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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. 

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