Creative industries are slowly making their way into mainstream European research

08 Feb 2022 | News

The sector could make a big contribution to the green and digital transitions, but it needs better access to EU R&D and to be routinely involved in multidisciplinary research projects

The creative and cultural sectors are slowly gaining a toehold in the research world, after five years of the European Parliament calling for them to be a focus of EU R&D programmes.

As a start, the European Commission launched the New European Bauhaus, aiming to mesh the Green Deal on climate change with work to future-proof Europe’s cultural heritage. Following on from this, there is a creative industry-related call in the Horizon Europe programme, and this autumn the European Institute of Innovation and Technology is due to launch a knowledge and innovation community focused on the sector.

Christian Ehler, Parliament’s Horizon Europe co-rapporteur, says these initiatives and more, are essential to advance Europe’s transition to carbon neutrality and help build its digital capabilities to compete with China and the US.  

The worry is that unless they are thoughtfully designed, innovations that are intended to contribute to net-zero goals will not be adopted. Hydrogen-powered cars won’t do much to reduce emissions if no one wants to drive them; greener methods of heating and cooling must be suitable for retrofitting to historic buildings. This is where creative industries can make an impact, with user-conscious design. But for that to happen, people from the sector must be able to bring their skills to bear.

That means cross-disciplinary calls that bring researchers, innovation and creatives together from the start. Frank Kresin, dean of the faculty of digital media and creative industry at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, is a big proponent. “You need the involvement of many different institutions to try to make the solution, by transgressing the boundaries of their own disciplines. If you want to build a bridge, it is easy. But not solving the climate crisis,” Kresin said.

Ehler agrees calls must be designed from the ground up to pull together people who do not usually collaborate and to provide the means to have an impact “None of these calls are achievable if we don’t scale up technology on a scale never seen before. So, we need dynamic circular innovation,” he told Science|Business. “Institutionally, just by the design of the calls, we need a new breed of ideas to get new proposals in.”

As things stand, Horizon Europe has a relatively modest budget of €2.3 billion for big collaborative research calls into culture, creativity and inclusive society.

Elephant in the room

Ehler founded the Parliament’s (now defunct) Cultural and Creative Industries’ group seven or eight years ago to promote the sector, which represents a significant chunk of the EU economy. A total 1.2 million enterprises employ 8.7 million people - 3.8% of the total EU workforce. “A white elephant in the room in terms of figures,” as Ehler called it.

Apart from the historical and cultural value, it is one area where Europe is still a leader. “There may be no other sector where Europe’s comparative advantage is bigger,” Ehler said.

The group provided impetus for the creative industries to be brought into Horizon Europe.

Alongside this, the New European Bauhaus has been officially running since last year, but so far it’s largely been all talk. Last week, the European Parliament made the first moves to give MEPs a bigger role in the project.

Ehler hopes the Parliament will convince the Commission to transition the New European Bauhaus into a separate spending programme. “Right now, what is lacking is a more practical translation to reality,” he said.

As a next step, the creative industries could be enabled to make a contribution to the large scale research missions in health and climate. Ehler said the Commission it yet to recognise the need for this. “[Missions are] a new instrument and we want to be ambitious, but we so far haven’t understood that this creative part could be a substantial part,” he said.

Creative approach

Researchers in the Netherlands have seen the benefits of involving creatives in their projects and are now leading the way forward with Key Enabling Methodologies, specifying approaches creatives can use to deal with problems. There are eight total: imagination; participation and co-creation; behaviour and empowerment; experimental design spaces; value creation and upscaling; institutional change; systemic change; and monitoring of effects.

Using the methods, Dutch researchers have come up with ways to boost the appeal of climate-friendly vegan meat replacements, used big data to create new forms of housing, and created models for accelerating the transition to energy-smart neighbourhoods.

Kresin said that while there is more and more recognition of the role of creatives in innovation projects, the EU should go a step further.

“The EU has a major impact on how research is performed,” he said. “If the EU understands the importance of design in its broader sense, it could easily demand the inclusion of design researchers in any project, especially the projects targeting the missions.”

The good news is Europe has a good supply of people with the skills to fill these creative roles, Kresin noted.

“We need to redesign how our society is functioning, and that needs creatives to sketch new futures, he said. “We need to give these people more space and not just look at them as freaky extras.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up