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Books & Print Sandbox

To kick off our new research & development season here on The Literary Platform, Jo Lansdowne, REACT producer at Bristol’s Watershed, introduces their new Books and Print Sandbox, and explains why, for her organisation, taking chances pays off…

From my desk at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol I can see a man plotting to send game-playing spacecraft to the moon, a team of young entrepreneurs calculating the logistics of taking their new musical instrument to global production, a human geographer grappling with how to measure the value of a relationship and several people writing code furiously, all as the sounds of a choir rehearsing with bat echo-location technology drift past without comment. Behind me sit a small team of creative producers in quiet concentration.

It is this mix of talent, research and creativity that inspired the formation of REACT, a £5m collaboration to commission wild ideas with the potential to become working prototypes. REACT brings together academics and creative companies in R&D projects around a series of themes. We do this because of some things that we know, some things that we think might be true and a bunch of stuff we hope we can change.

We started with what we already know, building on the experience of the Pervasive Media Studio. We know that creative companies often have fantastic ideas that, because they are generally driven by client demand, they rarely have the chance to explore. It is hard to resource risk if you are a small company (as the majority are) and risk is scarier if you are taking it on your own. This was the rationale for Sandbox, an R&D programme that the Studio developed in 2008. By giving companies a space, a load of PR, some money to support their time and most importantly by surrounding them with a community of other projects, advisors and producers, they are freed up to experiment and discover the value of their idea. Sandbox encourages participants to make, test, change and discard ideas. And thento make, test and change them again. Even if the discovery is that the idea doesn’t work, this is time well spent.

Sandbox works for companies, so why choose to complicate matters by incorporating academic research? This leap to REACT was based on some experience from previous Studio projects and a hunch about what might happen if we tried it. Academics have a wealth of knowledge about context, culture and practice as well as a critical and reflective approach to inquiry which we believe will make for richer audience experiences and better creative products. Academics also have much to learn from creative companies, whose perspectives and experience stimulate intellectual curiosity as well as commercial possibility for their research. We aren’t interested in service provision, we want genuine partnerships. These are identifiable in the way that the conversation flows and the ideas are ignited, we want everyone to forget who is who and just make brilliant things happen. So far we have funded six projects of this kind under Heritage Sandbox. They have yielded some weird and wonderful things, from time-travelling ‘Georgian listening devices’ to a test bed for the ‘Future Cemetery’.

What exactly the value of these partnerships is, and what the trajectory of the projects might be over the longer term, we aren’t yet sure. Which brings me to the things that, through enthusiasm, hard work and persuasion, we hope to make true. Universities can work flexibly, responsively and quickly. Arts and humanities research can demonstrably improve the profitability of a creative company. Our team will be fantastic at making this work.

We aren’t there yet, so as we launch our second set of projects, today, we aretaking our own advice and making, testing, changing and discarding some ideas.We got some things wrong last time; we made mistakes in the contracting process,we underestimated the additional time needed to form relationships across the community, we didn’t recognise the specificities of the heritage sector. We hope to put these things right for our new Sandbox teams and to stay aware of the fresh mistakes that we are bound to make.

Because, and this is the most important thing, our new projects are exploring the future of books and print and they are splendid. We have funded eight teams under this theme, you can read about them and follow their blogs on the site above. The cohort contains a truly exciting mix of people, ideas and approaches: bringing together leading academics with renowned authors and experts in digital innovation.The projects range from a pervasive media adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde for the age of the bio hacker to an event-based publishing experiment that will allow audiences to curate and print a personal memento of live events. Our hope is that by taking risks in how we fund and who we fund and by creating a safe and creative space for the teams to experiment and explore we can make a significant contribution to some of the critical questions being asked by the publishing industry about digital technologies.

Above all we hope that the people involved with Books & Print Sandbox, and with all future REACT work, will be inspired by the range and diversity of people that they meet, talk to, argue with and listen to. If so, the results will probably surprise us all.

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