this ‘common sense’ definition, we might be missing real focused and strategic skills support for key areas hidden within this overarching narrative. If we are aren’t really interrogating or challenging this term sufficiently, then we may lack sufficiently sophisticated conceptual models  to understand what is driving change at the heart of our industries, and thus we will be always looking in the rear view mirror and trying to react after damage or disruption is done, rather than using skills as preventative medicine, to forearm the workforce and our employers for whatever’s next.

Of course Booz&Co and other such informed commentators are not saying we are at the beginning of the digital wave, but the distinction about further detail about where we are on that graph tends to be based only around the notion that things will just get ‘more so’, with change accelerated as digital natives enter the workforce and demand more responsive services and goods instantaneously. Even the term ‘digital native’ is banded around as a universally accepted blanket description despite sixteen million adults from the age of 15 upwards in the UK who don’t have basic online skills. In addition, the e-Learning Foundation estimates that 700,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the U.K. lack home access to the Internet.

These phrases like digitization and digital natives we come across in reports have become too tidy and convenient, and yes, alluring. They mask areas of grey and ambiguity. Ignoring the grey areas leads to a monoculture of skills responses.

digitisation2As Martin Weller in his book The Digital Scholar says, “far from being the tech-savvy, digitally immersed cyborgs portrayed in much of the literature, there are some relatively poor information skills amongst the net generation”

Malcolm Brown reports in “The NetGens 2.0: Clouds on the Horizon” (2009) that young people are held back by poor performance caused by three factors: insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level.

So some evidence doesn’t quite fit with what we’d like to believe. Intuitively we know digitization is sweeping through our industries, right? Well, yes and no. My point is not to refute the tropes of digital disruption, digital natives or the grand narrative of digitisation, but rather to say we need to dissect and analyse them a bit more if we are to design effective skills solutions to these issues. We need to identify the grey areas and accept how attractive, convenient yet simplistic some of this nomenclature is.

However, there are frameworks out there that can possibly help us interpret where we are in this spectrum of digitisation, if we look beyond industry reports and consultants research, and perhaps surprisingly towards the world of education theory and pedagogy.

Before we examine one of these frameworks let’s just see how digitization is playing out in one particular subsector. Let’s look at video editing, an essential process in broadcast. I’ve selected this because I had firsthand experience of the change from analogue to digital.

Video Editing and the digital wave

When Booz&Co mention the red-hot megatrend of digitisation, we need to remember that this has been happening in many of our industries for at least 25 years now.

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

Digital or ‘Non-linear’ editing swept away film-based Steenbeck machine editing in the late 80s and early 90s. By then M-JPEG had become the standard codec for editing. The proliferation of Firewire IEEE 1394 architecture and the new DV format that was launched in 1995 brought digital editing systems to the masses and arguably opened up editing to the consumer. Suddenly the camera output was digital, so the word ‘digitising’ as a process of ingesting into the edit suite became a misnomer. Digital was the norm, the establishment, by 2000. Final Cut Pro received a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award in 2002.

So for us to talk about digitisation as a skills issue in this sector today isn’t really accurate, and in fact is misleading, and may actually stop us addressing real issues of technological disruption. Technology of course is an issue, and the networks and connectivity that comes in its wake requires new skills, but digitization of the process is so over.

However, if we don’t have the shared grammar to articulate this- if digitisation is the only blanket term we can use, I doubt we can really grapple with some of the skills problems in the workplace. Taking this at face value sets an agenda for more universal funding of Final Cut Pro or Avid workshops, or Stereo 3D, rather than IT or network skills, or asset management, or whatever. In short, we are not able to be as strategically canny about our skills solutions as we could be.


SAMR School

As it happens there is a framework that we might wish to adopt to help us to understand what is happening in our industries, and it (maybe surprisingly) comes from education. As far as I know, no one has thought to apply it to the notion of digitisation in the workplace, to help us understand the wider skills agenda that technology and digitisation leave behind in their wake.

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. It was originally formulated by Dr.Ruben R. Puentedura as a way of examining how digital technology impacts on teaching and learning, (rather wittily referred to as ‘Padagogy’ –  a cross between iPads and pedagogy)  but I think it maps nicely as a description of the different stages of digitisation in any creative industry. SAMR charts how every technology travels and evolves through enhancement of the preceding technology, towards the final transformative stages of modification and redefinition.

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura's SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

So let’s see how this might relate to my earlier example of video editing. Well, the Substitution stage was where the early digital Non-Linear editing machines like Lightworks, Optima and Avid started to do the job of the film editing steenbecks. They offered simple non-destructive EDLs (Edit Decision Lists), essentially the same as the still available film systems.

The next stage is Augmentation. One can suggest here that the technologists are asking- how can we further enhance the process of editing? The resulting new technological tools introduce functional improvements. Once material was digitised this was represented by the speed at which Edit Decision Lists could be created, in a variety of different formats, and edits could be re-ordered, and fades and dissolves could be programmed and viewed almost simultaneously. The editing process had been enhanced, but it was still familiar to any dyed in the wool film editors from the previous stage.

The third stage and the first of the two transformative stages is Modification. The onward march of technology (in this case around data speeds, compression and open formats) meant a significant redesign of the process. MPEG and Quicktime meant that edits didn’t have to be solely off-line (typified by low visual quality) but approached online or near broadcast levels. Tasks are modified, and some even obsolete. New things can be done that weren’t possible before. Edits could be output ‘live’ direct to broadcast, for instance, and this changed the face of news broadcast.

The final stage is Redefinition. Previously inconceivable tasks are incorporated into the editing function. Examples are how multiple media can easily by inserted- digital stills, titles, 3D graphics, compositing via multiple layers (all undoable), and lastly how multiple users can collaborate and work on the same (distributed) edit at the same time, or call on global archives and newsrooms, using new networked communications.

credit: R. Puentedura www.hippasus.com

credit: R. Puentedura http://www.hippasus.com

From this limited example it seems to me that utilising the SAMR framework is effective in contextualising the kind of skills interventions that might be needed.

This is important, because in the case I have outlined, the application of SAMR could have allowed us to pinpoint particular skills work at each stage. By understanding where an industry is on the SAMR spectrum can help us understand the kind of competencies we need to promote, and how we might allocate precious learning resources. From my quick assessment here, for instance, we might conclude that IT, Networking, or asset management skills will help the industry progress more than yet more Final Cut Pro courses, which were more important at earlier stages. That’s because SAMR allows us to see that editing is at the Redefinition stage. Other industry practices will be at other stages. Scriptwriting, or Tailoring, might be at Augmentation level for instance.

To me the useful thing about the SAMR model is that it can be predictive- and help us accelerate skills development in a competitive global marketplace. I’d invite readers to do an audit of particular industries they are familiar with, and see if SAMR helps to identify the kind of training needed now, and in the near future. To me, it’s far more fruitful than just saying that digitisation is the phenomena at hand. Where we are on the SAMR spectrum can help us be smarter in our use of skills development.

Over the Hill and Under the Radar: Are we ready to change our ideas about the Creative Industries talent pool?


Here come the Silver Learners and our industries will soon depend on them.

The New Old Entrants:

In her book Learning Futures (Routledge 2011) educationalist Keri Facer talks of the need to reinvent Schools for a new demographic landscape. She points out one of the drivers of change we will need to accommodate is an aging population of learners, and the need for what we might call a new intergenerational contract.

Traditionally our image of a new entrant into our industries has been that of youth, streaming out of schools and colleges to take roles and work their way upwards, like energetic young salmon swimming upstream. Every year this supply presents itself like a seasonal certainty. What we haven’t realised is that stream is thinning, and the number of young people is actually dwindling.

Increasingly in their place a new silver learner is emerging, and we aren’t yet addressing this. Since most of our education system is predicated towards what we call the ‘new millennials’ or ‘digital natives’, -digitally savvy young people- we have a blind spot about learning and teaching modes for the older generation. This may be a bigger educational issue than we think.

Currently we are on the cusp of seeing the impact of two megatrends; firstly low and declining fertility rates in both Britain and Europe. This is amplified by rising longevity, with people living longer through improvements in health, diet and preventative care.

The population pyramid we are accustomed to- that of many children at the base and a narrowing number of increasingly older adults at the tip is now distorted and anachronistic. Currently less than 15% of the UK population are children. A ‘bulge’ of baby boomers ( born during a period of rapid population growth and social change between 1946-64, with 17m births recorded in Britain alone during this period ) is working its way upwards through population graphs. In fact by 2007 the pyramid model was already well and truly broken. This was the year that people in Britain aged over 65 outnumbered those under 16 for the first time ever in our history. What was a distortion is now the orthodoxy, as this shift moves relentlessly up the age ladder. In 2001 there were 4 people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain. By 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just 2.  If we think of this tiny cohort as being on the escalator through our education system to be future workers, that’s worrying.

