Creative Fuse North East is pleased to announce that we have absolutely no idea what we’ll be working on in the next phase of our project. We aren’t worried, this is all part of the plan…

Creative Fuse is an action-research project coordinated by all five universities in the North East of England (Newcastle, Northumbria, Durham, Teesside and Sunderland). The project focuses on innovation and economic growth within the region’s Creative, Digital and IT (CDIT) sector. At the heart of Creative Fuse is the notion of the “fused” and “superfused” business that was developed through the project’s predecessors, Brighton Fuse and London Fusion. The hypothesis is that through fusion – the combination of creative art and design skills with technology expertise – a business can enjoy increased growth and become more resilient.

Launched in Autumn 2016, research began quite conventionally at Creative Fuse with a mapping exercise of the region’s CDIT businesses and freelancers, following the Brighton Fuse blueprint. This research phase consisted of the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind in the North East, supplemented by detailed interviews with those in the industry. However, after the release of our Initial Report in June this year, we have reached a point in the project where the future is foggy. Temporarily.

Looking back at our project proposal to the Arts & Humanities Research Council, there isn’t much detail to go on. We promised to design pilot interventions which will bring together SMEs, creative organisations and academics to explore disruptive innovation and the definition of problems as well as solutions. But notable in its absence is the plan for how to do this.

The reason this proposal made it through (mostly) unscathed by reviewer comments is that our lack of specificity is a crucial component in the realisation of Creative Fuse. Instead of working with a cast of pre-determined industry partners on a set of sector issues that were prevalent at the time of the submission deadline, the project team are now free to respond appropriately to the needs of the region’s CDIT sector right now, forging new cross-sector partnerships and co-creating solutions, perhaps with the same people who engaged with our research during the mapping exercise. By building in this element of flexibility, with an accompanying flexible budget line, Creative Fuse can offer businesses what has often been lacking in university/business collaborative research: an agile approach that can link up academics and industry and offer a more immediate return on engagement for both parties.

To construct this next phase of the project, we will be channelling this opportunity into the familiar shape of an open funding call. Over September and October this year we will be inviting businesses and freelancers within the North East CDIT sector to join forces with larger organisations, and with our Creative Fuse research team, to propose Innovation Projects. There are two funding models offered: small-scale R&D funding up to £5,000 through Innovation Pilot Grants, and a small number of Innovation Development Projects up to £25,000 These projects will tackle specific problems identified by the sector – be that a barrier to growth already highlighted within the Creative Fuse Initial Report, or an issue that a more recently engaged business wishes to bring to light. The exciting thing is that we don’t quite know what will emerge, and that the scope of the partnerships and the innovation is all to play for.

From this Innovation Pilot Call, we hope to generate a series of case studies demonstrating fusion at work, enabling Creative Fuse North East to observe, distil and disseminate good practice; all while fusing academic, creative and business expertise to develop solutions to specific challenges identified by the CDIT sector. Instead of engaging non-HEI partners and then waiting for the funding opportunities to arise before being able to mobilise, Creative Fuse North East has engineered its own opportunity for university-business collaboration – available directly at the point of engagement with minimal hanging around.

Of course, this would not be possible without the flexibility explicitly written into our project proposal and the willingness of Arts & Humanities Research Council to take risks. While not having a plan can be a significant risk, this is not to be confused with not having a process for generating the next phase. And, while the number of businesses we can directly partner with during this phase will be limited by our budget, it’s a start. Creative Fuse North East would certainly advocate more researchers to pursue the unplanned with non-HEI partners; but for the understandably cautious, you can follow our progress and make up your mind.

Creative Fuse North East is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, European Regional Development Fund, Arts Council England and the five universities, with support from the National Centre for Universities and Business and the North East Cultural Partnership. The project will run until October 2018.

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by Frances Hardcastle

Network and Communications Coordinator
Creative Fuse North East