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!

TWO’S A CROWD: Crowdfunding new animation

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

(First published Nov 2011) The rise of Social Media over the last five years has meant that many industries have changed the way they do business. Whilst some people’s social media world is limited to connecting to mates on Facebook and following celebrities on Twitter, social media has presented the animation industry with new ways to do business and to market itself. Whereas it used to be your dog-eared rolodex or contacts book that was the limit of your reach as a practicing freelance animator, now there are identifiable virtual communities out there to pitch to and persuade- if you have the ambition, temerity and thick skin.

Great ideas remain great ideas until you can persuade others to help make them a reality. Traditionally there are gatekeepers between you and the funds needed (like arts officers, fundholders, VCs, commissioning editors) and they don’t necessarily want to sink a few thousand into your idea, because as a creative you are probably not very good at filling in forms or describing your idea in a document, right?

In cases of funding via screen agencies, arts organisations, film commissioners or broadcasters, it can be nigh near impossible to get in front of the right person and make that pitch where they see the fire in your eyes, sense the passion in your voice and understand that whilst you couldn’t string two acronyms together in your application form, you have a great idea and can be trusted to produce a seminal animation of world shattering import.

This essentially is the lure of Crowdfunding- where the internet cuts out the middle man/woman and instead of appealing and pitching to one important funder or venture capitalist to greenlight your project, you appeal to the masses via social media. If enough people give you ten dollars, euros or pounds you have circumvented the need to go through the official channels.


The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross's animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross’s animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

One of the early successful adopters of this approach in the animation world is Nick Cross from Toronto, Canada, who raised funds for The Pig Farmer- a sad tale of porcine tragedy at the hands (or rather paws) of drug-addled yet cunning foxes. “It’s like Porky Pig, Ren & Stimpy and The Manson Family all fed into a blender together” exclaimed cgchannel in a review. Nick was no ingénue- he’d worked in the animation industry for around 14 years (including a spell with Jon Kricfalusi, where he may have picked up the Ren and Stimpy black humour) and had always made films in his spare time.

Nick used the site IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com) which is now one of the main internet platforms for crowdfunding, to raise money. IndieGoGo was launched in 2008 as a place where anyone with an idea – creative, cause-related, or entrepreneurial – could build a campaign and raise money, using social media to get the message out. Essentially you have a page for your campaign- to make your case with text, stills or video, or to drive people to your website. You can tap into analytics to manage the contributions you get and build a sense of community. It makes economic sense to offer what are called perks to the idly curious who browse the site, to persuade them to part with a little cash.IndieGoGo_Logo_black_high_res

In exchange for a donation of $25 Nick offered funders their name on the credits of the film as well as a DVD and found 15 people soon signed up. This was just the lowest rung in the funding ladder. For a donation of $100 you could be credited as Associate Producer and receive a full credit on the film, a DVD copy of the finished film of ALL Nick’s previous work as well as a signed, limited edition print. 12 people bought into this arrangement. True diehard fans could show their support by becoming an executive producer for $500; and that’s what three people did- receiving credits, all the other benefits, and a signed original drawing.

So Nick got almost four thousand dollars of his 5k target. This enabled him make the film (http://vimeo.com/19113506) which was released in January 2011 and allowed IndieGoGo to claim a 4% fee- one of the ways the site is sustained.

Toronto animator Nick Cross

Toronto animator Nick Cross

“I had pretty much given up trying to get funding for my films after a few unsuccessful attempts at grant applications to various government art funding agencies,” Cross recounts in an interview with Jeremy Fries on his Independent Animators Blog. “It was just too much work that I realized I could put to more productive use by actually making the film instead of writing detailed budgets and art statements trying to justify my idea and convince a group of people that it had “ artistic merit,” whatever that means.  However, it seems that this new model of soliciting fans and other filmmakers for “donations” in return for various “perks” actually kind of works. I only tried for a small sum that helped me to hire a musician and offset a bit of the cost of software upgrades, but I was really encouraged by the response that I got. I think that more and more filmmakers are going to go this route in the future”
Nick quickly got to work on another crowdfunded project. Black Sunrise will be my first feature-length film” he explains “My hope is that with financing, I will be able to work full-time on this film instead of having to divide my energies between this film and taking on commercial work”.

