Knowle West Media Centre Workshop Series: Inspire

Knowle West Media Centre Workshop Series: Inspire

By Tot Foster, 2nd May 2022

In the first of a several part series, we take you inside our workshops at Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC). The workshops aimed to support our co-researcher group to develop creative confidence and experience moving from concept ideation to low-fidelity prototype construction, as well as provide opportunities for them to experience an array of contemporary technologies.The workshops were designed by Jess Linington and Fiona Dowling from KWMC, in partnership with the Connecting Through Culture team and Malcolm Hamilton. The four workshops were hosted in weekly increments at the KWMC Factory space, and included an in-person and hybrid in-person/remote series.  

In this first video, a group of our in-person co-researchers (Elanora, Ruby, Ralph, Fanny and Ruth) provide an insight into the workshops in their own words!  


A Review of ‘Bolder – Making the Most of Our Longer Lives’ by Carl Honoré

A Review of ‘Bolder – Making the Most of Our Longer Lives’ by Carl Honoré

By Elanora Ferry, 30th April 2022

I really loved this book. It’s written by a man who is still only 55 and I, as a septuagenarian, found it inspiring and life affirming.  

The book is well-researched and includes follow up notes on each chapter and a Further Reading list at the end of the book. It’s a book where I found I was underlining quite a lot where particular things spoke to me. I enjoyed the quotes at the top of each chapter e.g., ‘Imagination has no age – Walt Disney’ and ‘Ageing is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength’ – Betty Frieden  

The book explores how we live in an anti-ageing culture where anti-ageing’ implies that age is something that needs curing which is in itself demoralising. The book reminds us how language shapes views and behaviour. Words like ‘old’, ‘older’, ‘ageing’ and ‘elderly’ put older people in a box marked ‘other’ which fuels disconnect and feeds our darkest prejudices about ageing. You only have to think of expressions such as ‘she’s still… referring to anyone doing anything in later life, or expressions like ‘for your age’, ‘senior moment’, ‘young at heart’ to see how ageism is ingrained in our culture. Popular culture reinforces the idea that old equals sad – codger, crone, curmudgeon, hag, fogey etc. It was therefore good to read that with the right spirit growing older can mean colouring in rather than erasing yourself.  

I had also never really thought how much language also shapes our views and behaviour in terms of our thinking about the milestones in our culture. For example, the 3-stage life-cycle of education, paid work then pensioned leisure or the 3-stage road map of learning, working then resting. Both of them reinforce the assumptions and biases of getting older  

This book introduced me to alternative ways of thinking rather than the usual ageist thinking. I like the idea of being a ‘Perennial’ – ever blooming. I also liked the expression ‘Ageing With Attitude’ and the concept of a ‘seniorpreneur’ too.  

The good news that I got from the book is that ageing can be a process of opening up rather than closing down. The book has lots of examples of people defying the ageist stereotypes and anecdotes to illustrate the need for a radical re-think to our approach to ageing. A couple of examples that appealed to me were that Georgia O’Keefe made notable art into her 90’s, Jane Goodall travels the world in her 80’s to deliver sold out lectures on her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania and Judith Kerr (The Tiger Who Came To Tea) was working on her 34th book when she died aged 95.  

I think the book has implications and relevance to our involvement with the Connecting Through Culture As We Age Project. Like the Maya Angelou quote in the book says – ‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have’.  


Digital Adventures

Co-Researcher Perspective: “Digital Adventures”

By Jeanne Ellin, 20th April 2022

Editor Note: In this short blog post, one of our fantastic co-researchers, Jeanne Ellin, shares her perspective of becoming a co-researcher. Jeanne asks us to walk with her as she embarks on her new digital adventures…  

Initially as a semi-literate computer user I was a bit daunted by the idea of being a co-researcher; comparable to a reader pushing their finger along under newspaper headlines and sounding the words. With no academic experience or credentials this was a wonderful and scary chance. The first time I was involved with being part of a digital conversation I was thrilled. Being an older woman with isolating disabilities this was an opportunity to be part of a different community. So many new possibilities opened up and I greedily tried them all. Being part of different conversations, feeling I was contributing meeting new people all were so enriching. I felt welcomed and heard. I began an online poetry group and have moved towards a future Facebook group for those interested in poetry. I have needed and received a lot of support and feel I am learning so many new things. I am eagerly looking forward to the Van Gogh exhibit which we are visiting as a group. The enduring wonders of Art and Nature enhanced and expanded when these digital resources come into play. Virtual reality beckons… who knew there was still so much to experience and explore for a woman of limited mobility. I am wondering what else I might learn better more efficient ways to write, painting digitally? Creating an interactive picture book for children? These dreams are shaped by my wishes ambitions and experiences but there are a vast range of others. New skills and experience could widen and brighten the lives of many older and disabled people. I look forward to them being available to more individuals.  


“But what’s this to do with me?”: why someone’s past, present and future must shape digital literacies thinking

“But what’s this to do with me?”: why someone’s past, present and future must shape digital literacies thinking

By Stuart Gray, 6th April 2022

The term digital literacy is used pervasively in writing and policy regarding the abilities of older adults to participate in present and future societies. Yet many ‘mainstream’ definitions misrepresent the complexities of the term. Such definitions often portray digital literacies as simply the ability to understand and use specific and contemporary digital concepts and technologies, which can be ‘trained’ in a generalisable fashion. From our primary research with our co-researchers, we believe this is an oversimplification which may inhibit attempts to encourage older adults’ digital inclusion. 

In order to foster digital participation that brings meaning (even transformation) within older adults’ daily lives, we propose that approaches to understanding and building digital literacies must be more person centric. Here we observe digital literacies as being influenced by the past, present and future lives of individuals. This requires us to build an awareness of the inconsistence and transience of various skills, abilities, and contextual circumstances across the lifecourse. As understood through the lives and experiences of our co-researchers, this blog post outlines three things that everyone must understand before trying to support older adults to develop digital literacies.  

