Who wouldn’t want to turn something they felt passionate about into an idea that had scale, embraced other people’s ideas, and what’s more a larger number of people could enjoy?
This was the essence of what Jude Kelly CBE, one of the most powerful creative figures in the UK, was telling her audience when she was artistic director of the Southbank Centre — the UK’s largest cultural spot.
Today, Jude is behind the highly successful Women of the World (WOW), a network she founded that honours the accomplishments of women and girls.
I consider myself very fortunate to be one of Jude’s dozen artist-in-residence, hired as a cinema journalist, to document Southbank’s behind-the-scenes, like this about poet Adrian Mitchell’s tribute and Lemn Sissay.
The brief for us artists was to ‘infect’ the Southbank with our craft skill, enthusiasm and ideas.
Ideas are the currency for human growth. Humanity literally flourishes or dies without them and one of the many institutions that brokers ideas as a commodity for personal and collective enhancement is education, such as universities. How ideas morph into prototypes is one of the things I teach in TheLAB from working with Jude and figures like Jon Staton, former head of TV at Saachi and Saachi.
There’s a spectrum of ways in which ideas become reality in universities and are measured for their excellence. When I started teaching twenty years ago (whilst still a broadcaster) I’d previously, and continued to be involved in several startups that in Jude’s words had scale, and were public-facing for others to enjoy.
But these ideas such as:
- #Studentyou, a film, which looked at the physical and psychological issues facing students undertaking MA documentary/ disertation work
- Building the first video magazine platform before YouTube (referred to as the Outernet) which featured on Apple’s website and judges said “foreshadows the future”,
- Or creating a visual essay for Obama’s 100 Days with composer Prof. Shirley Thompson MBE at the Festival Hall.
These would have little impact in university.
The reason? A general measurement for impact tends to derive from research papers that find themselves into the key journals. This is one of the main metrics which contributes to an institution’s standing in university league tables, known as the REF (Research Excellence Framework).
But what if an idea doesn’t make that all important journal? Thousands of writers find themselves in this unfortunate position, given the limited number of metric-sought exemplar journals. It can be equally challenging if you’re Black or brown as an academic from this survey of editorial boards. University of Illinois Professor Nikki Usher found that out of the top five journalism journals in the US there was only one black American out of 301 personnel.
In 2012 a small group of journal editors and scientists met in San Francisco to propose the elimination of the metric, primarily Journal Impact Factors. The quality of an idea needed to be judged in other ways, at least on its own merits, they pronounced. It’s an approach that’s come to be known as DORA and many institutions have signed up.
Nine years later there may be an added urgency for DORA. In The Coming Disruption, bestselling author and business professor Scott Galloway paints a picture of how post pandemic universities will come under considerable stress from Tech who are eyeing up the education market. His prognosis, a few number of universities who get innovation and collaborations will survive the equivalent of a third wave Dotcom.
Galloway has form in making statements that materialise, such as calling out WeWork’s $47billion valuation that went south and Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods.
What then could be the shape of the post pandemic digital university of the third wave with DORA in the rear view mirror? That’s the nub of a presentation I’m delivering to scholars this week.
Universities becoming more like publishing houses, providing interdisciplinary practices that cater for future jobs hitherto unrecognised, or sourcing out staff to working in communities to deliver digitally literate and critical thinking skills? This here is an excellent scheme I filmed in Jodhpur, India.
Under normal service, universities have little, to no, truck with blogging or independent writing which isn’t approved by REF. It’s not peer reviewed and anyone can set up their own platform. At Cardiff I helped create our 2020 vision blog predicting media outcomes for the ensuing year. But what if you’re a recognised and respected writer for The Conversation, a forum which caters for academics who write journalistically, or in my case writing on @Medium which refers to me as a top writer in journalism?
Who decides the merit? And do they require a history of innovation to judge new ideas?
To a more pointed example. Last March, Birmingham University launched its flagship Sir Lenny Henry centre for Media Diversity — an independent think tank and strategic outfit that would conduct quantitative and qualitative research around diversity and inclusion.