Professor Harper, Oxford

Professor Harper, Oxford

Professor Sarah Harper, University of Oxford’s first Professor of Gerontology, states “By 2030, half the population of Western Europe will be over 50, one quarter of the population of the developed world will be over 65, and one quarter of the population of Asia will be over 60.  This is historically unprecedented. Indeed, it makes the 20th century the last century of youth”

Dr. George W. Leeson, co-editor of the Journal of Population Ageing, notes “In 2006 there were 10,000 people in the UK aged 100 years and over. By 2056, this number is expected to increase to an astonishing 286,000 and to around 1 million by the end of the 21st century” (“Later Life and education ; changes and challenges” 2009). According to Leeson’s colleague Kenneth Howse at the Oxford Institute of Ageing, by as soon as 2025 one in five people in the UK population will be aged 65 years or more. By 2050 it will be almost one in four.


Coming of Age:

We’re all aware that we’re living longer. In 1851 half the population didn’t make it to 45 years, whilst in 2011 half the population lives longer than 85. Traditionally UK education policy has been developed in the context of that traditional pyramidal population structure, and elicits a linear transition where learning tails off and your career takes over in your twenties. We now have the emerging challenge of devising education for the new demography, an inverted pyramid. Looking ahead, what will this mean for education, training and skills in the UK, especially in the creative industries? We can make some educated guesses at the implications below.

I list below some of the trends that might emerge from this population shift, which isn’t so far away. Most research seems to point to 2030 as a kind of tipping point. It’s important to realise that whilst the trends outlined below may prove incorrect in terms of timbre or shade of impact, nevertheless we are on a conveyor belt to this new Silver Learner Age– that’s a certainty, and we need to plan for it.


1Trend one: The 70 year old incumbent isn’t going anywhere

Increasingly, those now entering and swelling the ranks of the elderly will have to keep working for longer- as they will be poorer than the generation above them, without pensions and rock-steady equity to cushion them. The kind of jobs they choose and the tenacity and duration with which they hold on to them will cause a lack of ‘succession’ opportunities for younger workers, who have always replaced and replenished job roles vacated by retiring sixtysomethings.

Eurobarometer opinion polls, which survey 1,000 citizens in each of the 27 EU members, show that political and economic preferences vary with age. Older voters are less satisfied with their lives and more pessimistic about the economic future. They’ll hold on to those jobs for longer.telegraph_couk_silversurfer

2Trend two: More competition for a dwindling group of young people

We’re already seeing the demand for health and social care workers in more developed countries increasing, and this is set to increase further at the same time as the supply of younger workers will tighten. There’ll be less young talent around for the creative industries, and more competition between sectors. Healthcare wages may increase whilst creative industries will continue to fall among young people, as it becomes an increasingly unstable option in comparison.

Each sector will need to appeal to an ever more mature workforce. Industries who currently rely on school leavers for instance, will need to start developing strategies for appealing to those in their early twenties as the talent pool therein shrinks, gradually chasing the demographic tide upwards. One might assume a more mature workforce is a more discerning workforce too, who won’t feel the allure of the ‘stardust factor’ of the creative sector like young people.

3Trend Three: The “Young Free and Single” freelancer: RIP

There’s an immediate impact on some of the creative industries, which are currently supported by a heavily freelance base, and typically a single, no-ties workforce, able to work flexibly and gleefully into the early hours or weekend at the drop of a hat. As the workforce gets older, marries and has children, this kind of work doesn’t seem so attractive. We know there is much attrition as people’s values and ambitions change as they build homes and families together. The shrinkage of the youthful wellspring of the freelance market, and the constricted numbers of those willing to ‘crunch’ to meet deadlines will possibly mean a reorganisation and rationalisation of how certain creative sectors work. It’s not clear how successful the industry’s usual solution to skills gaps will be in this case- namely to offshore freelancers.

4Trend Four: A parallel skills system

The question of how parents will choose to integrate both family and working life, achieving balance between flexibility and security to bring up their children, and simultaneously train and update their own skills will be especially acute for the creative industries. If you think this is already a problem in film, tv and games then it’s going to get worse. Across Europe population ageing is bringing about such large changes in the relative size of these generational groupings that policy-makers will have to re-consider the learning institutions that consume tax-payers contributions. The education and training agenda may shift away from schools and colleges as we know them to teaching in the home and workplace. Meanwhile declining fertility affects the collective capacity of society to provide these goods and assist with the problems that face the ageing individual.

This is not such a problem if countervailing automation and digitisation are harnessed, but there appears to be little concerted national action at the moment. In her essay “Generations and Life Course: the impact of demographic challenges on education 2010-2050” Sarah Harper claims “There are now growing moves to recruit, retain and retrain that generation of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are increasingly being seen as essential to retaining Europe’s economic competitiveness as the upcoming skills shortage washes across the region”. As we’ll see, if we don’t utilise such talent, then China will.

5Trend Five: Silver resources

This brings us on to how we might need to reassign resources. We’ll need to decide what is an appropriate balance between investing in schools and university education, and in reflexive adult and lifelong training schemes. Will increasingly older voters have a different perspective, wanting more resources for their own learning, at the expense of the younger generation?

beginning is nearThere’s a few safe assumptions to make. Since no-one imagines the pace of change in the job market will let up, lifelong learning will rise in importance, and post-university training will no longer be seen as mere topping up. Schools will need to become intergenerational community hubs, and andragogy will replace pedagogy. This new grey generation will live longer but be poorer than their parents. Corporations will step in and look after their own reskilling needs. Industries like the creative industries which lack a wide array of large corporate interests that can plan cohesive training programmes at scale may find it difficult to upgrade their own in-house talent supply.

6Trend Six: Erring on the side of caution or the stagnation of innovation?

As the greying population boom sees the impetuousness of youth sidelined, whither innovation and risk in the economy? Start-ups are essentially typified as young ventures by entrepreneurs who don’t yet have a family life to sacrifice. They often show a confidence that only comes from a lack of knowing where boundaries are. The increase in conservatism that parallels the onset of age is well documented. Would the comfortably well-off mature worker be as willing to risk their worldly assets for a dream as the fearless young person with nothing to lose?

Alternately one might see more companies created by the collective wisdom of more experienced business people, driven by more considered and mature business plans with realistic projections.

FiveHourscoverProfessor Tom Kirkwood, who leads Newcastle University’s Initiative on Changing Age, commenting on NESTAs recent “5 hours a day: systemic innovation for an ageing population” (February 2013) report said “Although everyone knows that lifespans are getting longer, few yet appreciate just how radical a change is ahead. When I began expressing the rate as an increase of five hours a day, which if anything is on the conservative side, it seemed to help focus minds”.

Nesta is already supporting a number of innovations in ageing and is planning to launch a new programme of work on ageing in the summer of 2013.

7Trend Seven: A matriarchy of high level skills

A side effect of the new gerontocracy might be a shift in gender, although one would hope the current imbalance that exists in the creative industries today would be corrected long before the projected mortality rates make a difference.

Credit: guardian.co.uk

Credit: guardian.co.uk

The life expectancy of a 65 year old woman in the UK is now 19.7 years, almost 3 years longer than that of a 65 year old man. It is not surprising, then, that among the oldest age groups in the population (85 years+) women outnumber men by more than two to one, nor that nine out of every ten centenarians in this country are female. In the future the older your workforce, the more likely they’ll be women.

8Trend Eight: The Creative Industries takes the silver shilling

Those early internet or digital media consumers will be in their sixties by 2030. They’ll be a significant part of the 15.5m UK citizens over 65. It’s estimated the spending power of the ‘silver economy’ will grow from £79bn currently to £127bn in the same timeframe. In the end the silver pound and the silver vote will dictate education policy and will morph the products and services of all our industries, but with many particular ramifications for the creative sector. Some would say the kind of products and services that the creative industries produce will shift away from the garish and novel. Design will be ergonomic, not brash. We may need a new psychology of the older consumer. Focus groups of youths and appeals to young trendspotters and alpha consumers will diminish. Will today’s teenagers take their relationships to brands with them into their middle age, for instance?