At their most reductionist, definitions of digital literacy often appear as an individual’s proficiency in fixed digital concepts arranged in abstract thematic areas or as sets of operational competencies with technology. The former often resembles a series of vague capabilities one may possess or must strive to attain as a marker of ‘readiness’ to participate in a digital society. For instance, one might be regarded as being able ‘to use and communicate digital information’ or ‘be social media engaged.’ Although more tangible, lists of operational competencies often read like the highlights of a software engineer’s CV, with digital literacy catabolised into the ability to use specific devices, programs, and functions. The criticism here is not that one’s digital literacy cannot benefit from experiences and supported learning with an array of contemporary technologies. Neither is it to deny that being digitally literate may involve grasping abstract digital concepts and building accurate mental models of digital technology. The criticism is that these definitions categorise complex individual capabilities into neatly packaged boxes for which there are often prescribed, generalisable training solutions. Here, once specific routines have been drilled into the learner, they are now deemed digitally literate until further notice.  

While the above may be hyperbolic to a degree, the inconvenient truth is that one’s ‘real-world’ digital literacy is far more complex. Digital literacy may in fact be the product of a much wider set of mediating factors that span a life course and are influenced by one’s cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural realities. Digital literacies are not always tidy, ordered boxes of capabilities. Instead, the boxes can be messy and inefficiently packaged but also with unexpected depth in specific areas. There may be dusty boxes that have sealed and left unopened for a long time and worn boxes that are in near constant use. In other words, the meaning and value of digital literacies is tied to individual contexts and are intrinsically linked to one’s past, present, and future. In the Connecting Through Culture project, we have opted to unpack our co-researcher’s digital literacies across the lifecourse. Here are three things that we have learned from doing so:  

#1 – Understanding political, economic, cultural, and social journeys provide the starting point for supporting the development of meaningful digital literacies  

Our co-researchers come from diverse backgrounds. Some are Bristolians, while others have moved to the city from other regions and even countries. Some have lives of relative financial comfort, while others survive in socioeconomic precarity. Some are connected to a strong social network, others have experienced the loss of key relationships, some find themselves living isolated lives. For some culture may entail art and creative participation, participating in one’s family and community, or maybe watching a good tv boxset. This list of differences is endless and what is more, many co-researchers have lived one or more of these different circumstances in different periods of their lives.  

Although there are themes and shared experiences among them, the point is that all the co-researchers bring with them unique political, economic, cultural, and social journeys which have helped to shape the people they are, their present circumstances, and their future aspirations. This also extends to explain the digital literacies they currently possess and those they may benefit from attaining. To encourage them to develop their digital literacies, their engagements with technology must provide help to empower them whilst taking the time to understand and recognise their political, economic, cultural, and social experiences across the lifecourse. This is meaningful digital literacy in the real world, and it is the basis for where all learning should begin.  

#2 – Understanding that digital literacies are transient, with their relevance subject to change by society and seismic personal events  

Digital participation (defined here as engagement with digital opportunities that further one’s self interests) has happened at different points throughout the lifecourse for each of our co-researchers, and their associated digital literacies have not followed a linear path of progression. However, we have noted that life transitions are a common factor that underpins many of our co-researchers’ digital participation and the development of their digital literacies. For some of our co-researchers, digital participation has only recently become relevant to their lives because of wider systemic transitions that have subsumed digital interactions within basic functions of society – interfering with their political, economic, cultural, or social security. For example, many vital services, businesses, and even individuals now require digital literacies in order to be engaged with. This is a trend that has been accelerated by the demands for social distancing during COVID-19 and the pandemic is littered with examples of this – typified by the ‘appification’ of everything and to the widespread transition from in-person to remote-only services.  

Yet this is not the whole story. In fact, most of our co-researchers have attested to the ebb and flow of digital technology within different stages of their lives. This has arisen at more acute, personal points of transition or following seismic life events, where digital participation is a means of responding to adversity, a way to reassert control over the present, and to provide hope for the future. There are some great examples from our co-researchers: to revitalise a marriage through the shared exploration of social virtual environments; to reinvigorate one’s creative practice by embracing novel interactive formats for storytelling; to find common ground with one’s child following their admission to a university computer science degree by learning about technology design; to manage and emerge from debt by mastering word processors to support employment applications and excel spreadsheets to help budget.  

Notably, life transitions can also be a double-edged sword, and there have equally been points of transition where certain forms of digital participation were suspended: ceasing to play videogames following the loss of a good friend and co-player; no longer being able to use once familiar devices following a medical diagnosis; following retirement from the workplace. It is important to realise that these transitions may continue into the future. New forms of digital participation may emerge, present forms may be suspended, and old forms may re-emerge. Thus, supporting the development of digital literacies to push beyond the day-to-day and encourage older adults to think critically, creatively and make assessments for themselves around digital technologies may have long-term benefits. This is an area we are currently exploring in our research process.  

#3 – Understanding that cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural variables can both encourage the formation of new digital literacies and inhibit exist ones  

In both the engagement and disengagement in digital experiences, we see the influence of the cocktail of cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural variables at play. Changes in cognitive and physical health can both encourage the development of certain digital literacies (in a bid to leverage technology to overcome adversity) and inhibit digital literacies that once existed. Affect and emotions associated with past experiences of digital participation may predict proclivities to do so in the present. Ensuring positive digital experiences is essential to support confidence in one’s own abilities. Meanwhile, utility and a place for digital technologies within day-to-day routines, is necessary in order to ensure repeated engagement and to support literacy development beyond a surface level.  

We realise that person-centred approaches to supporting digital literacies are challenging to scale and our ongoing research is attempting to analyse where granular knowledge of our co-researchers lives intersect with their digital participation. In a later post we will report on these emerging themes and how they may be accounted for in approaches to facilitate digital literacy development. Nevertheless, for anyone looking to support older adult’s digital literacy then, before arranging an array of devices on the table in front of them or enrolling them in an online ‘introduction to the cloud’ course, first consider these three takeaways. The examples given in this blog post illustrate that digital literacies are often led by lifecourse events and transitions and not the other way around. From starting with the person and considering the interplay between digital participation and their past, present and future lives, we can support the development of more relevant approaches to building digital literacies that provide real world impact.  