From the previous year a group of us academics and practitioners had been meeting periodically with Marcus Ryder MBE, a former BBC executive and widely recognised diversity champion, to fashion ideas around diversity.
In between running marathons on various continents, Marcus flew into the UK from China where he was based. On the 5th floor of Waterstones in Central London over scones and coffee we spoke about his idea about how we all might play a role as critical friends between academia and broadcasters in advancing equality in the media.
One of my ideas was capturing the oral history of practitioners in this field. There are a string of powerful narratives and stories around the work of figures like Sir Lenny Henry and equally respected Simon Albury, Chair of Campaign for Broadcasting Equality and many others. These are a series of films-in-waiting which require pulling together spanning contemporary stories and historical ones.
I’m a big fan of Norma Percy from Brook Lapping, a multi award winning production company behind documentaries such as The 50 Years War, which forensically examined the Israeli-Arab conflict by speaking to the actual people involved, and more recently Inside Obama’s White House,
If broadcasters wouldn’t commission our stories, we should create them anyhow for an independent film festivals, was my take. The idea required resources and time. A few months later however, when the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity announced its public launch an alternative idea to filming seemed more plausible.
Cardiff University, where I’d moved to a year earlier had an international reputation for its journals and its flagship Future of Journalism conference (which this year I’m chair of the organising committee). What if the two universities came together to launch a journal which captured joint vested interests, which for me and others also included innovation and storytelling?
Culture, equality and inclusiveness were a given. We all had experiential knowledge and a deep understanding in industry. Professor Aaqil Ahmed, on the editorial board, had been a former Head of religion BBC and Channel 4.
Me, I lived and worked as a freelance correspondent in apartheid South Africa, previously covered Free Mandela’s concert at Wembley which featured Sir Lenny and in the early 90s co-presented BBC London’s Black London.
In 1999 working with colleagues like the indefatigable Henry Bonsu, we launched All Change increasing Diversity in the Newsroom after the Macpherson report into institutional racism.
More recently in 2017 as co-creative director, friends and I launched the Leaders’ List, a national exhibition cum book about Black and Brown leaders in the television.
The journal needed funding and support. I’d exhausted obvious funding outlets with no joy, then I decided on a different approach.
What if I took the idea to our Vice Chancellor? I’d done something similar at my previous university when I couldn’t locate support and funding. I’d barely been a year at the University and had never met him. My first attempt got nowhere. My second gave me a narrow, elevator type pitch window to sell the idea. In fact two ideas; a relaunch of The Leaders’ List for 2021, now 2022 and Representology.
Fortunately, the VC liked both ideas and over a six month period working with Marcus, Marverine Duffy, Birmingham’s Professor Diane Kemp who’s director of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity covering MOUs and contracts, editorial board meetings, new contributors in editor Biz and Barry the designer coming on board, we would launch Representology.
It’s been a hugely rewarding experience and achievement and like any startup has overcome a series of challenges that will only strengthen the long term ambition of the title.
Its unique positioning with regards to DORA is its mixture of evidence-based journalism and academic writing fusing, at times, the two different styles. Its focus is the broad and diverse range of issues and talent, from generally those with protected characteristics or writing about stories which enrich communities and democracies. In the first issue I even got to scratch an itch writing about a penchant for archive and empirical history recounting a night interviewing and clubbing with Nigerian Super star Fela Kuti. You can listen to the interview here.
“If we were to start an institution like Harvard today, we’d put as much emphasis on digital content and practices as physical ones”, says a senior executive as Harvard University.
DORA, and learning expertise accrued from lockdown may shape universities in ways that we’re yet to reckon with. Great ideas, innovation and greater representation is at the fulcrum of this future. So where next? Representology continues to thrive, and thrive. There’s also the small matter of a reforming and launching the Leaders’ List 2022 and how all the archive in my garage is about to be digitised for public release.