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Future Culture Edinburgh - CI PhD Research Assistant Grant Report

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Future Culture Edinburgh

Can we take the Coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to collectively reimagine Edinburgh’s cultural ecosystem and its future?

Future Culture Edinburgh, which was broadcast from the main auditorium of Leith Theatre on 1 September 2021, was a hybrid event devised by Edinburgh College of Art PhD candidate Vikki Jones, supervised by Prof. Richard Coyne and supported by a Creative Informatics PhD Research Assistant grant, together with independent creative ex-producer Morvern Cunningham.

The coronavirus pandemic shut Edinburgh’s arts and cultural sector down overnight, and this event sought to inspire creative thinking and collective action towards a more equitable and inclusive future of culture in Edinburgh as we emerge from successive lockdowns and begin the journey to recovery post-pandemic.

The event took the form of provocations from invited speakers and presenters, alongside workshop activities for a mixture of online and in-person participants, all of whom joined either in person in the venue or on Zoom.

Speakers were Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network and author of ‘From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of the imagination to create the future we want’; Leah Black, Chief Executive at WHALE Arts; Rosie Priest, interdisciplinary artist and researcher; Arusa Qureshi, award-winning writer and editor; Oli Savage and Josie Dale-Jones from Future Fringe; and Morgan Currie, lecturer and researcher at the University of Edinburgh.

The Future Culture Edinburgh event at Leith Theatre. Image credit: Vikki Jones

A hybrid exploration of Edinburgh’s cultural ecosystem

Activities in the venue and online using Miro were designed to explore ideas and solutions-based approaches to addressing challenges and seizing opportunities for the nourishment and benefit of Edinburgh’s cultural ecosystem.

The aims of the event were:

  •  To create an accessible space in which all interested stakeholders, regardless of their profession or connections to existing cultural infrastructure and organisations, could imagine and engage in open discussion about their ideas for an equitable future
  • To explore hybridity in event programming and production, trying as much as possible to ensure parity and balance between the experience of participating in the event on Zoom and at the venue
  • To contribute to research and writing being conducted by the event instigators. Vikki’s research explores the communication of value and values in Edinburgh’s arts and creative industries, and Morvern plans to produce a pamphlet building on two previous pieces of work, You’ll Have Had Your City (2020) and Edinburgh Reimagined: the future will be localised (2021).

Participants were asked to consider what they would keep, lose, and change about Edinburgh’s cultural infrastructure, before keynote speaker Rob Hopkins invited them to take a time machine to 2030 and imagine what the world, and culture in the city, would look like. Following provocations from speakers in Leith Theatre around ideas for the future, participants worked in groups on Zoom and in the venue to consider their own ideas and potential impacts, and how their own actions and those of others could help realise them. The final part of the event looked at initiatives and research already underway towards exploring collective action for an equitable future of culture.

Producing and delivering a hybrid event is challenging and we were aware of both the difficulties and opportunities of trying to produce an experience across online and in-person spaces. The experience would not be the same for each platform, but we consciously decided to strive for a sense of parity between both settings through use of appropriate research methods and signposting between the venue and Zoom. By conducting an event with a mixture of in-person and Zoom speakers and participants and moving interchangeably and (somewhat!) seamlessly between the two, we hope to have shown that equitable hybridity in events is possible, and to have contributed to encouraging openness and further experimentation and data collection in this area.

Reflections raised during the event

Areas where changes were proposed included restructuring funding landscapes, reimagining use of space in the city, and addressing precarity and representation in cultural work and careers through innovative support schemes.

Responses to these activities showed that Future Culture Edinburgh participants felt there was a lot to celebrate in the city’s cultural ecosystem, including the year-round cultural offer from cultural spaces, organisations and events. Areas where changes were proposed included restructuring funding landscapes, reimagining use of space in the city, and addressing precarity and representation in cultural work and careers through innovative support schemes. Edinburgh’s festivals were seen by participants as both a huge asset and as an area for positive and targeted future conversations. These discussions and associated actions that arise, our data suggests, might look at ways to develop and ensure equitable and sustainable organisational models and approaches, and increased engagement with communities in the city year-round.

From the perspective of exploring value and values in Edinburgh’s cultural infrastructure, it was particularly interesting to note the extent to which some participants valued Edinburgh’s reputation as an internationally recognised and globally connected cultural city. However, responses also noted the importance and value of taking into account the need for social, cultural and economic balance in what comes next, as we move on from the pandemic and in response to climate action, requiring a rethinking of what internationalism means in and for the city.

Further research incorporating the data generated by the event will continue to look into how the value of culture in Edinburgh can be measured and the challenges and opportunities of how ‘success’ can be defined. It will consider whether approaches to making Edinburgh’s year-round cultural ecosystem valuable for the city, for communities and for visitors of any kind, must come at the expense of the values our participants put forward in the responses. Or, might we think about approaches to the future of culture which dispense with binaries that set economic and cultural value and values against one another, instead asking the question – as Rob Hopkins might frame it – “What if… the future of culture in Edinburgh was values-driven?”

In addition to the Creative Informatics PhD Research Assistant funding, Future Culture Edinburgh was also funded by the Edinburgh Futures Institute, with support from the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society.