“I Braved Zoom for Love”: 6 Ideas Changing Care, Creativity and Technology

“I Braved Zoom for Love”: 6 Ideas Changing Care, Creativity and Technology

By Tim Senior, 23rd February 2022

In an earlier post we introduced twelve speakers from adult social care – a mixture of insight and provocation from a sector innovating in the face of crisis (e.g. Fix Care for Good). In this short post, we take one step back to ask: what are the bold ideas that speak to a new trajectory for the sector?  

6 disruptive movements in care  

  1. Blending care and creativity: The pressure for new creative and collaborative working practices in care has increased in recent years, with the pandemic only adding to that need. Here the enormous value of ‘co-ownership’ between care staff and artists in the design and delivery of care activities is becoming clear. Pushing beyond ‘business as usual’, this now opens-up questions about what it means for carers to be creative and creatives to take on caring responsibilities. We must now ask how flexibility, training and support can be built into care regimes, but also how artists can be emotionally and pastorally supported in the work they do in the care sector. Being a carer OR an artist may no longer be enough.  
  2. Blending tech and intimacy: covid, too, has driven innovation in how digital technologies and digital-physical objects can bring arts and culture back into people’s lives, particularly those experiencing isolation and inequalities in access. This has highlighted the power of new technologies but also their limitations, creating new types of demand on the sector. A lack of personal, physical connection is hard to replace digitally when the subtle cues and gestures on which we depend are lost: How can technologies be more interactive, sensory, experiential and connective? The Tech sector has a long way to go if it’s to respond to the needs of older adults and make existing services better for everyone, not just the young.  
  3. Blending care and lived environments: Arts and cultural organisations have demonstrated how they can create new types of care environment outside of traditional care settings, whether in gardens, theatres or community spaces. They have the skills to hold open emotional spaces for older adults and artists to work creatively together. Further, their expertise in up-skilling and empowering individuals to be creative leaders can help older adults build confidence and develop new types of self-efficacy. How can we develop new types of care space where people feel able to create by themselves and with others in their own communities? This will need new and bold approaches in cross-sector working.  
  4. Blending research and lived experience: These new demands placed on cross-sector collaboration extend firmly into academia. The need to embed research into communities in order to understand lived experience has never been stronger, yet communities can be kept at ‘arm’s length’ in such work, propagating an ‘Extract, Produce, Repeat’ interaction that can leave little impact on the material and everyday struggles in question. More effective, closer, and mutually beneficial working between academia and communities is now needed. Further, new connections up-and-down between policy, research and communities is going to be vital if we are to generate models of research and evaluation that are fit for purpose.  
  5. Blending audiences and producers: We have a lot to learn about individuals’ needs and aspirations around creativity, care and technology. We can each be excited about creating our own content to share and connect with others, whatever our age. With the right support and training, there should be no reason why we can’t all be producers, co-create together and draw on our different experiences in the exchange of ideas. The barriers to this are deeply wrapped up with a convention of defining people by their age or generation. If care and Tech sectors only see homogenous groups of adults in “later life”, then these potentials will not be recognised. There is a need to re-think what Ageing is and how we label it.  
  6. Blending consumption and rights: Finally, as arts and culture find their voice in addressing some of the most complex social, health and wellbeing deficits experienced today, we have to ask: how much longer can they be defended as “nice to haves”? We are at a cultural tipping point where access to arts and culture becomes a Right not a privilege. This highlights an emerging shift in how we look to arts and culture to meet wellbeing needs. This is a huge opportunity for age sector and creative and cultural industry partners to step forward and fully realise the positive impact they can have for more people. Social prescribing offers one route, but a plurality of approaches will be needed.

The Age sector is changing, with new pressures challenging conventional ways of thinking and working. Whether it’s blending care and creativity, technology and intimacy, care and lived environments, research and lived experience, audiences and producers, consumption and rights; we are at a cultural tipping point in how we realise the full potential of care, age and creativity. It raises important questions about levels of investment in the social care sector, pay for care and third sector workers, and the support available for sustained and impactful cross-sector innovation.  


For Whom Does Ageing Mean “Living Without?”

For Whom Does Ageing Mean “Living Without?”

By Helen Manchester and Alice Willatt, 22nd February 2022

In our last blog Alice explained one of the creative methods we’ve been using to understand more about the lives of people aged 60-75 who are working with us on our project. In this blogpost we explore how the My Album activity [add link] has enabled us to understand the richness of everyday lives as we age. The data we’ve collected challenges the widely held belief that ageing represents “living without”. In fact, we’ve found ageing to be a creative process that involves responding to change, developing relationships and finding new rhythms. Importantly though, experiences of marginalisation continue to affect us as we age and it is largely those who have had to ‘live without’ throughout their lives who continue to do so as they age.  

First, let’s talk about creativity and creative ageing. The albums became a place to document and reflect on everyday creativity. We found the creative rhythms of lives – knitting, bead collecting, cycling, poetry writing, cooking, gardening – have a positive impact on wellbeing and sense of self. Also, the doing and sharing of these activities are important for forging and maintaining social connections.  

People have used their albums to talk about and reflect on significant relationships in their lives. Many explained the varied social connections they enjoy – including with family members, friends and through groups and activities that they have more time for following retirement. People described the pleasures of ‘pottering’ and ‘lounging and the freedom in being able to choose what they do, with whom and when. There was a sense of opening out, of potential for new becomings and new identities to be developed. 


The 20 people we are working with come from communities including disabled older people, and socio-economically and racially minoritised communities. For some of them experiences of marginalization across their lifecourse continue to mediate their lives as they age. Whilst creativity played in a key role in many of their lives they described short term community arts projects that helped them to find an outlet for their creativity but the grief when these ended due to short term funding cycles. Those living in social housing described the difficulties in finding a place to feel comfortable in their homes- the poor heating, lack of space or feeling of disconnection they experienced in flats where neighbours continually changed or where the ‘quietness’ affected their mood and left them feeling lonely. 

