Friday, January 23, 2009
Public innovation and digital media: what should public subsidy pay for?
This is a very big question, addressed by many of the great and the good, but I have an answer which comes at the end. The question underpinned a session on Public Innovation at the Oxford Media Convention 2009, held at Said Business School yesterday. Four speakers, two from the big bucks public broadcasters, one from a government taskforce, and one from a consultancy background and network of media activists, shared their visions for what was involved in public innovation in broadcast and digital media. This being the UK, with its long history of taxpayer-funded broadcasting and internet content, it was not a surprise that social and political agendas were taken for granted (although what currently mattered and to who, was not). Most likely other bloggers and twitters will give a better summary than me of the event, but I wish to draw out two tensions. And then answer the big question. At no direct cost to the public purse.
Richard Halton, (not sure of his current job title but something like) director of new media at the BBC, pointed to how the BBC, across much of what TV and radio people call its "output", now has such a raft of online services that there is "no difference between digital and non-digital". Current activities include Canvas, an effort to create common standards for convergence between online media and TV. And of course the BBC i-Player is a brilliant way for people around the world (those online, anyway) to access recent BBC radio and TV programmes. But in his talk, Halton several times referred to "content".
What is this "content"? And does his use of this term suggest the web-friendly BBC still has not understood the changes happening in peoples' homes, schools, offices, devices, heads, and lives? I love the BBC. I used to work as a business journalist on the BBC World Service in the early 1990s, and in 1997, when other institutions were still unsure what to do with the web, the BBC commissioned my company Soda to make online learning environments for children. But if the BBC still has the mindset that its job is to squirt content through media platforms at people (who may get to send in some of their "content" too) then it may not survive the next decades.
In contrast Jon Gisby, director of new media and technology at Channel 4, did not talk content. Instead he talked about the take-up of broadband in the UK in 2008 and "what people do with broadband" (notice the verb, do). While I am old enough to remember enjoying the launch of Channel 4 Television, I was convinced by his presentation of a vision of public innovation across media platforms that is not about pushing content. His discussion touched on the digital divide, media literacy, education, health and accountability - all terms connected with what institutions think taxpayers want from digital media. His vision questioned on a deep level where organizations that have a history of public service broadcasting should go next. Government spend online is also relevant, he argued, saying "every government department is realising it's a media business". Examples of things that Channel 4 is involved in include 4IP, a £50m fund run by Tom Loosemore to drive public digital media.
So here are two positions: there is stuff called content and there are platforms and technologies, or, there are sets of relations and things that people do which involve practices and infrastructure. Whichever view ends up dominating the public discussions about innovation in public media, there remains the question of what all that money should be spent on. Here is my answer. I think it could work for either position.
Public subsidy should not be spent just on more content, or more technology, but on processes that involve multi-disciplinary teams who take seriously insights learned from ethnography/participant observation, visual methods, and prototyping and involve many others in co-designing the future of public media. These teams should contain social scientists (who know something about people and their practices), designers (who know something about working through uncertainty and ambiguity using visual methods and prototypes), engineers (who can build things) and MBA-types (who are good at turning ideas into marketable models with numbers attached), and then the people who we might have called audiences but now are stakeholders. The brief to these teams is to imagine, invent, discover, create - or in a word - design the future for public media services driven by people's practices. Contemporary design practice and theory acknowledges the necessary incompleteness in design processes. Investing in that a design process attentive to the practices of people would be a start.