Interview: Professor Andrew Chitty

 

‘The UK is world-class when it comes to the creative industries,’ says Andrew Chitty, the AHRC’s first Creative Economy Champion, ‘and it is recognised as such internationally. We have a real competitive advantage – we are the only country, apart from the US, to export TV programmes, for example. The sector is worth £84.1 billion to the UK economy. It is not a sideline.’

Professor Rodney Harrison

His story so far

Andrew trained in neuroscience where he got interested in the human visual system. This led him to film school, and then into the world of broadcasting, specifically Granada’s educational department and then BBC Science. He spent a few years trying to work out how the ‘new digital thing was going to work’ alongside Television – producing CD ROMs and building the BBC’s first website. He left to set up Illumina Digital, which became one of the UK’s leading digital content producers. He has worked with heritage institutions, government departments, educational providers and broadcasters developing their presence in the digital world. He has worked in government, on the Digital Britain Report, as a non-Executive at the communications and media regulator OFCOM, and prior to taking up his new role has been working with healthcare providers to encourage the NHS to develop new digital services.

To emphasis his point, Andrew gives the Harry Potter franchise as an example: ‘On one level, it’s a book – we are great at telling stories – but it is also a film, funded by America but with British talent. Then there’s the impact it has on supporting the development of a world-class computer graphics industry in the UK. Altogether, over the years, it has generated £60 billion. That’s very serious money – comparable to any blockbuster drug.’ It is time, he feels, that stories like this are recognised and the creative economy is given the support it deserves.

Which is what his new role is all about. Andrew aims to raise the awareness of the value of the creative economy, build acknowledgement of just how big it is and to clarify what it encompasses. ‘The Creative Industries essentially create products, services, or experiences that are the product of creative practice,’ he explains, ‘whether that’s new content in terms of film, television, advertising, publishing, heritage, gaming or digital. Then there’s the much wider Creative Economy where creative practices influence other sectors - for example, manufacturing, in terms of design; healthcare in terms of new digital services, or education in terms of massive online courses.’

He is keen that the Creative Economy is seen on a par with other industry sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, green tech or engineering. ‘The idea of the Creative Industries is about 20 years old now. But some people still think of it as ‘culture’ and somehow not as proper as making things like jet engines or cars.’

Andrew’s extensive experience in television production, the digital media sector, running businesses, working with creatives, clinicians and designers in the health care sector, and as a governmental advisor, puts him in an ideal position to steer research in the field.

‘I’m not a traditional academic,’ he says, ‘but I’ve always been an avid consumer of research.’ Coming from a business rather than an academic background, gives him a solid grounding in the field – ‘running creative businesses is what I’ve done for 25 years’ – although for the duration of the role he will also be embedded in academia as Professor of Creative and Digital Economy, Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘It’s important to work with a bunch of scholars – I have to live and breathe research, and it will keep me rooted in the sector. I don’t want to be some bloke from industry telling the research community what to do.’

He has already begun discussions with the Media Arts Department at Royal Holloway about how to evolve and meet the challenge of digital and how to give students the skills and understanding of the world they are about to enter, rather than one that has just happened. ‘If you are creating content you have to understand the data and environment through which you are distributing that content. It’s difficult to describe what you need in terms of skills from industries that are changing very quickly.’

The AHRC has been involved with and funded a lot of research activity and knowledge exchange around the creative economy for quite a long period, particularly through its four AHRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Hubs. How does Andrew intend to build upon that? ‘I’m pleased that it has evolved to become a more and more important part of the AHRC’s remit,’ he says. ‘It reflects a growing understanding of the importance of the Creative Economy to the UK. I’m working to identify what the follow-on is from previous research, where the communities of researchers are and what research isn’t being done that we need. I’m interested in the many successful interactions between researchers and smaller, new and innovative creative companies – but I think it’s important we get the UK’s global players involved, too.’ One of the areas he will focus on is how to engage and stimulate relationships between small businesses and larger organisations. ‘Bigger businesses are commercially aggressive and time-hungry. We have to persuade them that working with smaller operations is worth their while.’

Asked what he hopes to achieve over the next three years, he says that one thing would be to ensure that there is a clear, coherent strategy for developing a research and innovation agenda for the Creative Economy across the all the Research Councils and Innovate UK, which will be coming together under the UKRI banner during this time. He is also looking forward to getting out and about. ‘I want to find the good stuff that people are doing, and help to make it happen. I shall be asking what creative businesses large and small need to grow: what kind of research would help them? Do they need more collaboration, do they need industry partners? Hopefully the really enjoyable bit will be making connections to see some of those ideas or experiments get going and then helping bring people behind them to scale them up.’

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