Overall, the data collected through the My Album activity suggests that ageing can be a time for flourishing, for creativity and for forging new identities and relationships, for some. However, for others, the marginalization they have experienced throughout the life course continues to affect them as they age. As bodies might start to fail or become ‘unruly’ these experiences of marginalization often become more acute and are ‘felt’ more strongly. We need to better understand experiences of ageing for communities at the margins in order to develop more creative, caring societies for us all as we age. 


How to Use Creative and Participatory Methods Within and Beyond Research Settings

How to Use Creative and Participatory Methods Within and Beyond Research Settings

By Alice Willatt, 10th February 2022

Ever wanted to know more about using creative methods in research? Or how to use creativity to develop person-centred activities for the people that interact with your services?  

Over the past eight months the Connecting Through Culture research team have been working alongside 18 older adults (aged 60-75) who are disabled and/or identify as socioeconomically or racially minoritized. This group of ‘co-researchers’ play a key role in the project, bringing their knowledge, expertise and lived experiences into the research process and co-design of digital cultural experiences. We began working with co-researchers by using creative methods to explore and understand more about their daily lives, social connections, digital participation, and experiences of social exclusion and marginalisation.  

At the heart of this process is a tool kit of creative methods. One method we have used is the ‘My Album’ activity in which we provide co-researchers with an album, creative materials, a camera and a list of prompts or questions about their daily lives. The co-researchers work with different mediums, from photography to creative writing and collage, to create an album about their lives. After several weeks we interview the co-researcher to learn more about their album, using its contents as a prompt for the discussion (also known as the ‘diary interview method’). 

This blog provides a beginners guide to the My Album activity, demonstrating how it can be used to generate a person-centred and holistic account of peoples lives, as told by them. The guide may be of interest to researchers, but also those working in the community sector or educational and health and social care settings, who are looking for participatory ways of working with marginalised groups.

How to run the My Album activity:  

The research team has worked 1-2-1 as well as in small groups (2-3) to run this activity. We start by meeting the co-researcher/s, either virtually or face-to-face to introduce them to the activity and provide them with a ‘My Album pack’ (can be sent in the post), which includes a list of questions prompts to get them started. We then meet with them a week or two later to see how they are getting on and give them the opportunity to share what they are working on. In the final meeting we ask them to give us a ‘tour’ through their album, asking questions about what they have included, and reflecting on how they have found the process of putting it together. 

What’s in the My Album pack?

  • A large spiral bound book with blank pages
  • A selection of creative materials (pens, pencils, stickers, glue, scissors, etc)
  • A polaroid camera (a digital, disposable, or phone camera also works)
  • Outline of the activity with question prompts

What sort of question prompts can I use?  

We have found the following prompts helpful to get co-researchers started on the album activity, but you can adapt them to suit the people you are working with.

  • The people, objects, events or places that mean the most to you.
  • Consider things and people from your past and those from the present day.
  • Is there a space in your house where you spend a lot of time? What can you see from the windows?
  • Is there an object in your home that is important to you? Maybe it’s a photo, or something you have been given by someone else?
  • What do you love doing? Can you take a photo that shows this activity?
  • Times when you are outside the home and enjoying yourself.

5 top tips to keep in mind when facilitating the My Album activity

  • We recommend completing the My Album activity yourself, alongside the individual or group you are working with, to make it a shared collaborative experience.
  • It can take people time to work out how to use their album, some people enjoy working purely with visual images, through photography and collage, others enjoy accompanying the visual with written explanations, creative writing or poetry.
  • The method can be adapted to suit the interests and abilities of the people taking part. For example, if you are working with a group that has diverse literacy skills, their albums can take a purely visual form through the use of photos, collage, drawing, painting, etc.
  • It’s important the album belongs to the person who has created it and is theirs to keep. Many co-researchers have become attached to their albums and have wanted to share them with friends and family.
  • It’s important not to ask people to close or finish their albums (unless they want to). They can be kept open, so they can continue to document their lives beyond the period of time you are working with them. Visit out blog in a couple of weeks time when we will share a bit more about what we have found out from using the My Album method along with pictures of the albums and quotes from co-researchers!


Connecting Through Culture: What do we actually want?

Connecting Through Culture: What do we actually want?

By Tim Senior, 9th November 2021

‘Connecting Through Culture as we Age’ asks how participation in arts and culture might be better supported for older adults, particularly those that are disabled, or racially or socio-economically minoritised. With its emphasis on co-design – collaboratively working with older adults to design new forms of arts and cultural participation – the project will challenge a number of conventions in a variety of sectors. 

Co-design essentially marks a shift from “creating new products for consumers” to one that includes more people in how we understand, participate-in and create artistic and cultural life. It is a model that emphasises the creative strength of diversity, the value of equitable partnerships between researchers, communities, industry and policy, and the need to work together in more sustainable (less-extractive and less-exploitative) ways. 

‘Connecting through Culture as we Age’ necessarily, then, has a lot of different partners involved. This partnership base reflects a variety of sectors and disciplines, each with their own history (successes and failures) of working outside of business as usual, i.e. outside of their conventional working silos and networks of influence. 

Writing a project bid together in the heat of the moment is one thing; working together over three years in a way that drives real-world impact – a process that will challenge how each of us think about digital inclusion and how you create it – is quite another. As we begin this project, we’ve asked ourselves: Do we really want the same thing? 

We need to talk (about values)  

Our two initial partner events [detailed in Stu’s blog post here] were an important opportunity to come together, talk through the project in detail, and highlight early-on our hopes, ambitions and concerns. Through a mixture of small-group conversations (within and across sectors), expert-led provocations, individual brainstorming, reflection and inspiration stations, we tackled the question of “What do we want from this project?” from a variety of angles. Our focus was not just the project itself (e.g. values, deliverables and impacts) but also the project partnership itself (Box 1). The success of each hinges on the other. 