9Trend Nine: China wants YOU

Europe isn’t a good place to attract skills from. In 2014 there will be more people leaving (60-64 year olds) the job market than entering (20-24 year olds). Globalisation will march on, but we might be out manoeuvred. China is the only country in the world currently mapping its workforce demand and planning its occupational structure by age. Central planning means it knows what year it will have a downturn in skills and what they are. Naturally, it will then start cherry-picking and importing the talent it needs according to Professor Sarah Harper. It’s predicted that Latin America will feel the pull first, but the brain drain will soon be felt in the US and Europe. Tomorrow’s students will increasingly be pulled east, and the wisdom of our elder creative practitioners will be targeted. Imagine a seventy year old Jonny Ive or Peter Molyneux being lured east, taking with them the high level design skills to kickstart whole new industries.


Trend Ten: Adult Education is THE Education

Neuroscience will continue to inform new processes of learning, but whereas it has concentrated on the ‘neuroplastic’ younger learner it will increasingly contribute to a new form of adult (Androgogic) education. Research indicates that mental development, brain capacity, and longevity are closely associated, so education contributes to an active healthy life.

Our traditional thinking of skills upgrading and employment will change. As new cohorts enter the workplace, they will increasingly be accustomed to regular and continual skills upgrading to keep pace with technological developments and demands. This form of education will become an essential requirement of the modern workplace, and its provision needs to be negotiated between employers, governments and individuals. The Creative Industries traditionally has relied on ad-hoc and ‘just in time’ training. This kind of training may not be tolerated in the future as employers take a longer view of their careers or personal development.

A Sunset clause:

Whilst it is always interesting to play futurology, the most surprising aspect of the research I’ve uncovered is how little we are preparing for this cultural and economic shift towards what might be called a benign new gerontocracy. Most institutions debating it seem to have Aging or some variant in their name, and thus can be painted as special interest. Many of the statistics in this article refer to 2030, which is only 16.5 years away. The Creative Industries in particular have always been accused of lacking in long-term thinking and planning, and in a recession maybe that’s understandable. Probably the best thing we can do is ensure that those working today in the creative sector see a long and stable future ahead and increasingly flexible skills and training support. In the future, where you are as young as you feel, the enriched life experiences and perspective the older worker brings to the workplace (whatever that will be) may well transform our youth oriented and juvenescent industries into silver learner world leaders, and also net importers of wisdom.

Image Courtesy NESTA

Image Courtesy NESTA

From Ship Building to 3D printing: Belfast’s Future Classrooms 2013

conference-imageWhat happens in the classroom has an impact on the creative industries talent pipeline, and schools have a much longer event horizon until their talent hits the professional world. Dealing with that ten year lag is problematic for political planners and policy makers. The Web 2.0 revolution is barely ten years old, and inventing a curriculum around it ten years ago would have seemed a folly. There was no facebook, twitter, linkedin, let alone bandwidth nor access to support such an endeavour.

We have to assume that tropes like the internet of things, big data and the cloud will only grow in prominence for the creative industries of tomorrow, but we need to match this with flexibility, resilience and an appetite to engage with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’; namely to engage with disruption rather than build defences against it.

With the sad demise of the Learning Without Frontiers conferencethis year, there’s not a lot of places that these kinds of debates and foresight can erupt off the webpages and into what the cybernauts of yesteryear used to call ‘meatspace’.

School’s Out?

Today 39% of 2-4 year olds have used a smart device, with this jumping to 52% among 5-8 year olds, while a CISCO reportsays the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops and internet-capable phones will exceed the number of humans in 2015. Research by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) concluded that at least 6% of desktop/laptop computers in schools would be tablets by the end of 2012 (4.5% in primary, 6.9% in secondary), with this rising to 22% by the end of 2015.

So the opportunity to attend Future Classrooms 2013, Northern Ireland’s first conference designed to help education leaders and key decision makers develop strategies for the creative use of technology in the classroom was a foray into this area that I jumped at.

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit wallaceict.net)

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit wallaceict.net)

In the comparatively heavily regulated and prescribed world of learning, how do we ensure teaching not only makes use of new technology, but also adopts flexible and far-sighted strategies for coping with change, and performs the neat trick of supplying not only the creative thinkers and practitioners for whatever Web 3.0 might be (with presumed trajectories of a world of work prefixed by nano- and virtual- and augmented- connectivities we can only dream of), but also supply fulfilled individuals who can guide and inform such a future.

So many projections revolve around a technological determinism which may be our future undoing. If we unwittingly plan straitjackets for today’s children we end up (with the best will in the world) making the Schools system become the next Kodak, Blockbusters or HMV- failed models from a past era.

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

In the US, we see the logical extension of doing nothing- the privatisation and unbundling of education, and the apotheosis of the idea that connectivity and distance learning will fill the gaps and technology alone will save the day. The rhetoric can always portray teachers as passive pawns in a teleological narrative they are swept along by. Right now, the guiding lights and guardians of education in the states are Computer Scientists and Edtech providers such as Sebastian ThrunDaphne Koller, and of course Salman Khan.

Often best practice in the schools system can be under the radar, finding its way around the system, in after schools clubs, special bootcamps and projects, local experiments outside the mainstream, and grass roots innovation often away from the political limelight. In the UK we are lucky to have a more humanist tradition evidenced by leading lights like Keri Facer and Sir Ken Robinson, who put the teacher and pedagogy before metrics, and quality before scale.

There’s never been a more critical time to include and empower teachers. That dialogue needs to start with information and exposure to best practice, rather than a sales pitch for new technology alone. As such Future Classrooms 2013 felt like the start of a measured and optimistic approach to how we can make our schools great, and get a real sense that today’s children have the conceptual tools (and yes, the technological tools) to create their own future. However, it wasn’t a start, but rather a progress report, and a celebration of much success.my_lanyard

A Buoyant Titanic

On first of March 2013 school managers, teachers and curriculum leaders from Northern Ireland gathered at the (very buoyant) Titanic Centre in Belfast for a day on how our young people learn and how to prepare our future workforce for a modern competitive economy of tomorrow, yet focus on creative approaches across the curriculum and advice on how mobile technology can be deployed to support this. Significantly it also launched a flexible Mobile Technology strategy for Schools. A range of speakers were complemented and grounded by an exhibition of school children creative work and exploring curriculum with Apps, programmes and even a 3D printing machine, a sort of technology playground of creative activity led by the children themselves.

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

We often use the term pedagogy without realising its roots- the Greek paidagōgía, for teaching children (Andragogy meaning methods for teaching adults). Future Classrooms 2013 highlighted the role of three Creative Learning Centres who have spearheaded the agenda of creativity and engagement within the schools and the youth sector in Northern Ireland. Funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and managed by Northern Ireland Screen, they are Studio ON in Belfast, The Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry and the AmmA Centre in Armagh, acting as hubs for spreading skills development in digital creative media among teachers and young people as well as building new curricula, and collectively work with more than 250 schools. Over 1500 teachers and 3000 young people have benefited from the advice, workshops and resources of these centres. This model of strategic support beyond the school walls has enabled teachers and schoolchildren to explore creative and mobile technology on their own terms, and provided a level of friendly mediation between the often baffling array of ‘Ed Tech’ providers and the end-user.

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

Averil Morrow, Director of the AmmA Centre states “We have seen a huge increase in demand recently for training from teachers and from school management teams in the use of mobile technologies, particularly tablet devices. Head teachers want to be shown how to deploy this technology and how it can help improve the learning process for their pupils.”

Highlights of the Day

The first neologism of the day came from Stephen McGowan, Head of Creativity DCAL who told us of the concept of ESTEAM (I’m assuming that’s how it’s spelt); a neat way of highlighting Enterprise and STEAM– the future components of creativity that the economy craves. This seems very close to Creative Skillset’s new philosophy of Fusion skills, which you’ll hear more about in the months ahead. It’s a good sign that policy makers are starting to understand the power of creativity, as David Willetts has recently been pronouncing on STEAM, but ESTEAM sounds like it may soon supplant this as the acronym de nos jours, which enriches our lexicon. The Creative Industries have been too slow to create adopt snappy terms that encapsulate what’s needed, and gain good PR to promote change.

Education conferences such as this have many stakeholders- educationalists, politicians, young learners and industry representatives, and so the stage is often set for conflict, with teachers who often are the recipients of misplaced and historical school policies, and stern industrialists who chide the system for not supplying todays talent to their specifications, and bemoan having to cope with skills shortages that were precipitated further down the talent timeline. This conference wasn’t one of them.

