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.

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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

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A SHOT IN THE ARM?

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)

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FUSION EQUALS STEAM EXPLOITED

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.

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YOU DO THE MATH

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”.

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DOES FUSION ADD UP?

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.

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