Creative Innovation in Live Experiences and Festivals – UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK

Dr Lora Markova, Loughborough University London

The Creative Research and Innovation Centre (CRAIC) is developing a new project which aims to convene a body of applied research on creative R&D and innovation in live experiences and festivals as they emerge from pandemic interruption. This research will build, in particular, on the two Creative Industries Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund programmes – Audience of the Future and Creative Industries Clusters, which are supporting innovative collaborations between digital businesses and the cultural and creative sectors while also actively involving creative practitioners in the very process of research.

This article outlines an initial paving study and plans for a more substantial research project over the coming months.

A paving study on UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK

In order to inform the design of a substantial research project on creative R&D and innovation in live experiences and festivals in the post-pandemic context, CRAIC initiated a paving study in Autumn 2021, focused on UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK (formerly known as Festival UK*2022). Launched on 1 March in Paisley, Scotland, UNBOXED is the UK-wide celebration of cross-sector creativity, offering an exciting programme of ten experiments in creative technology – the premiering multimedia show About Us, the community-led vertical farming initiative Dandelion, the consciousness-altering spectacle Dreamachine, the outdoor illumination artwork Green Space Dark Skies, the sculptural trail and AR app Our Place in Space, the traveling music shows Tour de Moon transmitting sound waves from space, StoryTrails – an AR and VR immersion into the untold histories of 15 sites across the UK, the regenerated offshore platform See Monster, PoliNations – featuring architectural forest-gardens and carnival performances, and the future worldbuilding transmedia experience Galwad.

The upcoming planned research project will seek to understand the processes and methods required to capture the changing social, cultural and economic value of the experience economy (Pine & Gilmore, 1998) as it emerges out of lockdown in 2022. It will approach UNBOXED and its ten commissions as major R&D interventions and disruptors into the live experience economy, comparing them with well-established, successful and innovative incumbent festival experiences (e.g. Boomtown, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Edinburgh Fringe Festival) as they strive to return and recover from pandemic interruption. This context provides a rare opportunity to examine and compare both incumbents with disruptors, and the different processes and methods they are adopting. As the DCMS/AHRC Boundless Creativity research project (chaired by the UK Government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery, Lord Mendoza) has stated “learning from Festival UK*2022 will enhance the effectiveness of R&D in fostering creativity and innovation between cross-sector organisations, demonstrated through their STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, maths) events.”

The initial paving study explores the creative development of UNBOXED festival and its individual commissions in terms of creative innovation and audience experiences. It aims to provide a comprehensive picture of their conception of audiences and user journeys, selection of audience facing technologies, new modes of production and related challenges. The research comprises of in-depth open-structured interviews with representatives of the UNBOXED teams, leading CreaTech companies and performing arts organizations. Through open dialogical approach the study also explores interviewees’ intrinsic understanding and definitions of R&D and innovation as embedded in their creative praxis and production process. The central research questions revolve around use of immersive storytelling and co-creative interaction in generating participatory experiences; use of emerging technologies in connecting diverse audiences and building inclusive communities; technologies of world-building and innovative production modes in creating (hybrid) festival experiences; potential commercial propositions, sustainable business models and socio-economic legacies related to the individual commissions. The analysis will explore the thematic and cross-disciplinary compositions of the UNBOXED commissions as symptomatic of the vital role creative R&D and innovation could play in driving solutions to societal challenges.

Why explore creative R&D and innovation in live experiences and festivals?

Live events and festivals have been perceived to have had a low technology/innovation intensity, but rapid Covid-driven experimentation has fostered new modes of technology deployment and audience engagement, as well as digitally enabled business models. Hence, it becomes relevant to track, monitor, and assess the transformation of a previously rapidly growing area of practice within the CIs that has been amongst the worst hit by Covid-19 disruption.