He’s raising his sights towards raising 25,000 dollars for a feature length animation, which at the time of writing has garnered donations of 9,500 dollars, with 16 days till the end of donations. IndieGoGo offers a limited timeframe to encourage the creator to be pro-active themselves.


In a way none of this is new. Artists have had Donate buttons on their websites since the birth of microtransaction operators like PayPal, or have attained funds by asking the wider family and friends to be ‘associate producers’. The main catalyst for the explosion in crowdfunding now is the ascendance of social media platforms and video services like YouTube which mean anyone can put forward a personal in-your-face pitch for cash to the online communities they can now reach.

It’s important to do a reality check here. Crowdfunding has its difficulties, it’s not a licence to print money. Firstly, it needs to be remembered that in order to get your idea made you increasingly need to promise something special in return, and sometimes that can get in the way of your production. Promising access to a behind the scenes production journal or blog, or unique assets (crowdfunded stop-motion animators Justin and Shel Wagner Rasch gave away their original puppets to funders) or offering visiting rights on set to your funders could interfere with your creative process. If you’re worrying too much about the updates to the blog or organising twenty donors to visit your audio dub you’re probably not in the right frame of mind to do the work, so you need to think carefully about what you offer. There’s a reason why creative people have agents, publicists and producers- to evangelise and barter in ways that the creator sometimes can’t.

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Crowdfunding increasingly demands the artist is a persuasive performer and eloquent orator, and that’s not the kind of personality trait many animators have. Ask yourself how many animators are household names through shameless promotion and the ability to do great soundbites, compared with film directors. Maybe Animators just haven’t got the chutzpah for this showmanship?

As the crowdfunding marketplace grows, one can imagine there’s a danger of a nuclear arms race of perks, with funders expecting ever greater trinkets or souvenirs for their ten dollars. Also, just how many associate producers can be credited before it ceases to become an accolade worth having?

Another important factor is reputation. People need to trust you can deliver before they fund. Nick Cross has been part of the canadian animation scene since 1998- making short films on his own. People trust him to deliver, and via his previous portfolio they know the kind of animation that they might expect to be produced. It’s not so obvious that college leavers will be able to generate the same kinds of sums, although some clearly do with the right patter and prototype work. Another thing to bear in mind is Nick releases his films on the internet for free- he’s not making money, so is probably viewed more charitably because of this.


A word of warning to all who enter the world of crowdfunding- you need a thick skin. There’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested in your life’s work. Also, there’s a fine art to pitching your project. It seems people react best to certain emotional triggers in the pitch.

our epic "What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?" animation

The epic “What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?” animation

Energia Productions, the company behind the science fiction comedy Iron Sky based on Nazi invaders from the dark side of the moon recently put out a request on crowdsourcing site Sponsume (www.sponsume.com) for funds to cope with going over budget during their shoot due to bad weather conditions, and asked for 50,000 euros. Only seven backers came forward, and a meagre 4% of the proposed target was reached.

Iron Sky is no hastily thought up operation- it’s a fantastic looking CGI film produced in collaboration with an on-line community of film enthusiasts, that has already secured 6.3 million euros through traditional film funding channels like the Finnish Film Foundation, Eurimages, Hessen Film Invest, Screen Queensland, and pre-sales. They aim to eventually cover 900,000 euros of the budget through crowdfunding. (see http://www.ironsky.net). As such the failure to reach 50,000 euros to assist with an over-budget shoot could be seen as worrying.

It may be the public didn’t warm to supporting the fact the production team went over budget, or it maybe that in this instance Energia Productions had pitched the offer too high- a name on the end credits for 850 euros, or an associate producer name check for 8,500 is steep compared to Nick Cross’s offer. Alternatively it might be that Sponsume is a relatively new site and therefore hasn’t got the traction of major crowd sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter (not mentioned in this article because it is US only). Whatever the reason or mix of factors, it seems to be a matter of finding a sweet spot where the public’s imagination and conscience can be engaged and they will donate in enough numbers to significantly meet your target.

ironsky_newlogo1The good news is that other methods of crowdfunding like selling “War Bonds” and merchandising has raised about 50,000 euros to date for Iron Sky, helping support the core team, and it has been stated that this fantastic looking project has 200,000 euros committed by crowd investors so far. For large productions it seems that  crowdsourcing needs to be just one ingredient in the funding mix. It’s clear in a world of crowdfunding there will be winners and losers- and some media forms may suit better than others.


