There have been quite a few blogs summarising the Culture Change conference at the National Theatre last week, two of the best are Claire Antrobus and Mark Robinson. The event explored what cultural organisations would need to do to remain healthy, wise and relevant in these exigent times. In what seemed a slightly asymetrical address Culture minister Ed Vaizey suggested that the resilience of many organisations would be depend on how fit they were to exploit new technology.
We are moving to an age where we will always be connected to the internet, and where the smart phone will become someone’s digital identity. Tourists will find benefits in an app that exposes local artists, great places of culture and entertainment, all linked to maps and guides for people on the move. Imagine travelling to the Dedham Vale in Suffolk – Constable country – and locating the mill, seeing his paintings hanging in Ipswich, find out where else Constable collections are held, make your own notes around your favourites, book lunch and play a round of golf before spending the evening in the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. All planned and curated on an app or two.
I hope the tourists who’ll flock to use the Constable Country App will be able to get a decent signal in the Dedham Vale, something I’ve never managed.
… Or take, for example, the brilliant Streetmuseum app from the Museum of London. Hold up your iPhone in hundreds of different places in London, and historical photos and information are overlaid onto a live image taken from the iPhone’s camera. It’s fascinating stuff, but certainly not limited just to that museum.
I love the Streetmuseum App and we investigated developing our own version with the Suffolk County Records office. Lanemuseum would have taken hundreds of historic images of life in the countryside from the Records office and MEAL and linked them to villages and hamlets in the county. Yet mobile coverage is at best sporadic in some of the most beguiling areas of East Anglia and if 3G is required then forget it.
The arguments have been well-rehearsed by rural advocates about the lack of connectivity in the countryside, but I don’t think it can be reiterated enough. Better broadband is probably more important than better roads to stimulate new business in the countryside.
If everyone is to participate in what Shelagh Wright called the ‘white heat of culture’, the infrastructural weaknesses cannot be ignored. Aside from improved mobile reception and 3G coverage and more extensive rural broadband, we must not lose sight of the need for better connectivity in the flesh world. If you are on a low income, can’t get access to broadband at home and can’t afford the £35 a month to curate your own digital identity on an iphone, the local library is more or less the only place where you can go online. Aside from access to internet, community libraries are one of the few public spaces where people can meet without having to spend £2 for a milky coffee and you might even want to borrow a book too!. Yet in rural counties such as Cornwall, Somerset, and North Yorkshire community library services are facing closure. In Suffolk 29 libraries and the mobile library service to isolated villages are under threat unless the community is prepared to take them over.
To compound this, a number of Local Authorities plan to remove the subsidy on rural bus routes. These connections are a lifeline for people wishing to visit what’s left of the local library service in the towns or even look for work in a job centre plus.
People who live in rural areas hate asking for hand outs. Rural Development champions like Carnegie Trust have long argued against ‘deficit’ funding and for community led solutions to problems. Self-reliance and co-operation is a defining characteristic of many of these communities. In places like Cumbria through the Rural Broadband Partnerships local people and development trusts are collaborating to bring broadband to their villages or ‘not spots’. However this kind of activism is not uniform and often depends on one or two key individuals. Moreover the suddenness of the removal of services without an underpinning infrastructure to build new activity is unprecedented. The following actions would ‘invest to save’
- Invest in improved rural broadband and mobile phone coverage and 3G connectivity.
- If council libraries are to be divested, local authorities should not just walk away. They need to make available finance or limited grant-aid to communities so that they have a fighting chance to create innovative cultural facilities. Just ‘cutting red tape’ is not enough
- Make subsidy to some form of public transport (doesn’t have to be buses) non-discretionary and co-design services with users so that it fits within the rhythm of daily life.
During the cuts programme Central and local government have both re-iterated that the vulnerable will be safeguarded. Protection is one thing, but not allowing people to participate in the things that make life worth living is another.