Pre-pandemic, the Creative Industries were amongst the largest and fastest growing sectors of the UK economy in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), growth and employment (CIs £111.7bn GVA 2019, growth 60.5% 2010-2018, 2.04m jobs). Festivals and live events make up a significant element of that – according to the Events Industry Forum, there were 141.5 million visits to outdoor events in 2018, with a total on-site and off-site spend of £39.5bn. Through incomes earned at events and elsewhere, this contributed £30.4bn in GVA to the UK economy and provided 589,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

Oxford Economics predicts a GVA shortfall across the CIs of £29bn with many creative sub-sectors losing half their revenue and over half their workforce due to Covid-19. Set against this alarming picture is a significant opportunity for live events to utilise the well documented surge in digital consumption during the pandemic (as indicated by the Digital Findings 2020 and the Summer 2021 Audience Insights of the Cultural Participation Monitor), by deploying emerging technologies, providing new services and developing hybrid digital/physical revenue models that will be more resilient to future trends.

While the official Government statistics do not yet capture CreaTech as a specific area of economic activity, according to the Immersive Economy report (Digital Catapult and Immerse UK 2019), the UK is the largest European market for immersive technologies including virtual and augmented reality. The increasing use of immersive technologies over the last few years has been accelerated through lockdown, and there has been a significant growth in the use of VR and AR in creative projects. CreaTech and technology-enhanced creative experiences and services will likely play an increasing role in driving technology innovation and growth in the CIs in the near future, while responding to challenges and opportunities created by the Covid-19 crisis. This is evidenced by the 50% increase of CreaTech projects in 2020 (representing 3.6% of the total in the Gateway to Research) compared with 2019 (Mateos-Garcia 2021).

From an Event Studies perspective, Duffy and Mair (2021) identify two main conceptualisations of the impact of technology on festival experiences – first, hardware and software developments designed to facilitate new and more efficient ways of experiencing festivals; and second, digital marketing and social media developments that provide platforms for user-generated content. As argued by Mair and Weber (2019), understanding the impact of new technologies on festival processes and attendees’ engagement has been under-researched.

Recent studies have recognized the need for UK festivals with established place-based identity and revenue models (such as Edinburgh Fringe Festival) to adapt to digital context and transition from ‘live’ to ‘live-to-digital’ performance and (pre)recorded content models (Arts Council England 2018, Elsden et al. 2021). Yet, this leaves a significant research gap in exploring the ‘born-digital’, hybrid and cross-disciplinary nature of STEAM-intensive experiences and R&D interventions, such as UNBOXED. In this sense, as proposed by Coca-Stefaniak and Bathgate (2014), live events and festivals can be understood as “innovation testbeds.”

Future research trajectories

As demonstrated by the Boundless Creativity report (2021), many organisations envision a hybrid future where live events include a digital offer, supplementing rather than replacing physical performances. Hence, our hypothesis is that due to increased innovation and disruption by Covid-19, the major live events in 2022 will have accelerated the creation of interventions, processes and content which combine ‘live’ and digital productions into hybrid experiences. Based on initial literature review, we recognize four research themes to form a potential research agenda for future investigation into understanding creative innovation in live experiences and (hybrid) festivals in the post-pandemic context:

Technology innovation

UNBOXED offers a unique opportunity to explore how emerging technologies are being developed and applied in new creative experiences. As a starting point, technology innovation and the deployment of AR, VR, location-tracking, 3D printing, live-streaming, haptics, projection mapping by the UNBOXED commissions can be effectively analysed through the UKRI Creative Technologies Framework (2021) that provides a detailed classification of emerging technologies and a ‘conceptual map’ for future investment in the CreaTech field. It also becomes relevant to investigate what kind of expertise is required to deliver innovative creative experiences. StoryFutures Academy’s Skills for Immersive Experience Creation report (2020) has indicated a critical skills gap – 65% of immersive businesses have identified lack of skills as a barrier to growth. Simultaneously, new interdisciplinary teams are forming that combine skills from traditional creative production to now including software development, gaming, digital architecture, data science, and virtual production – as extensively studied by StoryFuture Academy’s Virtual Production: A Global Innovation Opportunity for the UK report (2021). In this context, our research objective is to investigate new modes and models of cross-disciplinary R&D, experimentation and production, and related creative challenges and opportunities in order to understand and foster the effectiveness of cross-sector innovation.

