Doing Research in the 21st century

Tom Campbell on how learning from the Arts and Tech programme can help change our perceptions about arts research

The notion of art as a form of research is hardly a new idea, arguably it goes back to Aristotle, but in recent years it has been given a particular impetus. As the creative economy has grown in importance, so too has a confidence that arts and humanities need not be dependent on research methodologies from other disciplines. Alongside this, there is a greater awareness that creative attributes and practices can form the basis for inquiry, generating knowledge and refining insight.

These approaches become especially powerful when combined with research and development facilities and processes associated with science, engineering and software. The result has been a new and distinct kind of R+D, with innovation practices increasingly central to businesses and economies, but which are still to be fully recognised or described.

Anyone who has visited the Waag in Amsterdam, MadLab in Manchester or the Copenhagen Institute of Interactive Design, will know that these are not solely arts centres, laboratories, business incubators or education providers — although they might incorporate elements of all these. And while such places usually receive some form of public support, they are not delivery agencies and tend to be driven by curiosity rather than output-driven funding regimes.

A project from the Waag, Amsterdam

It might be better to think of them as research centres. After all, it would be hard to deny that this is what they do. They house multi-disciplinary teams of specialists who investigate issues and frame problems. They contribute to the knowledge base and they bring user-centred processes to develop new products and services. They incorporate scientific expertise and domain knowledge with a range of creative practices and design tools.

As Marleen Stikker from the Waag has observed, such research is not just speculative, but a spectacle — a public act, with elements of performance and participation. The modern research facility tends to be an anonymous building in an out-of- town science park. By contrast, the likes of the Waag or Pervasive Media Studio are firmly located in town centres, attract visitors and run cultural programmes.

The cultural and economic rewards from such places can be considerable, but are yet to be sufficiently appreciated by funding bodies, regulators or academic institutes. Even the individual academics working with such centres and who draw on their resources often struggle to acknowledge them as research partners. As a result, well-established centres with international reputations can find themselves in a precarious position, dependent on short-term funding cycles and vulnerable to the planning and investment decisions of local authorities in a way which universities and government research institutes are largely protected from.

Securing validation therefore remains a challenge, and there is an onus on such centres themselves to better position what it is they do, and articulate the value that they bring. But more broadly, the very notion of research needs to be re-thought, broadened and possibly even rebranded for the 21 st century. Across the OECD, some 2.3% of total GDP goes on research and development — a figure that has remained roughly the same for many years. But government and industry need to be aware that there are now new ways for how they spend it.