Crowdfunding isn’t seen as a business model to reap financial profits from, but that might be starting to change. Crowdfunding offers the chance for new business models in other media too. Games apps website Appbackr proclaims itself “the first crowdfunding marketplace for mobile apps”. It uses crowdfunding principles in a different way by enabling app developers to find funders (called backrs) who can help fund applications and drive sales. The app developer receives payment from a backr for a designated number of app copies. When the purchased copies are downloaded in mobile app stores, the developer receives an additional payment and the backrs also profit. The real advantage here is giving the developer money upfront (a small percentage goes to Appbackr too). The site suggests backing an already completed app has a potential profit margin of 26%, or backing a concept (that will take several months or longer to yield revenue) has a potential profit of 54%.

appbackr-logoAt the time of writing “App of the week” on the Appbackr site is Boogie Monster by Monstrous with $11,765 raised in funds.Backing an app early gives you the opportunity to make a higher return, thus encouraging popular themes and genres, and therein may lie the achilles heel of crowdfunding, which is the notions of surprise, novelty and innovation.

Would some of the greatest animation films of all time have ever been made through crowdfunding? Or would imagery and story have been toned down to appeal to the vanity of the widest range of funders? Imagine a world where Nick Parks debut “A Grand Day Out”, Jan Švankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” or Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” were originally funded in this way. Would they have produced the same film, or have made certain compromises for the audience?

It maybe that the answer will be up to us- the public- since with our new role as funders we become arbiters of taste. We may no longer be able to blame commissioning editors, broadcasters or moguls for mediocre animation fare- we’ll be forced to blame our own conservatism. Crowdfunding gives us a chance to put our money where our mouth is. Let’s invest wisely, but not TOO wisely, eh?

This is an article originally written for IMAGINE animation magazine Autumn 2011.

UPDATE: I’ve now written a second article on Crowdfunding with a UK success story here

Reigning Cats and Dogs: crowdfunding animation part 2

(first published November 2011) In an earlier blog I talked about how Crowdfunding might work for animation. Unfortunately my examples were all from Canada and Europe, so I thought I’d balance that with a UK success story, below. Particularly nifty is the way this project hooks in donors by suggesting your pets could be stars!

Hazraf “HaZ” Dulull’s CGI film “Fubar” is probably the best example of a vfx/compositing crowdfunded project in the UK. Whilst Energia Productions’ Iron Sky rumbles on for years, Haz’s one-man band and fleet-of-foot approach means he achieved 125% of his target on Kickstarter.com for a Cats and Dogs/Gears Of War crossover. Fubar is an epic story of an on-going political war told in an alternate reality with cat and dogs.

FubarheaderHaZ started his career in video games cinematics as an Artist and TD before moving into visual effects and compositing for Feature films, commercials and music promos. Over the years he has worked with clients such as MPC, Passion Pictures, Partizan, Glassworks, The Mill and other high profile studios in London. He has recently completed work at Jellyfish Pictures as VFX supervisor on BBC’s most ambitious full CG creature series – Planet Dinosaurs due to release in Autumn 2011, and is currently Visual Effects Supervisor at Prime Focus London.

Although skilled in the software he needed his own copies- he couldn’t very well do the film at work. This was HaZ’s first challenge. The software for the film was sponsored by the Foundry (Nuke software) and Shotgun. However it wasn’t just charitable giving- it had value for the software houses themselves. “They provided the tools for free to support the film from a technology / product support level.” said HaZ, “In return I beta test versions of the tools being used in the film during production and also provide ‘making-of’ material showing how the tools were used to make the film when it’s done. So in a nutshell Fubar is like a test platform of a live production happening while I use the various beta versions of their tools to make the film.fubar_01 The Foundry provided Nuke which was the core VFX production tool of Fubar because the USP was to make a film completely in Nuke by creating a sandbox environment inside Nuke’s 3D compositing space”. Interestingly, a scan of donors reveal that several employees from the Foundry also felt excited enough by the project to slip in the odd donation.