Audience experience

The UNBOXED commissions engage audiences via innovative forms of immersive and transmedia storytelling, world-building, co-creation of user-generated content, live streaming, and community-based mass participation. It is thus relevant to investigate the extent to which new audiences are changing habits and behaviour vis-à-vis cultural engagement, testing motivation and experiential variables – for example the extent to which the experience is Interesting, Meaningful, Personalised, Affective, Collective and Transportive, as proposed by Jonathan Freeman’s user experience IMPACT model (2021). We intend to explore how these modalities alter the relationship and quality of individual and collective audience experiences of hybrid festival formats in comparison with more traditional live event experiences; and how hybrid experiences challenge audiences’ shared sense of geographic location (since proximity may be rendered possible by technological means).

The increasing rate of digital consumption in the pandemic context (Digital Findings of Covid-19 Cultural Participation Monitor) also triggers the need to better understand audience experience in terms of digital behaviour, access, and literacy (Allen et al. 2020), ‘sense of presence’ within virtual and hybrid environments (Coehlo et al. 2006; Lessiter et al. 2001), as well as modes of community engagement and placemaking (Brownett & Evans, 2020). A recent study (Miles 2018) has also highlighted that festivals’ social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) function both as marketing tools and ‘digital staging’ of user-generated content and co-creative interaction, thus they hybridize the digital/physical space between performers and audiences. Drawing upon Boundless Creativity’s insights and recommendations, we will interrogate how innovative digital content and platforms could reduce barriers to festival participation and reach international and global audiences.

Business models

Boundless Creativity has also investigated the potential of emerging digital/hybrid business models across theatre, music, cultural and heritage venues, and festivals, concluding that they could be a vital contributor to financial recovery. It is therefore crucial to track and understand how festivals and live events are adopting new processes and developing new experiences. For instance, Elsden et al. (2021) have argued that the pandemic has pushed festival and creative producers to experiment with a whole range of revenue models, e.g. repurposing existing ticketing platforms and incorporating new modes of ‘creative transactions.’

In order to capture the changing value of the experience economy as it emerges out of lockdown, we intend to draw on empirically-driven approaches to the design, evolution and transformation of digital business models in the creative industries (Mangematin 2014 et al; Li 2020; Zhao et al. 2020). We also aim to investigate creative immersive business models and their commercial viability as suggested by the Digital Catapult’s The UK Creative Immersive Landscape 2020 report. Departing from this context, our research objective will be to map the emerging value constellations that are being created across economic, social, and cultural flows.

Social inclusion

The UNBOXED network of R&D experiments, distributed across physical locations and media channels, also offers the opportunity to address research gaps in understanding social inclusion in the post-Covid-19 context. The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in cultural production and consumption (O’Brien 2021; Culture in Crisis report 2022) and has created a bigger digital divide as highlighted by the Online Nation report (Ofcom 2021). As the Audience Agency’s Inequalities Through Covid-19 report (2021) has signalled, the negative impacts of Covid-19 as “The Great Unequalizer” have tended to fall on under-represented groups in audiences for funded culture, such as those who are: younger; from Black, Asian, Mixed and Other ethnicities; from less affluent occupations and areas; disabled; and female. The impact of the pandemic is therefore likely to accentuate these types of inequalities in the post-Covid-19 environment.

Conversely, UNBOXED aims to reach people of all backgrounds across the UK through forms of participatory creativity and learning programmes. UK’s diversity is reflected in the makeup of the ten UNBOXED creative teams that include industry practitioners from across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and creatives from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and disability organisations. Among the central selection criteria for the commissions has been the requirement for all creative teams to offer opportunities to under-represented voices.

Hence, it is relevant to study the different ways in which festival activities impact on social inclusion and diversity and address longer-term social impacts, including skills and community development, as well as direct economic impacts – for example, the substantial differences in labour productivity in different regions (Tether 2019). Undertaking a research project of this kind might provide important insight into the role that festivals can play in mitigating or exacerbating existing and ongoing inequalities in cultural engagement and creative production.

Next steps

The initial paving study aims to uncover the creative development of UNBOXED and its individual commissions in terms of R&D processes, creative technology deployment and planned audience experiences. Insights generated from this initial research phase will be published at the end of June. Alongside, CRAIC will present a series of ‘dispatches’ on selected UNBOXED commissions that will reflect on the creative realisation of the festival and its programme of events.


March 2022