Beyond the grant: how funding is changing, and needs to change some more

My security pass for Somerset House stopped working this week. It turned out that was because I’ve been here for a year — in which time I’ve started up a new company and made a new game, which will be launching in 2016. We’ve got investment, commercial partners, an amazing advisory team — all the trappings of a successful start-up — and a big part of that success is down to different kinds of publicly funded support we’ve been able to access along the way.

Something important is starting to happen with public money for creative purposes. Within the broken-up remnants of an old funding system (organised around grants, top-down schemes administered by out-of-touch public bodies, and fixed ideas about what culture is) a new one seems to be emerging. Over the last year, we’ve had support from four different organisations that have all fed in to the progress we’ve made. They are Watershed, Somerset House, Playhubs and Makerversity. There was a little money at the start (through the fantastic Play Sandbox scheme) but mostly what these organisations have offered are intangible, valuable resources:

  • Time and space. It’s an obvious one, to be sure, but these organisations are putting their physical space to great use through a mix of co-working and studio spaces. We’ve scaled up from one desk to our own vault in that time, taking more as we needed it.
  • Access to users. Product design thinking is embedded in all these organisations — having our testing sessions organised by a partner enabled us to focus on development.
  • Connecting the creative with the commercial. These organisations have fantastic networks of mentors and partners that span our existing creative and artistic frameworks, alongside newer networks of investment and distribution.

We’re all still working out how the thesis of the UK’s great successful creative sector practically interacts with the newer understanding of start-up culture. The ‘creative entrepreneur’ much beloved of Old Funding was a mythical beast in my view, often mistaken at a distance for practitioners of Innovation Theatre. An awful lot of money and hot air was spent praising organisations who had about one tenth of a viable business model. And many brilliant, talented people shipped funding applications rather than products, optimising their ideas for a mysterious group of decision-makers they would never meet or understand.

What I think these resources add up to is a package which is based on Goldman’s dictum that Nobody Knows Anything. Given that Nobody Knows Anything, don’t spend a lot of public money pretending you know something. You don’t need a launch event at Sadler’s Wells or a glossy report with made-up stats. What you need is a bit of money and a lot of resources at the disposal of creative start-ups with great ideas.

These organisations are close to the networks they serve. They listen and adapt, they connect, and they support where they can. Funding and support becomes more ad-hoc, more personal, more timely. It’s actually useful.

What I think needs to be added into the picture are two important, linked ideas about what public money ought to do.

The first is build momentum. This is something the investment community prizes, and rightly so. How frequently are teams shipping new builds of their product? How able are they to reject poor ideas and adapt? How are they evidencing traction over time? These are questions that people with public money should be asking a lot, and in my experience they hardly ask them at all.

The second is gain attention. Supporting product development is great, but there is a moment when one wants to put the considerable attention-gathering apparatus of the funded culture sector behind the launch of something new. Broadcasters like the BBC & Channel 4 don’t just fund independently created work — they launch it so it finds an audience. Digital content creators working on the App Store, YouTube etc. don’t have that luxury. This one is tricky to solve, but I believe it can be — look at what achieves on a shoestring.

But those future-facing caveats aside, I want to celebrate the organisations that are enabling exciting creative work to happen and to offer my thanks for their support. I also think that this is what The Space ought to have been, and it’s a shame £16m of public money went on something so at odds with this new reality.

Game design, entrepreneurship, culture change. Now making @beastsofbalance. Priors: Hide&Seek, Channel 4

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