HaZ’s own network meant editing and sound design were completed through calling on friend editor Deelan Sital, who then brought on board sound designer Luis Almau. Collaboration extended to Chris Maynard fromCMI-VFX kindly donating programming time using Nuke’s latest particle system allowing the creaion of bullet tracers in 3D space with controls such as velocity, glow, size etc. “This made it very quick to add bullet tracers in my war sequences” said HaZ.

fubar_04HaZ also thought creatively about how to make funding attractive- and proposed  to “Feature your Cat or Dog in the Film as a character when you make a Pledge…if you have a cat or dog and would like it featured in the film as one of the marines, or additional characters then send over 3 – 5 images in several angles for it to be digitally placed into the animation. We will contact you if it’s selected to be in the film and of course your cat or dog gets a credit in the film too!”

A video of the making of Fubar also helps foster a sense of involvement. By early September Fubar had attracted publicity. A mention in the Sep 2011 issue of Televisual Magazine helped drive donations.

By 24th September, $6,256 was raised with 75 backers; 25 paying $10 for a credit, whilst at the upper end 2 backers paid $160 or a mini full colour art book of the film, digital download of the film; Blu-Ray copy of the film, signed poster and thank you on the films ending credit. 7 backers paid $100 to get the same minus the art book.

So where next for Fubar? The Fubar “extended redux edition” will be released exclusively for distribution, cinema screenings and festivals while the current version continues to gain success online. It’s being nominated and screened at the yearly Renderyard film festival. Renderyard is a short film portal and agency site that screens selected short films for online and distribution worldwide. Fubar seems to be doing well.


Where’s the Level Playing Field?: women in games


(First published Oct 2010) Of all the computer games consoles and gadgets, the Nintendo Wii could be said to be the one that started to change attitudes towards gaming within the general public.

Despite it launching into a marketplace that back in 2006 looked locked down by the mighty Sony Playstation and the Microsoft Xbox, it sold 105,000 units over its opening weekend in the UK, reached an unheard of six million units in 3 years, and moved on to become the most popular of all the consoles.

Advertising featured spacious airy white living rooms where games brought the family together on the sofa. Jamie and Louise Redknapp played Wii Sports and Wii Fit, whilst Ronan and wife Yvonne Keating played Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training together with their three children Jack, Marie and Ali. Fern Britton even used Can’t Decide What to Eat? to choose a special meal for her husband in one advert.

The Wii succeeded because it sold a new games lifestyle, a compelling vision of games as safe and normal family entertainment, and of a range of more useful and autodidactic software products than shoot ‘em ups and destruction. Suddenly games did you good.

it seems like games like Mirror's Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn't.

it seems like games like Mirror’s Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn’t.

It seemed the image of the teenage hard core gamer had finally been replaced in the public consciousness. A wider cross-section of women could feel that games were of interest to them. Figures purporting to show increasing numbers of women playing games abounded. One survey proclaimed 40% of all gamers in the US were women. Received wisdom is that the social nature of gaming is prized by women, and this is in the ascendancy. Zynga’s Farmville on facebook has now over 85 million players for instance.

Seemingly, games is no longer the male preserve in terms of consumption that it once was. Whilst there have always been small numbers of hard-core female gamers, there are many more casual or social gamers now playing Bejeweled, Farmville, Wii fit. Interestingly, Women gamers are leading the way on in-game spending too.

But if you look around the Games industry workforce there’s a different story. Whilst Skillset research reveals that women make up 39 percent of the film production workforce – compared with 46% of the general UK workforce, and THAT is seen as bad news- consider the Games industry. Skillset’s 2009 employment census points to only 6 percent of women in Games development.

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

So, 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. Despite being welcomed to play, why are they not being welcomed to work?

Now, a number of social 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, 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.

The few women already in the industry don’t seem to cite chauvinism or lack of opportunity as contributing factors either. At a Women in Film and TV event at Waterstones Piccadilly 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 panelists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organisational roles.


Zynga’s farmville on facebook is often credited with attracting new, older female gamers (Credit: Zynga)

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 games companies are relatively more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. Our report also shows games is a young persons world- of all Skillset’s sectors only film has as high a proportion of under 35s. However, there are many games companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

It would be easy to argue that our sample was too small to be accurate, or that only certain people respond to our surveys, but our findings seem to be reinforced and complemented by 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” 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 of workers.


Silver surfers can become silver gamers

The second major factor seems to be technology. It’s often been said that men tend to populate and lead new technology areas first. Our country’s IT, computer science and programming courses are male bastions, to the often immense disappointment of lecturers themselves, who wonder where the female applicants are. That shortage maybe why both Interactive Media and Games sectors are so extreme on gender imbalance.