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran is Managing Director of Allstate Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland’s largest IT company, employing over 2300 people, of whom around three hundred have been sourced from Europe and India. His keynote speech was refreshing. He explained that the paradigm of the last few years, with education agencies asking business to ‘tell us what you need’ doesn’t work anymore- businesses simply don’t have the ability to project skills supply and demand into the future, so they need to support a proactive education system. Telematics and Analytics are his future growth areas, but he needs an education system that supplies ESTEAM workers ready to adapt. He sees a real shift from the passive “computer point-and-click generation to the mobile tap-and-swipe generation” as the main challenge for schools. He recognises the folly of businesses being too prescriptive about what they want out of schools today, but that businesses need to simultaneously be more supportive within the classroom.

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU's Knowledge Media Institute

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute

Professor Peter J Scott, Director of the Knowledge Media Institute of the UK’s Open University took some of the themes of mobile learning further, reminding us that television itself could often deliver learning by stealth. 8 million viewers saw theBBC’s Frozen Planet, and that this essentially was an OU course. 300,000 people engaged with the OU through this partnership. He explained that the TV programme was the ‘sit back’ gateway that brought you to the ‘sit forward’ and often mobile-enhanced interactive learning possibilities. He also made it clear that pedagogy in this area is always open to change as platforms change. There are 156 postgraduate and 397 undergraduate courses on offer through the OU, and the advent of the semantic web and the leveraging of big data analytics will have an impact on that provision. Scott talked about one of the major design challenges for his team in the future is to provide connectiveness that encourages students to talk and solve problems together.

Back to School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

Such speakers supplied a kind of grown-ups context for learning, but the picture of tomorrow’s school classrooms came alive forcefully with a school case study presentation by David Cleland, Vice principal  of Wallace High School who talked of their journey into mobile learning. They’d had positive experience of Moving Image Arts (MIA), the first A-Level in the UK in digital film-making, assisted by the Nerve Centre and accredited by the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), and this had spurred on a deeper investigation into technology.

In 2010-11 he’d noticed that over 140 pupils had mobile devices, and so germinated an idea that led to the equipping of 530 students at Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) with an iPad 2, the first 1:1 initiative in Northern Ireland. Cleland told how parents had inspired and permitted such adoption, whilst teachers drove the initiative. Open evenings with parents and pupils together gave confidence that the quality of learning would benefit. That was September 2011.

He cautioned against sudden and deep disruption, likening ICT to a double decker bus, were the journey should be one of small progress between stops, and where the next stop is only visible from where you are, not the end of the journey itself.

Cleland also highlighted the need to bring on board naturally wary teachers, and how a “Photoshop and Digital Media” teacher training course had little take-up until it was re-branded as a “Get the most from your digital camera” workshop and re-scheduled before the summer holidays. You have to bring people with you during major changes, and the formation of staff working groups led by Cleland created a new integrated ICT policy.

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

It took one and a half years to get iPads into the classroom, but only three days intensive training were needed for staff partially because of the near ubiquity of iPads in the home, and a summer to test out teaching issues.

Now the school continues to exploit new learner centred technologies, using Cloud services, and utilising Google Docs with a VLE for their learning materials. Training is integrated and ongoing, and pupils use free Apps as well as Garageband, iMovie, Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. The School is now creating a library of App textbooks for future cohorts.

Nerve logoJohn Peto, Director of Education at The Nerve Centre point out that using the same standardised and connective tool (in their case, Apple’s iPad) across different subjects can lead to important interdisciplinary learning, with the children bringing ideas from other Apps work in other subjects into their current classroom. He talks of some children learning French by default, and how at every stage the parents need to be involved, and how support needs to be constant. The launch of the Creative Classrooms site, produced by the three creative learning centres is a careers resource to support the KS3 curriculum for Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities, and Employability. Students are asked to think about what it means to be creative, and lessons have been designed to encourage students to explore their own nascent creative skills.

Attendees at the conference were also given copies of the new “Mobile Technology handbook for all schools in Northern Ireland” a guide to spreading best practice from planning, preparation to deployment and evaluation. With its objective of one device to one user in the classroom this presages an exciting future to learning in schools, led by teachers and parents, informed and supported by the creative learning centres. The Handbook is crammed with examples of technology currently being used in Schools across Northern Ireland, and the guide leaves it to the schools which mobile technology they should choose, putting power into the hands of the teachers, not the hardware suppliers.

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

The handbook reminds us “We are yet to see how new mobile computers will change the ways in which technology is managed, accessed and utilised in schools. However, no matter the mechanism or device the key to success will always be a pupil-centred approach where questioning, creativity and learning are paramount. It is vital that the use of mobile devices in schools is rooted in School Improvement and the enhancement and enrichment of learning at all levels”.

Conferences about education can be heavy on theory, policy and foresight, but the accompanying “Have a Go” Exhibition showed that the future classroom is actually here. Over lunch curious delegates passed through a room of industrious children, seemingly oblivious to the attention they garnered, immersed in their tablets, creating stop-frame animations, solving maths puzzles, and even printing out models on a 3D ‘Makerbot’ printer. Whilst we grown-ups struggle with the ‘internet of things’ and cloud computing, these children are engaging and learning new technologies like 3D modelling and design on a site full of historic resonance- where no doubt some of their grandfathers once built ships out of steel, they build imaginative models out of thermoplastic polymers, ready for tomorrow’s industries.

My thanks to Barry Brennan of Studio ON for arranging my visit.claymation

A MOOC Point: Universities go freemium?

In the US, 2012 was the year of the MOOC or Massive Open Online ClassroomThe surprise development of free courses at the likes of the Higher Education elite like Yale, Stanford and Harvard made the headlines and garnered huge excitement and demand, and now the revolution has moved to the UK. Will this apotheosis of democratic learning change HE forever, or will it become merely a freemium marketing campaign for the UK’s cash-strapped Universities?

Previous visions of the future of education have been wide of the mark.

Previous visions of the future of education have been wide of the mark.

Will 2013 be the year of the MOOC in the UK? Commentators seem to think that the “Massive Open Online Classroom” is the consequence of the concatenation of increased fees for University attendance, faster and more ubiquitous bandwidth in the home, and a wired public who want to use their free-time and ‘cognitive surplus’ for personal betterment and learning.

These factors, plus the fact it’s the time of year when commentators are prognosticating on future trends and making resolutions means the MOOC concept is gaining in purchase, and the UK is starting to follow the US lead in opening up the academy doors, democratising learning, or grandstanding and marketing competitive advantage, depending on who you believe.

It may be that UK Educationalists have been slow on the uptake about understanding this new generation of students and how they consume knowledge, for all the academic talk about digital natives. Having ten thousand people in a virtual classroom isn’t so alien to a clientele of students used to playing World of Warcraft with thousands of others simultaneously from across the globe. Essentially it’s the same technology anyway, whether MOOC or WoW.  However to most academics, raised on the anxiety of ever-increasing class sizes in the real world, and the corollary negative consequence on learning, the MOOC is counter-intuitive.

However, probably one of the surprising things about MOOCs is they are a grass roots faculty development- not the corporatization of learning by big business. Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun co-founded Udacity, one of the 3 big MOOC purveyors in the states, exclaiming “One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students”.

Of course, Distance Learning is nothing new. In 1858, the University of London opened its degrees to any (male, of course) student, regardless of their location, thus spawning decades of debate about pedagogic quality. In the late 20th century the term Blended Learning arose, almost as an admission that distance learning alone couldn’t deliver the quality of learning.  Universities were more receptive to delivering Blended Learning (or Click and Brick as one wag put it) because it maintained their control and need for real estate if you’re being cynical. However with the dominant digital media being the CD at the time, and the nascent internet running at a mere 14k, and being accessible in 1990 to only 3 million people worldwide, of which only 15% where in Europe, distance learning lacked interactivity and couldn’t fulfil the need for a social forum of discussion and debate. Rich Media at the time referred to a 240 pixel quicktime file. It seems to have taken the ubiquity of Web 2.0 tools and social media networks to deliver some of the potential of e-learning.



Every technology needs a creation myth. The first MOOC was in 2008. A “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” course at the University of Manitoba was planned with a class of 25 students when it was decided to open it up online for free, merely because they could, and in the spirit of the subject matter. Learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online meetings with the course content available through RSS feeds. There was a huge surprise for organisers Stephen Downes and George Siemens when eventually around 2400 people registered. They had just encountered the scaleable and connective possibilities the internet now afforded higher education.

In response, Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island gave birth to the name, borrowing from the game term Massive Online Role Playing Game or MORPG. The MOOC was born, although there were many more obscure precedents.

But the ‘Massive’ in MOOC had yet to really happen. If in the myth of MOOCs Manitoba was the urtext, then Stanford was the eureka moment.