What is your motivation in this project?  
What are the outputs & impacts that matter?  
Whose Art and Culture will we be working with?  
What are the barriers to doing this project well?  
Reflecting on the stories presented and your experiences, what have you learned?  
What would we want to tell funders, policy makers or others about what we have learned?  
Are there issues which haven’t been mentioned which should also be explored?     
Which do you think are the most important issues we need to explore further, and why? 
Box 1 – Understanding what we want from the Connecting Through Culture project

Affinity mapping

Over the two events, and with the aid of online white board and collaborative toolkits from the Brigstow Institute at Bristol University, we gathered 22 pages of insight from 60 participants. This reflects what the partnership has understood of the project and its values so far. Rather than framing these insights against the initial project bid, we first asked how the data itself speaks to our collective project purpose. 

To do this we adopted an Affinity Mapping approach, one commonly used to organize ideas from a brainstorming activity into thematic groups based on their affinities and relationships between them. This isn’t a precise science, but it is a useful way for organizing freeform comment into broad themes (weighted by the strength of interest expressed) for review and analysis. 

That weight of interest reflects those present in the conversation at the time. With a project of this scale, and our phased way of working that will intensify existing relationships (and build new ones) over many years, being aware of how those priorities may offer only be a partial picture or change over time is important. As we now start working with co-researchers and our wider partnership base (including innovation and digital sector partners), our conversations about what matters in this project, and why, will only intensify. 

For example, the question of “Whose Arts and Culture will be working with?” (Box 1) raised first and foremost the need to challenge stereotypes on the nature of “arts and culture”. The importance of empowering older adults to engage with what matters to them; the need to tackle the systems of discrimination and disadvantage that disempower access; our own responsibility (as a project partnership) to drive this agenda – and get it right: all have been emphasised as important to achieving this goal. The need to understand the wider arts and culture ‘ecosystems’ that make [dis]empowerment a reality underscores these interests. 

Building a project canvas

The affinity map highlighted a project partnership that is motivated to work together in new ways and put co-production at the centre of that work. It is the empowerment of older adults, a deeper understanding of their experience and an impact legacy beyond the project period that matters most (digital technologies are part of this vision, but are a means not an end). From this data, we have constructed an initial Project Canvas outlining project mission, vision, strategy, objectives and desired outcomes (Box 2). In this way, and by drawing exclusively on the data generated from these two meetings, we can ask whether a coherent project emerges and assess its alignment with the original proposal. This has value, for  example, in highlighting specific project gaps that need to be addressed or pointing to differences in partner values that need to be discussed. If we can develop a project canvas that all partners can get behind, then the canvas can help assess progress, support reporting, and drive project reflection over the next three years. 

Mission: Who we are, the values/principles we hold, the contexts in which we work 
Vision: What we want to make a reality, our hopes and ambitions for this work 
Strategy: How we implement this vision and overcome key barriers. 
Objectives: specific results we want to achieve, their timeframe, and measurement. 
Outcomes: consequences of achieving our objectives 
Box 2 – Lenses for our values

An example of a small part of our project-canvas-in-progress: Our project Vision includes “an ambition to develop a capabilities-based approach that helps older adults gain equality, purpose and agency in how they engage with arts and culture”. Part of our Strategy to achieve this rests on bringing older adults as co-researchers into the project. This will mean, for example: 

  1. …adopting a variety of collaborative approaches with older adults to uncover and understand their experiences of arts and culture, in their own terms; 
  1. …working in a mutually beneficial, sustainable and non-extractive way, valuing all stakeholders equally and taking the time to build relationships; 
  1. …listening to other people’s stories, and working with care, tact and sensitivity to understand their significance and value; 
  1. …supporting older adults to build confidence (where needed) in how they participate in arts and cultural activities, able to voice their opinions and engage; 
  1. … putting training and other forms of support in place for older adults so they can act knowledgeably and direct their own learning within the project. 

Our initial conversations have highlighted a number of barriers to achieving this (including particular issues  around recruitment, retention, incentives, training and ethical practice) and a variety of possible solutions. Clear Objectives emerge in terms of empowering our co-researchers: we want to see co-researcher stories and testimonials brought into the public domain, our co-researchers to have learned new skills and directly shaped co-design methods and activities, our co-researchers to have encountered new ideas and opportunities, and for our co-researchers to see their impact on our work together. 

Exploring productive tensions

Clear, and clearly different, values and dispositions have emerged through these initial conversations, aligned with the needs and interests of the sectors/disciplines participating. These capture tensions that might, on the one hand, be productively engaged within the project, or, on the other hand, present different options for developing the project in the coming years. In all cases, there is both a question of where new perspectives might be introduced into a sector, and also where there are assumptions about other sectors that need to be questioned or dispelled. 

  • A tension between the priorities of research (and what constitutes a valid research process and valid research outputs), communities (who want to see real-world change, now) and industry (who are seeking new markets and customers). 
  • A tension emerges between the values and ambitions of innovation culture and care culture. For example, an innovation culture with a focus on novelty and a high failure rate has little appeal to a care culture seeking robust and long-term solutions. 
  • A tension between adapting existing technologies (including a focus on access to existing resources and ‘hacking’ what’s already available to work in new ways) and the development of innovative technologies that may hold promise but never deliver. 
  • A tension between deepening the engagement of those already familiar with digital technologies and broadening out to new audiences who are non- or reluctant-users. The later places increased emphasis on social innovation and cultural change. 
  • A tension in the language of collaboration and the jargon that helps conversation within disciplines but rarely between them. Our close working partnership with co-researchers foregrounds this (Janet, older adult, co-researcher or consumer?). 

Critically, the Project Canvas is a living document, one that can be periodically updated, questioned, refined, and so on. As our co-production activities come into effect in 2022, we will be able to deepen the representation of our co-researchers and digital sector partners in that overall project vision. This process of discussing, reviewing, updating is a critical one. 

Pain Relivers and Gain Creators

Although early days in the project, these initial meetings have begun to reveal what the project might offer older adults through new forms of participation with arts and culture. One lens on that offer comes from Osterwalder’s ‘Value Proposition Canvas’ in the form of ‘gain creators’ and ‘pain relievers’. 