So what can be done? Well, this seems to be in the hands of the industry itself. The government’s new Livingstone Hope review into computer games and VFX skills will be examining the ‘talent timeline’ and is particularly keen to look at how young people can understand that by studying programming and maths they can get into the exciting industry that is games. However, the industry will be hamstrung if half the population doesn’t want to get on the conveyor belt in the first place, (because it doesn’t have the opportunity or inclination to study maths or computer science) or upon arriving in the industry, finds it rewarding but unsustainable in terms of fulfillment or family.

More work needs to be done to make IT and Computer Science attractive to girls, but this needs to be complemented with a stronger message from the industry that it can do more about flexible working hours.


What is Creative Skillset doing? Well, our research has alerted the industry, who need to decide on how to address this. It needs to be noted that the money Skillset have to follow through and address such imbalance is limited to traditional media like Film, TV and Fashion and Textiles, because of the funding agencies involved. Games has no such agencies or elevated political voices so with the absence of these resources we need to start persuading the trade associations (TIGA and UKIE) how bad this situation has become, and see if we can work together on some solutions. There is no STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) ambassador for the games industry working with schools unless I’m mistaken, unlike other hi-tech sectors. There are good initiatives like Women In Gaming and various girl’s computer clubs in schools which could be empowered or proliferated, not to mention university and business outreach work.

However, at the end of the day, it seems the industry needs to convince new recruits that it is in many ways as stable, secure and full of opportunities as other media choices. Because of the recession and student debt today’s new talent ( male and female) will increasingly make choices based on these factors, rather than how cool the ultimate product they will create is.  For talented women programmers work in the IT department of a finance company might seem to be more attractive- because at least they get the free time to enjoy playing Wii fit, an opportunity which they might not get if they worked on the game itself!

Why we need to be STEAM driven

steam_jig2 copyOver the last few years the acronym STEM has increasingly entered debates within the collective creative industries, and also at Creative Skillset.

To those in the creative industries STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) as a concept has really been carried on the back of the technologisation of media, with its convergence, divergence and ensuing disintegration of traditionally stable and demarcated roles.
Its apotheosis with regards to education policy is probably in the Browne Review or what is known as “The independent review of higher education funding and student finance” which promises to change the landscape of Higher Education, although the document that doesn’t even mention the acronym by name. (A simple keyword search shows the Browne report mentions ‘Science’ 6 times, ‘Arts’ 1 time, ‘Entrepreneur’ only once, and ‘Creative’ is totally absent)

In the proposals set out by the report Higher Education institutions will actively compete for well informed discerning students on the basis of price and teaching quality. “We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want” it states. However, within this free market system students are given nudges- certain priority sectors are protected from the withdrawal of the HEFCE block grant to universities.

This is because of the worry that “Students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult”. These priority sectors are courses in science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as some language courses.

How the funding support for these courses may eventually skew student choice or influence the universities decisions regarding putting on new courses remains to be seen. One might imagine sighs of relief within science and technology faculties, and the despair within art departments.

steam_brownereview2However, the bigger picture is that from a creative media industry perspective, the often unintentionally university faculty led and framed opposition between Art and Science has been increasingly problematic over recent years. In Computer Games for instance, what are needed are programmers who are creative and flexible, and artists who can apply their skills to strict technological constraints. The best way to teach many cutting edge skills is in a university system that can foster multidisciplinary teamworking skills, and that’s usually a university that has synergistic and co-operative faculties, rather than competing ones.

What the Browne review may end up doing is not just introducing competition between Universities, but also between faculties. A games programming BSc might receive a grant from HEFCE whereas a games art course won’t. Following this scenario, the games art course will have to charge more, possibly leading to less students, and who knows, eventual closure.
This is all conjecture at the moment, but Higher Education tutors and management alike in cash strapped Universities are trying to read the runes.
Whilst a projected increase in programmers is something that the games industry would initially welcome, this might turn to consternation if there is a drought of artistic talent to envelop such code.
At a time when we need a more integrated balance between the “calculator and the paintbrush” in the modern learner maybe we should start using the acronym STEAM rather than STEM, where the A is for Art. After all, without an A there would be little visibility or for all the S,T,E or M.
Apart from being a witty cipher, STEAM also usefully alludes to the nebulousness and lack of fixity of much multidisciplinary work – something we can’t expect the Browne Review with it’s wide scope to have picked up on, despite the creative industries being a priority for successive  governments.

