New think-piece on REACT, research and the experience economy

REACT Director Jon Dovey argues that REACT is not a research project and asks whether REACT collaborations are instead revealing the role that Arts an

In this think-piece, REACT Director Jon Dovey asks whether REACT collaborations are starting to demonstrate the key role that Arts and Humanities research might play in the emerging world of experience design.

REACT is not a research project

REACT is a knowledge exchange system; from the start we've pitched our project as an engine for creating new partnerships between academics and companies that will create new ideas, products, prototypes or services. So although the partners, regardless of their background, all bring research to the projects that they work on, new research isn't necessarily on the agenda. Instead, the currency is knowledge, approaches, dispositions, skills and passions.

Why the need to restate this? It seems to us that the natural conservatism of the academy could blunt the edge of the knowledge exchange mission.

Already, the language of the four KE Hubs is threatening to default to a set of research protocols, the kinds of processes that academics are all already pretty good at. That's to say prioritising research into ways of doing knowledge exchange, rather than getting on with creating Impact through Arts & Humanties research. This default is foundational to the institutional structure of the Hubs where RCUK cash is explicitly granted for academic research, not Impact producing activities. In effect the Hubs are required to produce Impact with money intended to produce research.

That's not to say research isn't core to what we do. We're busy researching our meta-processes; we've published a first review of our research landscape; we're currently analysing data about creativity and collaboration amongst our participants, and we're working with other Hubs and their KE Fellows to produce research papers, case studies and best practice guides.

Documenting our learning and capturing emergent themes is a core part of our practice. But, if we had wanted to set up a research investigation into the best way of undertaking knowledge exchange for Arts & Humanities we wouldn't have designed REACT. We would have appointed a bunch of PhDs and Post Doctoral researchers to look at existing methods and come up with some brilliant new ways of evaluating them or understanding how they unfold.

Instead, we're driven by building new kinds of relationships and seeing what happens in them. We're co-producing knowledge across the collaboration with Watershed, and with our business and academic partners. Research informs our work, and emerges from what we do, but it is not our core aim. Similarly, we don't support research collaborations: we're interested in co-producing something new. The distinction is subtle, but important.

So what is happening in our projects if it isn't new research?

Co-producing knowledge in REACT projects

We've found that new knowledge is being created in the collaborations we support but not necessarily in the form we might usually recognise within academic practice. Take Jekyll 2.0 for instance; Cardiff's Anthony Mandal discusses research into the 'shake and shiver' embodied affect of the original gothic literature with Bristol creatives Slingshot, who were interested in the idea of biofeedback as game control. Together they critically explored and unpacked the text to create a live game. A new kind of hybrid is born, an immersive adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde that uses biofeedback as the control actuator for content delivery. Something new and original has been co-created, an idea has taken root: but it isn't what the academy might expect.

Ghosts in the Garden was a project where new research was carried out, but where its application was not in a scholarly article but as content for an immersive gaming experience. The project was a collaboration between Splash and Ripple and UWE historian Steve Poole. Poole explored Bath's historical archives to find real characters that walked through the city in the eighteenth century. These populated a choose-your-own-path, site specific, outdoor audio adventure. What shone through in the collaboration was not the knowledge of these characters, but the debates about historical veracity, and doing 'bottom up' history that knows how to use the archive to tell us stories about pimps and pickpockets rather than Kings and Queens.

Arts and Humanities and the Experience Economy

These two projects illustrate an insight that has taken on a new significance for me. One of the things that Arts & Humanities research has tried to do is understand and articulate the quality of human experience. Not as neuroscience, psychology or anthropology might, but as lived cultural phenomena. How was it? What did it do to readers? How did it feel to be there? How was this play, or painting, or event, experienced?

As it happens, experience design has become the name of the media game. Our readers, viewers and users are on the move. Our messages and communications need to find an increasingly mobile audience; one of the answers to this challenge has been the rise of the experience economy, the creation of newly immersive forms of culture that offer audiences many ways into a body of material. Communicators need to become experience designers.

The two examples of REACT projects above tell something about our work. The deep knowledge of Humanities scholars in each case provided an insight that informed the basis for the design of a new form of experience.

Where experience design is the new frontier, could it be that Arts and Humanities research turns out to have the most useful maps?