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31st March, 2020

Knowledge exchange in the age of coronavirus pandemic



Dr Mark Gray

As I write this the government’s Coronavirus ‘dashboard’ reports 3,300 cases of the disease in Britain and 144 deaths. We are at the relatively shallow start of the exponential curve that will, the Imperial model suggests, lead to more than half a million deaths in the UK without any controls or behaviour changes. There is, though, behaviour change already taking place, without (yet) government edict – and we are all the safer for it.

Organisations large and small including universities are closing their doors and sending their staff home. I write this blogpost at the kitchen table, not at a seat on a train on my daily commute or at my desk at work. Our new normality is that our home is our office, our colleagues are connected virtually to each other and our tools for connection are digital.

So how can knowledge transfer in the arts survive in this environment? The answer is perhaps more reassuring than one might initially suppose. It’ll survive – and I suspect thrive – by means of the greatest asset of the arts and humanities: creativity and imagination. Already we’ve seen individual arts practitioners and companies adapting to the new reality: streaming performances, live-casting their work, sharing writing. Universities seeking to translate research knowhow into wider social and economic benefit through knowledge exchange need to harness the same creative energy and vision to their work. Here’s how.

For one thing some of the existing structures and mechanisms we use to effect knowledge exchange are still standing and can still be used. Portals still list calls for tender to provide consultancy, research or contributions to arts activities. Networks of providers and commissioners still ‘meet’ online as they have for some time. And many of the funders of both engagement in the arts and knowledge transfer within it have long used electronic means to effect notice of potential vehicles for exchange. In response to these opportunities we need to think creatively about we deliver. Can a commissioned intervention be made, and evaluated, digitally? Can a report be replaced by a webinar with documentary backup? Might social media provide a vehicle for research? How can we use the principles and practices of ‘citizen science’ to not only engage more people but to do more research in the arts and humanities? 

We can, though, use other mechanisms too. How about open innovation platforms for the arts, in which organisations set out problems and priorities to which academic researchers and arts practitioners can suggest solutions, which are then commissioned? Or what about using new technologies to translate practice-based research in crafts and plastic arts to use – 3D printing or VR may help here. Might we create teams of researchers in virtual space as consortia to address particular problems – like helping DCMS find ways of enabling access to the arts during coronavirus lockdown, with collaborations across disciplines being part of the mix? Might ‘sandpit’ events shape solutions from virtual huddles hosted by funders, stakeholders or even universities? How might we use older technologies – phone, television, print – more creatively? Above all, how might we use the knowledge, knowhow and skills in the arts and humanities in this current crisis? Where is our contemporary Decameron?

With patience, and with lots of imagination, there is a real chance that, just as university teaching is changing slowly, fitfully but largely successfully (Zoom, Blackboard, Adobe Connect have all been tried in this house!), knowledge exchange in the arts can and will change too. Maybe even – dare one say it – for the better. We’re just at the start of this likely very long period of limited direct, large scale, social contact, and public measures to increase social distancing may even become tougher. Arts and humanities scholars, artists and companies need to think for the long term. We might well be here, as it were, in many months to come.

We need a community in which to share intelligence about what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps the TCCE community could be it? Meanwhile wherever you are, and at whichever new table you rest your laptop today, good wishes and may these challenging times spark your creativity in knowledge exchange as never before.

 


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