Stanford Professor and co-founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun

Stanford Professor and co-founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun

“In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge…and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined. This one class had more educational impact than my entire career.” Says Professor Sebastian Thrun who gave up teaching at Stanford to co-found and create free courses for Udacity, explaining “One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) soon followed with a series of MOOCs entitled MITx in early 2012 with free courses in circuits and electronics, before being joined by Harward to launch edX having together committed $60 million to the project, which saw  370,000 students enroll for free on courses as varied as Computer Science, Statistics, Copyright, Justice, and Greek Heroes. Meanwhile Coursera launched, having raised $16 million in venture funding, and now claims to have 1.7 million students, with courses from 33 of the biggest names in HE including Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley and CalTech, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and from the UK, the University of Edinburgh which currently runs 5 MOOCs of around 5 weeks long. Coursera MOOCs span the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, and Computer Science.

edX is a partnership between MIT and Harvard

edX is a partnership between MIT and Harvard

Can such scaling up of HE ‘products’ work and reap results? Yes it seems, if you exclude grading and forms of assessment (apart from peer assessment or in some cases, automated assessment. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five of your cohort grade it, as you do theirs).

Because the learner isn’t assessed, no credits or qualifications ensue. A MOOC participant from say, Harvard can’t say they have a degree from Harvard. That is where the idea of freemium comes in. Will a MOOC prove to be the gateway drug to get bums on seats, bringing those Clicks in to Bricks?



Distance Learning, e-learning, whatever the nomenclature, has always suffered from hype. In 1999 John Chambers, the president and CEO of Cisco Systems proclaimed “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error”. Today the hype is no different.

Udacity's imagery reads differently from most Universities

Udacity’s imagery reads differently from most Universities

2013 will see if MOOCs can find fertile ground for adoption in the UK. It could be argued that despite the post-Browne fee hikes in HE learners are not experiencing the financial pain of the average American student. Also the scale and geographical constituency of the HE environment in the UK is very different. Also most MOOC courses seem to be STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) based, since it seems they translate best into the MOOC format- with less need for face to face interaction, or iterative practice.  In the UK, we don’t yet have the kind of aspirations in computer science and maths, because we don’t yet have a Silicon Valley equivalent to fuel that desire, or career demand.

It may well be that OOCs would be a more realistic achievement, but without the M, would venture capital be invested like in the States? Anyway, in the UK, are our Higher Education institutions innovative enough to leap in and take early adopter rewards? Will the Russell Group be incited into enjoining the fray, worried about losing global market share?

There’s a lot of talk about democratising learning, but is there also a business model predicated on massive numbers, like freemium computer games, that go into profit if only a very small percentage of players choose to buy a wizard’s cloak of invisibility or a ‘power-up’?  Will people pay for the accreditation, the extra certificate, the grade that proves their standard of learning? That has to be the end-game of this freemium offer. Or could UK MOOCs be seen as a loss leader to entice high fee-paying overseas students, to entice the BRICs to Bricks (if you’ll excuse the pun)?

Udacity have recently partnered with Pearson, paving the way for certification “now, students wishing to pursue our official credential and be part of our job placement program should also take an additional final exam in a Pearson testing center. There are over 4000 centers in more than 170 countries.”

Coursera: the strength of 33 Universities

Coursera: the strength of 33 Universities

Coursera, the largest of the big three MOOC aggregators says it may charge between $30 and $80 per certificate, depending on the course, to students who complete successfully. MIT and Harvard say they will likely charge a “modest fee” for the opportunity to earn an edX certificate. Udacity, on the other hand, seems to want to make its money from finding jobs for its students, and promote them to employers.  In Silicon Valley, headhunters often get paid finder’s fees equivalent to 20 percent of a software engineer’s starting salary, which could mean around $15,000 per recruit.



One point that isn’t so well reported- it tends to get lost because journalists and PR like all those big numbers- is that of the nature of openness- the power of the network that the learner builds and develops. MOOCs are social. It’s not the 1970s Open University paradigm of sitting down at home to do your coursework alone and then sending it in.

As online education author Tony Bates says “While the hype about MOOCs presaging a revolution in higher education has focussed on their scale, the real revolution is that universities with scarcity at the heart of their business models are embracing openness”.

A snapshot from Dave Cormier's excellent YouTube clip.

A snapshot from Dave Cormier’s excellent YouTube clip.

There’s probably no better introduction to this aspect of the MOOC than Dave Cormier’s YouTube clip. To Cormier (who originally coined the phrase) MOOCs promote participation, not consumption, and life-long networked learning. They’re a way to connect and collaborate. A MOOC is not a course but an event where people can get together in communities of practice. The course content is distributed not centralised – it’s what each learner finds out and shares from across the internet, not the University’s course content stored in one central location. All those Tweets, Blogs, Vlogs and websites knit together to make a knowledge corpus that can be approached and negotiated from different angles, with learners on different paths. Unlike a classroom course with a steady and incremental drip of information, a MOOC has no single path towards completion. To Cormier this allows new ideas and connections to be made, and those ideas are fed back into the network for all.



In the UK, December 2012 saw the news that the Open University had created a new company, Futurelearn, which will offer free online courses from UK Universities like Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick.  These Universities were evidently chosen for their high performance in league tables. Futurelearn intends to offer courses in the second half of 2013.

Futurelearn_logoThe Futurelearn Company will be able to draw on The Open University’s expertise in distance learning and its pioneering work in accessible education resources. Futurelearn promises to be a single gateway. “Futurelearn will not replicate class-based learning online but reimagine it” says the Press Release.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said: “MOOCs represent an enormous development in higher education, one that has the potential to bring about long-lasting change to the HE sector. Futurelearn will take our proud heritage and work with some of Britain’s best-known universities to write the next chapter in the story of British higher education.”

It’s clear from the accompanying press releases that the UK government and academia have woken up to MOOCS. The talk is of extending access, opening up research and learning, and giving the world access to the ‘highest quality educational opportunities’.

CEO Simon Nelson (who previously spent 14 years at the heart of the development and management of BBC Online) said “until now UK universities have only had the option of working with US-based platforms.” This appears to be a strong motive- a rearguard action to address the huge traction that successful US MOOC aggregators like Coursera, EdX and Udacity seem to have. Having an early presence in the MOOCsphere seems to be imperative. The fact there seems to be no fixed business plan as yet, and yet a stellar academic cast of partner universities seems to point to a freemium model at least initially. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how students interact, where value can be created, and where people will be prepared to pay for that extra value,” Martin Bean said, adding that any income would be shared with Futurelearn’s members. Meanwhile Mark Taylor, Dean of the Warwick Business School hopes its offering on Futurelearn would “act as a kind of taster” for students who might then consider paid-for courses at the institution. “There is a philanthropic element to it but at the end of the day we have to pay the bills” he said.

Why have 200 students when you can have 150,000?

Why have 200 students when you can have 150,000?

The fact that 12 sober and rational HEIs have stepped into this compact seemingly without a business plan or long term strategy seems to imply a number of Deans are waking up and smelling the aroma of Coursera coffee.

However, there are two other elements that might be in play here. Firstly, Universities might at last have finally woken up to the power of analytics. As a regular visitor to UK universities, this author has always been surprised on how little they know about the behaviour and location of their greatest assets- alumni and current students.

Like the relationship between games designers and online players has changed, the fact that valuable consumer/student behavioural data can be harvested and analysed means online or blended learning courses can ‘always be in beta’ like a Game App, and pinch points of attrition and drop out can be identified and changed. Valuable information on where the learner meanders and the obstacles they might encounter can be aggregated and fed back into the course experience.

Secondly, there’s the accessibility agenda, and the fact this might be accomplished via an online presence for those aspirational time-rich yet financially poor digital natives out there. Professor Sir Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, explains that Futurelearn is a new opportunity to “provide learning in a different way and open up our expertise to new audiences. Online learning is becoming an integral part of what universities do”. Globalism and accessibility seem to be entwined.  Cardiff University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan said: “Cardiff is a global player…This exciting initiative provides a real opportunity to extend access across the world to our high quality education experience.”  Accessibility here means the global market.

Credit: Babson Research Group

Credit: Babson Research Group

However, as Doug Clows says in his blog about MOOCs “If someone’s going to be doing it, I’d rather it was the OU, with its 40-year tradition and commitment to opening access to higher education, than a venture capitalist with a commitment only to making money”.



Those with long memories (well, a decade) may feel a sense of déjà vu here. The UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited) was a company with a website portal that promoted online degrees from UK universities. It was first proposed as a concept by David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education for the UK, in a speech in February 2000. UKeU (like Futurelearn today) was to be a broker, an agent for e-degrees, marketing online degrees from British universities and providing a technological platform to make them happen.