A picture is already emerging of what might be gained, including: having your voice heard or represented, improved wellbeing, increased agency in the production and participation of arts and culture, access to new experiences and broader creative horizons, blended/hybrid models that improve access, new forms of intergenerational exchange, better support within communities and through services, longer-term solutions to access digital resources, and a step-change in thinking about arts and culture in terms of Rights as opposed to Health. Mirroring this is a picture of the pains that might be relieved, including: Loneliness and social isolation, ageing “without” access to vital services and creative opportunities, damaging stereotypes and assumptions about ageing and older adults, lack of confidence and skills in using technology, ‘digital poverty’ (including issues around access and infrastructure), and sub-standard digital offers that fail to account for real-world needs. 

Working with our co-researchers and other project partners, we will start to add depth and detail to this sketch of ‘pain relievers’ and ‘gain creators’. It will have enormous implications for how we design creative new technologies together and understand where other forms of action, e.g. in terms of social innovation, cultural asset creation and organisational culture change, are needed to make access to arts and culture a reality for more people. 


Event highlights part two – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

Event highlights part two – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

By Tot Foster, Tim Senior and Stuart Gray, 26th September 2021 

In our last post we revisited the talks given at our July 7th project partner event. In this post, however, we’d like to consider how these talks resonated with our wider attendees. We stopped twice during the event to open up the discussion of the issues raised with our 60 attendees, through a number of breakout rooms.

Breakout Session One

The first of our breakout rooms sought to identify the extent to which the speaker experiences resonated thus far with the audiences and the key points of learning some of the emerging themes. Furthermore, we wanted to crystallise some messaging for those in positions of power about the value of cultural participation activities for older adults.

In our twelve breakout groups, the event attendees, CTC As We Age team, and the speakers took to Google Jamboard to document our thoughts, guided by the following questions.

Jamboard Example From Group 1

Q1: Reflecting on the stories presented and your experiences, what have you learned? 

Firstly, it is important to recognise the diversity of the older people that our project and our community anchors (see our partners) serve. It is easy to think of older adults as a homogeneous group and stereotype their skills, competencies, and challenges. Too commonly when we talk about older adults and their use of digital technologies, we paint by numbers with regards to what they can or cannot do. Yet, the reality is nuanced and in order to identify digital literacies and how to support their adoption of contemporary technology, we require an understanding of their social and cultural lives of individuals and their communities.

Thus, we need to adopt a capabilities-led approach when working with older adults in the community and care settings. Rather than having supporting organisations make assumptions about the digital cultural and art activities for older adults as a broad group, individuals must be granted the autonomy to express and define what areas are relevant to them. This requires us to find ways to better understand individual circumstances and tailor the training of digital skills around them and their unique needs.

One common theme across all of our talks was that of a need for greater inclusion in digital culture and arts activities. Older adults have a desire for greater representation of their issues and interests in the content of these activities. They observe how a lot of effort is put into equipping other groups, such as young people, with the skills, infrastructure, and opportunities to thrive in an increasingly digital society, and question why they are often excluded from these endeavours. Our attendees emphasised the need to recognise that people’s abilities are neither fixed in time nor dictated by age. Older adults can continue to learn and enjoy learning, even when faced with physical and cognitive barriers, and empowering them with digital skills may be able to contribute renewed purpose to their lives.

However, we need to ensure that those who are supporting older adults are themselves capable at facilitating training and access to digital culture and arts participation. In the case of community organisations, care providers and charities, this may involve reflection upon their own digital maturity and equipping people within their organisations to support the older adults they work with. The same is true for any external individuals with whom these organisations collaborate with in order to host digital cultural and arts experiences – i.e. artists, creatives, and technologists. In short, if the supporting organisations have limitations in their digital literacy, these barriers will most likely be inherited by the older adults they serve.

Compounding this are questions about who should deliver digital cultural and arts activities and how these activities should be delivered. Several of the talks broached concepts pertaining to co-design and engaging older people on their own terms. For instance, working with older artists and creatives to deliver training and other activities may inspire other older adults to participate by increasing relatedness. The value of intergenerational work was also raised, with opportunities to foster community through greater empathy and to bring families closer together.

In terms of the how, keeping accessibility at the forefront of activities is vital, particularly during COVID-19. Several of the speakers had emphasised that it is not enough to simply provide older people with the hardware and infrastructure to access digital services, and that focusing training on the access of digital communication skills was a fundamental gateway to other forms of digital arts and culture participation. Several of the speakers described their efforts to train older adults to use tools like Zoom in order to create safe and accessible creative spaces, and to provide opportunities for greater social connectivity. However, they were equally circumspect about the logistical difficulties of hosting arts and cultural activities on Zoom, as well as the challenge of creating the conditions for intimate and emotional engagement.

Q2: What would we want to tell funders, policy makers or others about what we have learned? 

From both the speaker talks and the audience discussions, the value of arts and cultural participation for health and wellbeing was clear. Undoubtedly, this has been accepted for some time, but we continue to observe lethargy in the amount of support received from funders and policy makers.

There were concerns about the nature of projects being funded as being too focused on outcomes and generating tangible end-points at the expense of projects that prioritise empowerment through process. There is a perception that large university led research projects, with an emphasis on generating data or new products or services, takes priority over more intimate arts led projects in the eyes of funders. The main criticism of university approaches, was the lack of sustainability and the lack of resources to continue the work after the projects have finished. One particular grievance was with the funding of projects was the desire to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in the development of new products, which may briefly dazzle funders but in reality are total white elephants that fall short of adoption. The attendees also highlighted that funders also often displayed a lack of flexibility with regards to project timelines and underestimated the necessity and slow moving nature of building trust and relationships between project teams and the communities that they are attempting to embed themselves within.

Greater resources are required to support facilitation of digital arts and culture. Both our speakers and attendees identified artists working in the creative ageing as a key group to support, and more must be done to help them develop cultural competence and to equip them to work with older people with an array of accessibility requirements. There also needs to be recognition that this is difficult work for artists that can be both practically and emotionally intensive, particularly during the hardships of the pandemic, and they themselves need support for their own wellbeing. Greater guidance should be available for those undertaking work with older people in order to better establish their responsibilities and boundaries – often, those delivering arts and cultural activities can find them going far beyond their original brief. We need policy makers to better define support networks in order to protect both older people and those delivering activities.

