How can the arts and digital sector find new ways to forge practices, collaborate with other sectors and contribute to creating new opportunities for experimentation, content and influence how the world sees itself and others?

By Clayton Shaw, Programme Manager, STEAMhouse

Over the past few months, since starting work at Birmingham City University (BCU) on the STEAMhouse project, I have been struck by the overwhelming interest in the desire for people inside and outside the organisation to connect with those from other disciplines, and to openly collaborate, share and receive new knowledge and ideas.  Innovation is what people are seeking, and they are exploring it in new ways.

It is still early days in the lifespan of BCU’s mission to encourage the development of a hyper-connected, mobile and creative community of active thinkers and doers; unafraid of taking sometimes pioneering steps into unknown and unfamiliar territory.  What does it mean to be able to achieve this and why would anyone be tempted to step so far outside of their comfort zone?

Placing oneself in a vulnerable position is something most would want to avoid, or at least steer clear of. It is not easy, nor is it a regular pursuit of choice, but perhaps it is something that can be learned, appreciated, and valued.  Deconstructing the uncertainties to the basics and constructing building blocks through the process of cross-disciplinary working can, and does, provide numerous rewards from the most unexpected of corners.

For example, at one of our recent STEAMlabs, an unexpected but potentially beneficial relationship was struck up between an artist and a company working in advanced manufacturing. They are now working towards conceptualising and prototyping a new product that helps the manufacturing company to redefine market perceptions to attract new markets as well as opening a new door for the artist to work in an industry which would otherwise have remained outside their network.  However, there may not be such quick wins for everyone as it can be difficult to convince investors to get involved in entirely new concepts.

In Kevin Kelly’s book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, the author points to a move toward a “digital social-ism uniquely tuned for a networked world”.  He illustrates media theorist Clay Shirky’s hierarchy on how the networked web is socialised, from sharing to co-orperation towards a shared goal, then collaboration on things such as open source software projects and, finally, collectivism — a decentralised yet connected community of individuals uniting to “maximise both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together”.

This echoes the nature of STEAMhouse, which seeks to move away from a linear form of innovation based on singular disciplines, working together to solve a problem to find a solution and a move towards a collective multidisplinary team of people working towards solving a problem...

Our underpinning approaches focus on STEAM activity being both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.  Interdisciplinary activity identifies a problem and encourages each discipline to come up with the solution. Transdisciplinary action looks at developing methodologies where there is a concern that applies to both sets of disciplines but that, when reviewed together, creates a third way to solve a problem.

The team at BCU has had, and will continue to have, plenty of discussions about what STEAMhouse could and should be, particularly given the nature of the associated vulnerabilities around the process of collaboration.  We aim to provide a reassuring place for people to be open to share and receive ideas and new ways of thinking, to be curious and inquisitive and to be inventive and unafraid to test, mould, and create.  We want to encourage multiple viewpoints to break through new ideas, find new solutions to challenges, and to innovate and prototype in a very hands-on way.  Interactions with others can also lead to developing a network of long lasting creative and collaborative relationships to further discuss, share and develop new ideas into the future.

Through the collaboration with Hello Culture 2017 we hope that workshop and conference delegates may begin to imagine how they can engage with the challenges and opportunities around collaborative open innovation methodologies, and join us in creating a growing community of likeminded individuals to break down silos, find new networks, and reframe what it means to innovate in the digital age.

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