Set up by the government of the time with £62 million, and constituting 12 universities (coincidentally the same number signed up to today’s Futurelearn) allied to a tech company to provide the software, by January 2004 it housed some 25 courses.

Unfortunately only 900 students signed up by the time the plug was pulled on funding – thus costing a total of £44,000 for each learner. “People who burnt public money in what was a political enterprise should be censured” fulminated Ian Gibson, MP and Chair of the Commons science and technology committee at the time.

With mobile learning and social media do you meed to physically be at Uni?

With mobile learning and social media do you meed to physically be at Uni?

HEFCE, who took a lot of political fire in the months ahead, saw UKeU as a vehicle to invest and prepare UK universities for e-learning. It admitted it had been disappointed in the lack of private finance, but resigned to dismantling  the scheme. There is not even a url left to remember it by- this was snapped up and adopted by a UKEU finance company.

A Select Committee found that the UKeU project failed largely because it took a “supply-driven rather than a demand-led approach to a very ambitious venture in an emerging market”.

Consultants complained about a “lack of focus” in management and said marketing was based “more on optimism than market-led judgements”. Other criticisms ranged from the fact that UKeU ignored Blended Learning, being purely online, and that costs of developing a proprietary platform were more than expected.

It was noted by the Select Committee that too few UKeU staff were appointed with knowledge of e-learning. “UKeU did not have anyone with e-learning expertise in a senior management position. The Chief Executive, had experience of e-business but not e-learning.´

But it mustn’t be forgotten that the early noughties were the time of much optimism and that UKeU wasn’t alone as a grand project that failed. The Open University, a British success story in distance learning in the pre-digital age, also tried to make it in the US and had to admit defeat after losing £9m.

Even Universities in the US had fingers burnt.  Columbia University launched Fathom in spring 2000 in collaboration with 14 universities, libraries and museums, including the London School of Economics and the British Museum. Columbia put up most of the initial $20m, which was followed the next year with another $20m. But the paying customers didn’t come. Fathom finally sank in January 2003. Cornell launched the virtual Cardean University; a joint project with the famous Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania and a company called Caliber (which went bankrupt); and Temple University, which closed its “for-profit” company without offering a single course.


MOOCs: This time it’s personal

There are good reasons to think that history won’t repeat itself. Firstly UKeU was a product of the technocrats of the time, working on a proprietary platform- before facebook, YouTube, flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter. It’s easy to forget that the term “Web 2.0” was first described in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci in an article “Fragmented Future” and readily available platforms and services didn’t exist at the early stages of UKeU’s genesis.

David Kernohan's Poster for Digital Storytelling 106

David Kernohan’s Poster for Digital Storytelling 106

UKeU was based on a broadcast paradigm, a one-to-many approach. It was to be asymmetric, with chunks of video, text, imagery delivered to the learner. Universities also had few digital assets, and what they already owned as assets was predicated around Blended Learning methodologies. Uncoupling this into purely online gobbets would have diminished its effectiveness. We’re also a lot more able to deliver and store dynamic rich media now. Universities can use YouTube or Vimeo rather than proprietary systems. The astronomical amounts of data produced by UKeU at the time now would fit on an a schoolboys hard drive- HEFCE’s electronic archive consists of over 13 GB of material organised in nearly 90,000 files in over 11,000 folders  with  supplementary archives of a further 5 GB. We’d call that puny now. Ironically and rather telling for the time, HEFCE also have in storage a paper archive consisting of 166 boxes of material. That’s what £62 million got you in old money.

Nowadays, Universities have developed their own experience of distance learning, albeit none announced with the kind of fanfare accompanying UKeU at the time. There’s a sense that everyone is a little cautious this time round, although it doesn’t seem that the ‘supply-driven, not demand-led’ criticism can be levelled at Futurelearn. The demand seems to be in evidence in the US, so why not here?

October 2012 edition of Time: MOOCs were everywhere in 2012.

October 2012 edition of Time: MOOCs were everywhere in 2012.

A revolution in social media and the ubiquity of online devices have meant Futurelearn is behind the curve but keen to catch a slab of market share from Udacity, Coursera and edX, which offer around 230 MOOCs from around 40 mostly US-based institutions to more than 3 million students.

Clay Shirky draws parallels between what happened in the music business with the disruption now underway in HE in his insightful blog Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. “It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.” He also notes that academic critics of MOOCs focus on issues of quality and a concern that the access agenda has gone too far, forgetting that the MP3 file transformed the music industry for ever despite not being of the ‘high quality’ so many people thought was essential.

Clay Shirky compares the disruption of HE to the digitisation of the music industry.

Clay Shirky compares the disruption of HE to the digitisation of the music industry.

MOOCs and Money?

Probably one of the more sober assessments of MOOCs comes from Sir John Daniel in Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myths, Paradox and Possibility, written in September 2012. He makes the point that MOOCs have already bifurcated into two distinct types of course-  xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs (as in edX) were the biggies that impressed us all (and mainstream media) with the large numbers and massive scale yet may revolve around more of a ‘broadcast’ paradigm with passive consumers and a conservative pedagogy, whereas cMOOCs (connective) are more about a pro-active network of learners generating and sharing  new knowledge, which is present across the network, not just in the central emanation. By this rationale the MOOCs original genesis was very cMOOC, but the xMOOC’s basis is more about corporate start-up behaviour looking for a monetisation strategy.

To me Daniel’s essay is useful because he points to how today’s xMOOCs are in some way a rehearsal for attempting to maintain university market position in the digital world of information fecundity.

In terms of a wider gamut of motivations other than academic altruism Daniel picks up references to how MITx is supposedly being used as a testing ground for mastering this disruptive technology and applying it to their residential students; one of Coursera’s university’s course offering is fuelled by a fear that there will be a loss of revenue if they don’t contribute; the factor of attrition (it’s not unusual for 93% to drop out before completion) – which makes the numbers the press quote superfluous.

As reporter Jeffrey R. Young says in Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses “Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups: Build fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists—and even two universities—have invested more than $22-million in the effort already. “Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow,” says Daphne Koller, the company’s other co-founder, who is also a professor at Stanford”.

Freemium could mean certification of HR recruitment services follow

Freemium could mean certification or HR recruitment services follow

So how exactly will the money follow? It seems Coursera think it may be generated by Certification, proper assessments (as opposed to peer graded), employee recruitment (and other HR matchmaking services), applicant screening for employers, learners pay for extra bespoke tutoring, selling the MOOC platform to companies to use for their own training programmes, tuition fees, and sponsorship. Some of these monetisation strategies can be controlled by the participating university (ie certification) and some by the MOOC aggregator company (eg recruitment). It’ll be interesting to see how these contradictory drivers might be played out in the year ahead.



I’ve decided to subscribe to two separate MOOCs, one by the University of West Virginia through Coursera, and one from the University of Edinburgh through Udacity, just to experience them myself. It looks like a combined commitment to 15 hours per week. My motives surprised me. MOOCs originally seemed to me to be a great way to learn, and being part of an online community of learners might spur me on more than a textbook or isolated study.

I’ve worked in Higher Education, and have written and designed degree and postgraduate courses and so feel comfortable with the way courses operate, but I admit I felt the excitement of having certificates from these hallowed institutions as a lure, emblazoned on my CV, even if they are without any credits or real qualification value.

The last words should probably go to one of the facilitators of the first MOOC. George Siemens comments in Finally, alternatives to prominent MOOCs, “Even if MOOCs disappear from the landscape in the next few years, the change drivers that gave birth to them will continue to exert pressure and render slow plodding systems obsolete (or, perhaps more accurately, less relevant). If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won’t have. It’s not only about being right, it’s about experimenting and playing in the front line of knowledge”.


A Roundabout way of doing things

History seems to tell us its culture not real estate that will make Silicon Roundabout work. How will Bricks and Mortar (or plate glass) effect grass roots innovation?

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

In early December, Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson united to unveil plans to transform Shoreditch, East London, in a bid to turn it into a high tech hub for the UK.

In a sure sign that both politicians and journalists still like to think in what Nicholas Negroponte might call ‘Atoms not Bits’ (Bricks and mortar are still seen as more impressive than abstract and rather invisible interventions in the market) media headlines led with the proposed £50 million new building and “largest indoor civic space in europe” which will sprout from Old Street roundabout. Cameron announced that Microsoft will open a technology developer centre and there will be an incubator centre run by UCL with Cisco and DC Thompson to help new companies. It’s not clear the effect this will have on the low rent environment that was Shoreditch’s original attraction for many start-ups.