Funders and policy makers also need to acknowledge the digital divide and the marginalisation of certain communities. The attendees raised the point that individuals are more likely to be involved in arts and cultural activities if they already, to a certain extent, socially connected within their communities. But are these really the individuals who would benefit the most from support? We know that a significant proportion of older people, particularly those in rural communities, those in levels of socio-economic deprivation, and those from minoritised ethnic and disabled backgrounds, are less likely to have access to digital services. Hence, the attendees queried how we can further our inclusivity to target the voices that are still not being heard, nor even know that digital arts and culture work exists. Some attendees recommended lobbying policy makers, particularly at different levels of government, to hasten upgrades to infrastructure and to expand their funding of creative and inclusive spaces in the community – a recognisable location where arts and cultural activities can take place.

Breakout Session Two

Our second breakout session was a little more introspective than the first. We had selected a range of speakers that we felt could provide a diverse array of opinions about the value of digital arts and culture for older adults. We wished to identify the issues that had made the greatest impact upon our attendees, but we wanted to identify whether there were any blindspot issues that had not been discussed during the event.

Jamboard Example From Group 2

Q3: Are there issues which haven’t been mentioned which should also be explored?

Although our speakers were able to cover great breadth during the event, there were certainly issues, stories, and voices that needed to be recognised in our ongoing work. Our attendees built upon the concept of the need to provide multi-sensory / blended approaches within digital arts and culture activities. They questioned how we could use technology to provide the accessibility benefits of digital communication tools, while also facilitating some of the sensory experiences that can be achieved through in-person work.

Virtual reality was mooted as one opportunity for such endeavours, that may be able to provide a more immersive and engaging experience for participants. Meanwhile, others felt that diversity in the fidelity of technologies involved, a mixture of low and high-tech, was more appropriate – by allowing people with different attitudes and abilities to be involved. Nevertheless, others remained skeptical, asking whether technology could ever present a worthy alternative to in-person arts and cultural activities.

The concept of self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments) was another theme that the attendees wanted to further unpick. Although, there was agreement with regards to the potential of participatory processes to grant older adults opportunities to shape their involvement in digital arts and culture, some raised the point that without perceived competence in one’s own abilities, the people who might most benefit from support in these areas may be apprehensive about getting involving in these activities. Hence, some attendees mooted the stepwise approach of involving older adults in a range of interesting arts and cultural activities and placing an emphasis on building trusting relationships (with researchers and each other) and developing their confidence within these settings. Within these safe environments could be the best place to approach new topics – such as digital technologies.

Another salient point raised pertaining to self-efficacy considered older people beyond the end of the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project. Several of the attendees questioned how projects such as this one planned to ensure a project legacy that goes beyond project outputs and changes the course of people’s lives. Would the older people (and organisations) we work with during the course of the project retreat when the time comes for the researchers to step back from support activities? How could they continue to build upon any newly developed skills – digital technology is forever and rapidly evolving? In the case of Connecting Through Culture as We Age, how can we ensure that this project scales to impact more than just the lucky few co-researchers?

Following on from this, it was clear that maintaining and expanding upon any positive outcomes of the project would not be feasible without the enduring support of older people’s organisations and government. Presently most of the key work in digital arts and cultural participation is carried out by the charity sector, and we owe it to our partners to advocate for their further support. By leveraging our partnerships, we need to connect our work to the services of these organisations and attempt to influence policy making to support their work.

Q4: From the provocations, which do you think are the most important issues we need to explore further, and why? 

Some of the issues raised throughout this post remained worthy of further exploration, including empowering and supporting older adults, discovering new ways to blend digital and in-person participation, and the importance of establishing influential partnerships that can shape policy.

Yet, one of the most eagerly broached issues concerned the development of relationships between researchers and the communities, especially marginalised groups, that they wish to research. This feeds into one of the central tenets of the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project, co-production. The attendees were proponents of the idea that it is equally about the value that researchers can bring to these communities, as it is the value that the communities can bring to research. As noted by Fozia, during her account of experiences working with the Somali community in Bristol, universities do not have the best track record in this regard. Moreover, historically, universities have absconded from the communities after achieving their objectives. With regards to future collaborations, this is a difficult foundation upon which to build trusting, longevous relationships.

Hence, it is key for this project to embrace mutual exchange, but how can this be achieved? There were a range of suggestions, including: pacing research activities slowly, giving the parties time to get to know and understand each other and their cultures prior to any official data collection activities; ensuring that research activities are engaging for participants, as well as capturing data for researchers; recognising that engagement may be something that has to be encouraged at an individual level, with person-centred approaches being key to facilitating fulling participation; making endeavours to flatten any perceived power imbalances between the researchers and participants; encouraging co-ownership of the research and any project outputs, to be shared with participants; and making sure individuals receive fair and proper compensation for their time.

Another important issue that remained ripe for further discuss considered perspectives and language surrounding arts and cultural participation for older people. It was noted that implicitly ageist language was itself exclusionary and presumptuous of differences in the literacies of older people and other groups. Words like “age-friendly” and project / product missions aimed at countering “decline” or “deficits” is not only patronising, but implies that these groups are in someway less capable, as well as placing limitations on technology that is suitable for their use. Too often there are low expectations and a lack of ambition for older people’s use of technology, with many sidelined a simplistic digital consumers rather than those with the potential to create and produce. Instead, older people should be thought of as just that – people – of varying ages, classes, experiences, and backgrounds, and with the right to participate in digital arts and cultural experiences.

Next Steps: Applying these Conversations to Connecting Through Culture as We Age

In the third post of this series, senior research associate, Dr Tim Senior, describes his process of thematic analysis of the contributions from this event as well as other relevant interviews, workshops, and conversations that we’ve undertaken to date. Tim brings these themes together to present a ‘value canvas’ – a means of charting the mission, objectives, strategy, activities, and desired outputs for the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project.