However it could be argued that the modern creative industries are at the vanguard of exploring STEAM and creating value from it. If you want proof that STEAM as a concept is in the ascendant, look at Universities UK report “Creating Prosperity: the role of higher education in driving the UK’s creative economy” published in December 2010. (whilst 72 pages to the Browne Review’s 60, a word search shows that this document uses the word ‘Science’ 66 times, ‘Entrepreneur’ 69 times, and ‘Multidisciplinary’ 59 times. I didn’t bother to count ‘Art’ or ‘Creative’….)

steam_UUK-ReportCreating Prosperity declares that “there is often a false opposition established between ‘creative’ subjects on one hand, and STEM subjects on the other. At one level, this is understandable, as the policy priority on STEM has meant a recent emphasis on increasing student places in these subjects, with a concern that this will come at the expense of places elsewhere. The outcomes of Browne and the CSR make this increasingly likely. However, STEM skills are also needed in the creative economy, whether engineers in broadcasting or maths and physics skills in computer games development. This is consistently overlooked in current debates that seek to polarise STEM and creative disciplines….Indeed, creative skills are needed in all industries, including those supported by the STEM disciplines. This clearly challenges a narrow view of STEM as the sole route to economic growth”
The report also includes 17 case studies- many of them highlighting what many educationalists have been calling STEAM (it’s not my invention) in practice, that is to say Art adding value to STEM. The report mentions that “much of this (multidisciplinary) activity takes place in spite of sometimes inflexible structures in universities, and the subject-based nature of funding policy and research assessment” (p24) .

The future of higher education is reliant on students terraforming the landscape with their well-informed demands for profitable skills, but the information they will get seems to be based mainly on the metrics of future employment, intelligence of which will always be behind the curve. Three years later they may roll off the conveyor belt to find a different landscape. So it makes sense to have transferable skills. But how do you sell creative courses with their multidisciplinarity, innovation and entrepreneurism to students who are being nudged into the priority sectors and seeming certainties of science and technology and possibly more stable future income? That’s our challenge in the creative industries, now that the Browne review’s inventive and wide ranging findings have been accepted.

Creating Prosperity takes to task “the belief of successive governments that science,  technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects represent the exclusive route to economic success” and adds that “STEM and creativity are inextricably linked – successful knowledge economies need strength in both”

A computer game is only an economic success if its imagery and animation matches and complements the code and circuitry it plays through; likewise a film’s story is only realised through multiple hardware technologies. TV’s broadcast engineers and IT infrastructure props up the “X Factor” as much as the artistic talent in front and behind the lens. This is increasingly the world of STEAM.
A surfeit of either programmers or artists means we become a nation for hire, having to outsource our services abroad.

steam_Students2We need to articulate the notion of STEAM (or another snappy acronym), and fast. As Creating Prosperity recognises, this is what Skillset has been advising policymakers for a while through our regular Sector Skills Assessments, but maybe it’s time to package and communicate this concept in a neat, concise and friendly way for this new breed of discerning student who may gravitate towards cheaper and easily defined STEM courses, instead of understanding the notion of STEAM.
Whilst it’s true that many creative sectors suffer from a shortage of programmers and a surfeit of artistic talent, the promotion of STEM through cheaper courses and clearer job route metrics on future income could skew the market so we have a shortage of creative and multidisciplinary teamwork savvy talent. Imagine being a fresh-faced games programming student at a university where there are no image assets to incorporate, because the games art course they hoped to be collaborating with had withered due to the market finding it too expensive. What context would such students have for working in the real world of teamwork, or innovation?

If students are to become more like shoppers, we need to think about how we can get the idea of STEAM across.
This is where the creative industry itself can have a powerful voice. As video games executive and interactive content producer John Tarnoff says  “In my experience as an executive and entrepreneur sitting on both sides of the creative/technology fence, I need to hire technologists who know how to collaborate in teams, express themselves coherently, engagingly and persuasively, understand how to take and apply constructive criticism, and how to tell a good story. I don’t find these kids sitting alone at a lab table or buried in an algorithm. I find them taking art classes to understand how color and light really work, I find them in writing classes learning how to express themselves, I find them in cultural studies and critical theory classes learning about the world at large”.

It’s an old cliché to say there is no ‘I’ in TEAM, but maybe we need to append that to say there IS a team in STEAM…..