Although the government now prefers the title Tech City, Silicon Roundabout was the original vernacular used by its earliest denizens. The term seems to have been christened in July 2008 by Matt Biddulph, who was at the time CTO of Dopplr (the online service that lets travellers share future travel plans with friends, since swallowed by Nokia). Dopplr was one of the first 15 companies identified then as a cluster. The term was seized upon by Mark Prigg, Science and Technology Editor of The Evening Standard with the headline “Roundabout is London’s Answer to Silicon Valley”. 

By January 2010, Wired magazine noted there were 85 start-up companies in the area, drawn by rents, hip nightlife and a legacy of existing tech and creative firms from the 80’s; Dopplr, Last.fm, Consolidated Independent, Tinker.it, TweetDeck, Berg, Trampoline Systems, AMEE, Skimbit, Fotango, weartical.com, Songkick, Techlightenment, Poke London, Kizoom, BrightLemon, Redmonk, Moo, LShift and Livemusic being the leading lights.

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

By the time DEMOS had written the report “A Tale of Tech City: The future of inner east london’s digital economy” in June 2012, the area had gained both acreage and density with over 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs.

This makes it the biggest employer of all the UK ‘Silicons’: Silicon Glen (Dundee/Inverclyde) and Silicon Fen (Cambridge). There seems to be a contest on for Silicon Beach between Brighton and Bournemouth, which hasn’t yet caught the public imagination.

Why is it when we talk about clusters of high-tech companies and media agencies, it isn’t long before some comparison to Silicon Valley is made? No other Silicon suffixed cluster has been able to nestle within a capital city outside of Africa (Silicon Lagoon in Lagos, Silicon Cape in Cape Town and Silicon Savannah in Nairobi tell a story of central funding in Africa), so London’s cluster is quite unusual in this respect. Israel’s Silicon Wadi centres around Tel Aviv, (although it has since stretched to Jerusalem, however that may be due to the concentration of space in Israel, and also media agencies like Thomson Reuters and the BBC needing such a base). Less well known are Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Dominion in Virginia and Silicon Forest in Portland, Oregon, to name just a few.

As AnnaLee Saxenian Dean and Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, – who has spent years studying the valley’s attributes – says “Simply having the ingredients of Silicon Valley doesn’t mean you have its regional dynamism. This notion that you can grow the next Silicon Valley by putting together a science park, venture capital and a university has been roundly disproven.”

So what makes Silicon Valley endure, and can we learn anything from it? The Santa Clara Valley (originally mostly walnut and apricot farms) seem to be as much about the culture engendered as the low rents and lock-ups of the time, and the ready supply of gifted students from Stanford and Berkeley.

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

AnnaLee Saxenian charts how what became Silicon Valley benefitted from the collapse of the Boston high-tech centre that had built up around Route 128 in the 70’s defined by six of the ten largest technology firms in the world (including DEC, Wang, Lotus, Raytheon, Sun Microsystems).

The towering monoliths of Route 128 operated in competitive secrecy. Former DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) VP Gordon Bell remarked that DEC was “a large entity that operates as an island in the regional economy”. At one point DEC employed more than 120,000 people, which like it’s rival neighbours was constricted by an insular culture that was enforced by ‘non-compete clauses’ and non-disclosure agreements, and scientists who were dissuaded from publishing in acknowledged peer-reviewed journals.

Against this command and control backdrop, where these ‘island’ companies kept to themselves, there was an urban culture of openness and collaboration developing in California. Silicon Valley’s success and Route 128’s nadir was about two competing social and business cultures rather than the setting aside of business parks or tax incentives.

In “Imagine: How Creativity Works”  Jonah Lehrer charts how the creativity of an urban area depends upon its ability to encourage the free-flow of information.  Although both Boston and San Jose had a density of talent, the talent wasn’t able to interact or share within the Route 128 cluster.

In urban California, the start-ups were more informal and being smaller, had to share engineers and techies to get by as a necessity. Work was more project-based, with companies having short lifespans (the average tenure at a Silicon Valley company was less than two years). The café and bar culture promoted informal interaction and dense social networks loosened tongues. Whereas information flowed vertically in the towering walled fiefdoms of DEC, Lotus and Wang in Boston, it flowed horizontally with ease in California. Also non-compete clauses (a powerful weapon in the hands of the big Boston corporations) were almost never enforced in California, thus freeing out of work engineers and executives to quickly re-enter the job market and work for competitors.

Informal urban networks grew through bar and café culture- and the zeal for informal meeting places spread to loose groups like the now almost mythic Homebrew Computer Club, founded in a Menlo Park garage in 1975. It was a club for hobbyists, since there was not yet an established industry for this new creativity. Within a year nearly 750 people were members. As early member and doctor, engineer, and entrepreneur Bob Lash states “The excitement at homebrew was electric, and during the period of ’74 to ’76 I constructed a working 12-bit microprogrammed minicomputer using a 30-bit micro-control store entirely out of about 100 SSI/MSI TTL wire-wrapped chips, which (thanks to the understanding of my wife) I still have in the garage” Members built their own inexpensive machines from components to impress each other, and circuit diagrams and schematics were shared as freely as advice and support. Alliances were made; it was here that a Hewlett-Packard engineer called Steve Wozniak had shown his ground breaking twenty dollar microprocessor with 256k of memory that caught the attention of a young Steve Jobs. As interest grew, meetings moved to the Stanford University Physics department.

The two Steves

The two Steves

Through a culture of informality, unregulated curiosity, sprawling social networks and a lack of centralised policy Silicon Valley grew to spawn 225,300 high-tech jobs and the most billionaires in the United States per capita.

It’s clear that this culture was also present in Silicon Roundabout’s inception. Hoxton’s cafes, bars and clubs provide that informal network, where everyone knows everyone. In a 2008 article Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, of interactive consultancy tinker.it (the online store for Arduino products), said the area had developed a sense of community, adding: “We are based in a building with a courtyard in the middle and everyone around is doing really exciting things. Generally we all end up having coffee together and comparing what we are working on. I think a lot of deals have been done that way.” That was in 2008, but Alexandra is still in Shoreditch, as an interaction designer & entrepreneur at Designswarm. Matt Webb, co-founder of design consultancy Schulze and Webb, said “The networking possibilities are amazing. On our first day here we were having lunch in the park and we came across the guys from last.fm, who we are really keen to work with”.

Tech City and 3,200 firms

Tech City and 3,200 firms

It’s this cultural narrative that politicians often miss in their desire to see high tech clusters mushroom in their own backyard. It’s a culture of serendipity and accidental meetings, a loose social network where unplanned alliances can transform companies.

In London we are seeing the rebranding of Silicon Roundabout into Tech City, led by the creation of the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) as a branch of the government’s UK Trade & Investment (UKT&I) group. Erik van der Kleij, chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation outlines their mission “The digital sector is the only sector of the economy that is capable of giving us double digit growth. At government level, that is an area we’re very keen to help with and not mess up. We want to do the things at policy level to help growth happen” Plans involve merging Tech City with the vacant Olympic Park media centre further east in Stratford which has never had the social buzz of Shoreditch, but definitely has the post-Olympic cheap rents.

TechCityLogoIn their 136 page “A Tale of Tech City: the future of inner East London’s digital economy” Demos’ Centre for London thinktank issues a caution; “There are fears that by concentrating its energy on the Olympic Park sites, which many see as the main reason for the government’s continued attention, the TCIO risks diminishing the energy of what is still a young cluster.”  It also comments “our evidence also tells us that artificially generating clusters in mature industries – as digital content and ICT now are – is very difficult”.

Innovation and Growth is not an exact science. It may well be that the Tech City vision will be realised not by a 50 million pound civic centre and start up incubator complex as much as the ability to hold whatever todays version of the Homebrew Computer club may be, in some bar or café, where chance encounter and talent footfall might combine and connect.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture too.

MISSING IN ACTION: Why Women aren’t animated about games

(Published Dec 2010) With a major report highlighting that women are leaving the media industries in their droves, Animation and Games are shown to particularly lack female talent. So what’s it like for that rarest of species, the female games animator?

This is an abridged version of an article in IMAGINE magazine, available from here


In my previous article here I discussed the curious dissonance between the increasingly familiar imagery of the casual female gamer  (replacing that of the male hardcore gamer in the popular unconscious, primarily thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS campaigns) and an industry that remains remorselessly male.

Considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in woman gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Seemingly, despite being welcome to play games, they aren’t being welcomed to work on games.