Event highlights part one – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

Event highlights part one – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

By Tot Foster, Tim Senior and Stuart Gray, 20th September 2021 

On July 7th we ran our first project workshop where, using Zoom, we hosted twelve fantastic speakers from an eclectic range of backgrounds and organisations to offer insights from their work with older adults to deliver cultural activities during the pandemic.

During the event, we listened to our speakers describe their experiences in developing and applying creative and inclusive methods with older people; delivering cultural activities; and describing the landscape of digital inclusion and cultural participation.

In this post we revisit some of our speaker presentations. Stay tuned for the second part of this blog series where we outline some of the themes that emerged from those talks and our attendee discussions.

Speaker Presentation Session One

Speaker: Anne Gallacher, Luminate, Scotland

Title: Creative ageing and digital connection during the pandemic: what did we learn?

About: Anne Gallacher is Director of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation. Anne has worked in the UK arts sector for over 30 years including posts with West Midlands Arts, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Watford Palace Theatre, as well consultancy work and a number of non-exec roles.

Speaker: Kate Parkin, Equal Arts, Newcastle

Title: The importance of ‘holding’ open emotional spaces in digital work with older people

About: Kate is the Creative Age Programme Manager at Equal Arts, a creative ageing charity based in the North East of England. Kate is responsible for overseeing the organisation’s training and arts and health programmes including the production of creative projects in hospitals, community, care and cultural settings. She has significant experience in establishing inclusive, dementia-friendly practice with and for people living with dementia. Kate is currently a North East Champion for the national Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance. She also volunteers as a Director of Wunderbar, a Newcastle based community interest company specialising in playfully disruptive performance and multi-disciplinary projects.

Speaker: Andy Barry, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Title: We’ll Be in Touch – a creative phone service for older people led by older people

About: Andy Barry is a theatre maker and director who currently leads Manchester’s Royal Exchange Elders Company. In 2021, he was in The Stage 100, a list celebrating individuals who helped the theatre industry survive the Covid-19 crisis. During the pandemic Andy originated and led a number of digital projects with older people.

Speaker: Jeanne Ellin

Title: Older Alice down the digital rabbit hole 

About: Jeanne is a Connecting Through Culture As We Age co-researcher. Here is how she describes herself and her life: “I am an Anglo Indian woman, exploring the challenges of her 70’s. No saga type retirement, just an artist in a small bungalow. With more enthusiasm than energy more ideas than money. So much still to learn and enjoy. Wonderful that writing is not something you retire from. Child migrant, left India just after 8tth birthday., I worked as nurse, counsellor and community artist. Most recently writer in residence in a hospice. Not sure I could ever not write. Short fiction is my least well practice medium…most comfortable with poetry and also nibbling away at my fantasy novel.”

Speaker: Bridget Deevy, Bealtaine, Ireland

Title: How going digital impacted Age & Opportunity’s Artist in Residence in a Care Setting initiative during the longest lockdown in Europe.

About: Bridget Deevy has worked as Arts Programme Assistant Manager with Age & Opportunity since 2018 managing flagship initiatives such as the Artist in Residence in a Care Setting initiative and the Bealtaine Festival. Bridget has over 10 years arts management experience working in areas such as venue programming, festival management and education.

Speaker Presentation Session Two

Speaker: Maddy Mills, Entelechy Arts, London

Title: Cultural (dis)connection – what does the experience of culture via digital mean for our offline communities?

About: Maddy’s work is grounded in the belief that feeling connected to a community – in whatever form that takes – helps people lead healthier and happier lives. Previously working at organisations including Southbank Centre, Kew Gardens and Bloomsbury Festival. She also founded the Family Volunteering Club.

Speaker: Emma Dyer, Alive Activities, Bristol

Title: How do we effectively co-design/produce technological interventions that allow older people to stay connected with each other and their community?

About: Emma started her career as a user centred service designer working with across a number of Design Council initiatives. Since working for Alive she has become an expert in co-production with older people.

Speaker: Fozia Ismail, Arawelo Eats & Dhaqan Collective, Bristol

Title: extract, produce, repeat. Where is the change for minoritized older communities?

About: Fozia Ismail, scholar, cook and founder of Arawelo Eats, a platform for exploring politics, identity and colonialism through East African food. She is a resident of Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed and co-founder of dhaqan collective, a Somali feminist art collective based in Bristol.

Speaker: Kate Duncan, City Arts, Nottingham

Title: Approaches to Evaluating our work in Creative Ageing

About: Kate Duncan is Programme Director – Wellbeing at City Arts in Nottingham. Kate manages a portfolio of health programmes in Nottingham. City Arts has worked with older people for over 10 years in partnership with health and care professionals, cultural and heritage organisations.

Speaker: Kristina Leonnet, Centre for Ageing Better

Title: Digital Inclusion Support

About: Kristina Leonnet is Senior Innovation and Change Manager at the Centre for Ageing Better. She works to bring about change by working closely with partners and people with lived experience to develop forward-thinking ideas which provide practical, scalable solutions.

Speaker: Farrell Renowden, Age of Creativity

Title: Age Sector reflections- community based responses to creativity and digital since lockdown

About: Farrell Renowden is Head of Cultural Partnerships at Age UK Oxfordshire, leads the Age of Creativity and is Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champion for age England Association

Speaker: Lucia Arias, FACT, Liverpool

Title: Reflections and questions emerging from You’re on mute, FACT Liverpool

About: Lucía Arias, FACT’s Learning Manager, has led a number of learning projects that worked with hard to reach young audiences and teaching practices. At FACT, the learning programme focuses on art commissions and how the collaborative work of artists and participants can engage general audiences in contemporary conversations.

A Note of Thanks

We would like to pay our thanks to the fantastic group of 60 attendees who brought such enthusiasm and wonderful ideas to our first event. We would encourage anyone who attended to get in touch if they are interested in discussing more about the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project or their own relevant work. We’d also like to pay a special thanks to the fantastic speakers, Jeanne, Emma, Anne, Kate P, Andy, Farrell, Fozia, Kate D, Maddy, Lucia, Kristina, and Bridget – we really appreciate your insight and your time!