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

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