Vital Statistics

The gender imbalance is a normal fact of working in games. It only achieved wider exposure recently when Skillset published their “Women in the creative media industries” report in September 2010.

Statistics often don’t reveal causes or motivation. However, if we look a little wider we’ll see that the Animation industry as a whole isn’t good either- 20% women, almost half the percentage as in the TV industry (41%).

Now, a number of social and economic factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance (5%) and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry since less women study those subjects at school or college.

It’s also important to discount rife sexism or lack of opportunity as factors. The few women in the games industry don’t cite chauvinism as a contributing factor. At a “Women in Film and TV” event at Waterstones Piccadilly branch in London in February cleverly entitled “Wiimen: a discussion about women in the gaming industry” the feeling of being welcome in the games industry amongst the all-female panellists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organizational roles.wow_women

The Rare breed: women games animators

Women Games Animators are therefore doubly rare, being a dwindling section of an even smaller section in one of the most dynamic media sectors in the UK.

Like some endangered species, they are worthy of study.

What do Women Animators within the Games Industry say about gender? Althea Deane, a freelance animator for over 20 years and currently contracted as a character animator at Evolution (behind the famous Motorstorm series) states “Generally, people are just glad to see a woman in a sea of men, to be honest! However, it is quite a macho culture compared to the field of television in which I worked previously”.

“In our project, I’m the only women animator” adds Alma Salinas from Sony’s London studios, “and at my last company too” but she is also of the opinion that no roles need be male dominated “I think any role can be female friendly” she says. “The video game industry offers equal pay and a great working environment, but somehow it always feel that the girls are on land owned by others”

Ellen Holland, a games animator for five years at Rare, one of Microsoft’s big studios says “Sometimes guys don’t know how to relate to women initially so you need a bit of a tough skin and to be willing to give as good as you get, but there’s no discrimination here”

After a while, most games personnel seem to have acclimatised to this situation, which in other media industries might raise more concern.

casting-female-games-charactersLisa Harmon, a Senior artist and animator with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, who has worked in the industry for ten years on titles such as TV Superstars, LittleBigPlanet (PSP version), Primal, 24: The Game and Heavenly Sword speaks for many when she says “I don’t think that a lack of women in this industry harms it, and anyway I don’t know of any women already in the industry that are bothered by it. During my time in games I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced any discrimination, but I do think the games industry is still seen as geeky and something you do as you’re growing up rather than as a career.”

This view was expressed more stridently by an animator who preferred to remain anonymous “I realise that it’s probably not a very PC answer as there is always talk of trying to increase the interest/roles for women in games but, in the end, I’ve never come up against any discrimination nor have any of my fellow female colleagues (to my knowledge). I find it raised by others as an issue when, to me personally, it has never been one”.

In other words- it’s a free country. Women just don’t choose to do animation or games. Get over it. But there must be some reasons why the figures are SO low, right?

So, if the sea of male faces isn’t so intimidating, why aren’t women animators coming through? Is it something about how animation is taught? Or does animation have an image problem, with games only being at the extreme end? Or is it all about role models- the lack of a female Walt Disney, John Lasseter or Nick Park, for instance?

leavesturncomFinding a Unicorn

How do women games animators explain the apparent lack of female animation talent? Firstly to most the animation department is less imbalanced than  than other areas of games development. “Someone said to me recently finding a female programmer was like finding a unicorn” quotes Rare’s Ellen Holland, whilst SCEE’s Lisa Harmon states “female animators are fairly rare but female game coders are even rarer” whereas Elisa Capretto exclaims “female games designers….I don’t think they even exist!”


“Not so many women are aware that games animation is an option when they are making their career choices, I certainly didn’t” says Rare’s Ellen Holland “I attended three courses, and I must say I did notice that the more technical the course the less women there seemed to be in them”.

“There were about 25% women on my course at university and they were generally more interested in producing some kind of artistic output at the end of the course rather than making a career from it”, says SCEE’s Lisa Harmon.

Alma Salinas, who studied in Spain, remembers being surprised that on her masters course there were only 2 women out of 17 students.

Elisa Capretto, a Junior Character Animator at Ubisoft Reflections (the Newcastle company behind the famous Driver series) says, “Girls seem more interested in people-facing roles in games, rather than just sitting in front of a PC.”

A major factor seems to be technology and how it is taught. We tend to think of animation as craft, but the increasing levels of programming that are impinging on games animation could be one explanation. It’s long been thought that women tend to opt out of technical subjects when they choose University courses.

However the UKRC suggest women chose a wide range of technological subjects, but then don’t see the career path into jobs.

The UKRC is the UK Government’s lead organisation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) and they highlight revealing figures regarding who studies Computer Science courses at university. 16.5% of students are female, whereas in strategically important specialist subjects like software engineering there are only 760 women on university courses in the whole of the UK (out of 6,400).

This lack of female talent has repercussions for various industries. The ICT professional workforce consists of 59,059 women which may sound a lot, but is only 12.5% of the 474,000-strong sector. Maybe that’s why both interactive media and games are so extreme on gender balance. As modern games animation practice relies more and more on technical fixes, on games physics created by code to produce animation (as opposed to keyframes crafted by animators) are the skills needed migrating from the arts to the computer sciences?


Nice work if you can get it?

Maybe it’s a mistake to look for a single determining factor. Work patterns might also contribute. Skillset’s “Women in the Creative Industries” report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that animation and games companies are relatively smaller, more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. However, there are many games and animation companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or even longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.

So it may be the so-called “Crunch” work cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected.ceriseirisnetwork

Animator Althea Deane seems to agree- “It’s primarily the butch ‘crunch’ culture in games. Even women without children prefer jobs that allow for a life outside the studio, and for women with children, (who are still the primary care-givers in this country), the long hour culture must make the games industry an extremely off-putting prospect. As for animation as a whole, outside of games, I’m less sure why more women aren’t involved. Possibly the uncertainty of working from one short-term contract to another, with few of the benefits of a permanent job – pension, sick pay, paid holidays”

It therefore may be significant that the admin roles that women tend to cluster around in both games and animation have the advantage of more regular hours.

“The games industry needs to shake off its macho ‘work or die’ image. This will mean more careful planning of schedules and less assumption that it can work its employees over their required hours for weeks on end. It should also try to project a more fun, less aggressive image generally. We’re making games, not annexing Poland” says Deane.gamegirlsxr6

The animation gene pool

Could it be that work patterns and culture combine with a creeping procedural approach to animation  into a potent toxic mix, keeping women away?

“The most significant difference between videogames and movies is the pipeline….in games you do not have the same freedom of interpretation as in tv and film” explains Sony’s Alma Salinas “The animator has to be able to perform functional animations, responding and exchanging with the technical team. The animator must also understand the limitations of the games engine they are working with. They have to enjoy the technical part of the job.”

Elisa Capretto, who previously worked as a character animator on a short film agrees “While animation for tv is more straightforward and immediate, game animations needs to be processed and compressed, and rigged carefully to fit into the memory budget of the game”. The process can be tedious and long, and usually needs a lot of iteration between the technical and art teams.

All this is conjecture, and the statistics aren’t granular enough to really come to conclusions. But at least we’ve heard some female voices on the subject. No-one is suggesting that all jobs need to feature equal proportions of the sexes, but a gross imbalance like games animation raises questions about whether the industry is getting the widest gene pool of talent. If 50% of the population won’t really consider working as games animators, even for arbitrary or mistaken reasons, then that’s an issue. If, once informed, they still choose not to make it a career, that’s their choice. However such information isn’t getting through to girls at the key points when they make decisions about what to study, or what is even possible. It just maybe the animation and games industry are missing a trick by not promoting themselves to half the population, and therefore a lot of raw talent drifts elsewhere.


The Wii revolution and the rise of the female gamer is a five year old phenomenon, and as such maybe not long enough to change attitudes, university choices, career destinations. “Maybe we should just wait for the new generation of gamer girls to grow up. I think it will take some more time” says Ubisoft’s Elisa Capretto.

Ellen Holland from Rare suggests we might be starting to see the green shoots of this new generation of gamer girls. “I attended The London Games Industry Career Fair this year and did notice there seemed to be quite a lot of young girls looking to get into the industry. It was really nice to see. We need more events that aim to get girls excited about technology and change perceptions about what it’s like to work in the technology industry”.

The Women in creative media industries report is available here
You can find my full Missing In Action article in IMAGINE animation magazine December issue 2010. Thanks to all the animators who answered my questionnaire and gave a human perspective to dry statistics!