Matt Hancock's speech at What Next?

Minister of State for Digital and Culture speaks at What Next?

The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP

It is fantastic to be in Manchester, and in particular here at HOME - the city’s cultural centre - led by the brilliant Dave Moutrey.

I’d also like to thank Sir Howard Bernstein for his leadership of Manchester Council over many years. His tenure has seen incredible things happen on the culture front - most notably the success of Manchester International Festival under its founding Director, Alex Poots, which will no doubt continue next summer under John McGrath’s direction.

And, of course, the success of the Whitworth Gallery’s redevelopment, led so brilliantly by Maria Balshaw, which I’ll be visiting later on.

But first, I want to talk digital.

Of all the huge challenges and opportunities we face, few are as great as the technological revolution we are living through.

How do we ensure excellence in our culture and the creative industries thrive in Britain, and British creativity thrives around the world?

How do we ensure we spread access to culture to all parts of our own country here at home?

How do we ensure the next generation are able to learn about and carry forward our cultural heritage?

How can we ensure sustainable funding long into the future?

These are all vital questions. And today I hope you will permit me to address them through the prism of the digital revolution; for digital disruption affects them all.

Most of us here, I would imagine, remember our first mobile phone, the first time we accessed the Internet, our first email or first text.

How rare and exciting they seemed.

The thrill of being an early adopter. Now 80% of adults use the Internet daily, 71% have a smart phone, and 70% are on social media.

Across all generations, in all parts of the country, for the majority of people digital has been fully embedded in all our lives.

And yet - we’re not even close to unlocking its potential.

I’m struck, in my first few months in this job, at just how many conversations have come back to the impact of digital transformation. I’ve said the hipster is the capitalist. The techie is increasingly the artist.

Maybe it’s because I’m the Minister for both Digital and Culture. But I think that is itself simply a reflection of reality.

So today I want to kick off a conversation: How do we do digital?

This spring our Culture White Paper proposed making the UK one of the world’s leading countries for digitised public collections and enhancing the online experience.

Last month at the BFI - who themselves are doing fantastic work in digitising the national collections of film and TV - I spoke of the synthesis between digital and creativity and the need to capitalise on it.

I believe that it’s at this nexus, where world-beating content meets cutting edge technology, that our future economy will thrive and with it the well-being of our nation.

Today I want to ask very specifically how digital and culture can best partner up to drive access, excellence and synthesis?

Because everyone in the cultural and creative industries will be affected. Everyone.

In some ways, this is nothing new.

From the introduction of artificial lighting in theatres – as far as I can find out, first tested in London’s Lyceum in 1816, for trivia fans – to David Hockney painting on his iPad (and that’s using his iPad, not defacing the screen).

The first major tech disruptions were probably in music in the 1980s, then shortly after in film and broadcasting, and newspapers.

Now it’s everywhere.

On Wednesday I was part of the Royal Opera House’s Chorus, onstage in virtual reality, able to look around at the performers around me, the conductor, and out to the audience and up into the Gods.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s recent digital installation Universe of Sound, allowed audience’s into the inner working of their symphony orchestra.

Here in Manchester, FutureEverything - the digital innovation lab for digital culture and annual festival, has been at the heart of the digital revolution for over 20 years, commissioning works of digital art well before it was cool.

Digital is disrupting across the spectrum: digital content, stage technologies, distribution, admin, box office, marketing, fundraising and advocacy.

Digital is, in essence, about disruption. Tom Loosemore, one of the driving forces behind digital in government managed to define digital thus:

“Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

Less than 140 characters of course.

The potential is extraordinary.

Digital is about removing the friction in long-established fields to bring what citizens and users want .

And with digitalisation comes a breaking down of silos between sectors, the blurring of the lines between disciplines – theatre is becoming film; computer programming merges with sculpture. We have virtual reality curatorship, art that is also animation, video gaming assisted by classical music composition. Science meets art.

People still love a book, a film, a painting, a play; more people can find these classics. But they now sit alongside a new form of cultural consumption inspired by technology.

Let’s look at excellence first.

I firmly believe that digital transformation has the opportunity to see artistic excellence reach new highs, and that we can be leaders in getting this right.

Last December the National Theatre and the RSC were among 60 international arts organisations partnering with Google’s Cultural Institute for a first-of-its-kind digital showcase that allowed audiences to experience more than 150 interactive stories.

Art UK, the online home for art from every public collection in the UK, has also been proving its worth as an educational resource. The site features over 200,000 oil paintings by 38,000 artists and most of this art is not on public view. But recently it has shown even greater benefits when its searchable database played a role in identifying Raphael’s lost masterpiece The Haddo Madonna. It may be controversial to some, but the millions of brains of humanity are better than the very best behind closed doors. Bigger collaboration brings better results.

The British Library and findmypast are creating the British Newspaper Archive, digitising 40 million newspaper pages over the next ten years - returning the big news stories of the past to anyone with an internet connection in the present.

It’s not only a question of putting existing physical content online, important as that is.

More and more content is now born digital.

Last year, here, at the Manchester International Festival, British artist Ed Atkins used mo-cap technology to create a digital record of more than 100 Festival performers and merge them into a computer-generated avatar that was both a distinct individual and an echo of all those contributing performers.

This entirely digital creation then read from Ed’s poetic script - a perfect marriage of man and machine.

Communities and audiences are no longer passive receivers of culture but are directly influencing the creative process.

Digital has the potential to democratise culture and brings creators and users closer together.

As well as driving excellence, digital can blast open access: one of my passions.

That doesn’t mean just setting up a website and a Facebook page.

That’s just scraping the surface. It’s about much more & it’s about each institution doing what works for them.

A few years ago we stripped off almost all the rules and regulations around how they were run.

We trusted the people who’d been put in charge.

They now operate as independent businesses, free from central control and able to deliver some real innovations in online marketing and audience engagement.

I’d say to sponsored institutions, use these freedoms.

And I’d encourage local authorities who still keep things centralised to follow that lead.

As the new Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan said: “There is nothing so stable as change”.

And whilst we are talking Bob Dylan, it’s worth noting that Manchester was the scene for arguably his most famous gig, when he went ‘electric’. It was described as one of the most important moments in 20th century music.

In response to dissent from the audience who felt he was betraying his folk roots - someone famously shouted out “judas” - Dylan counted in his band and told them to “Play it loud…”

Back to digital.

National Theatre Live is opening up performances previously restricted to London’s South Bank, in cinemas all over the world.

The Royal Opera House now broadcasts live into the Arts Centre in Haverhill in my constituency in Suffolk.

Others are following their lead.

Just last month, Shakespeare’s Globe broadcast online and for free the sold out final show of its fantastic production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, making it available to a new audience in the UK. It’s still on iPlayer now if you want to watch.

In fact, the UK is now a global leader in event cinema, with 35 active distributors of content and the only trade body for the industry, the Event Cinema Association.

In 2014 event cinema was worth over £35 million in the UK and Ireland and accounted for over 3% of total box office sales, and growing.

The recently published Digital Culture survey, conducted by Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and NESTA, is the first authoritative primary research into the impacts of live to digital work on audiences and organisations and its findings are encouraging.

Audiences don’t see streamed content as an alternative to the live experience but as something distinct and complementary. And streamers tend to be younger and more diverse.

I’m delighted that the Arts Council have just announced £4.6m further funding for projects to open diversity, and this funding will have a digital angle.

It’s not just theatre.

And of course blasting out our cultural brilliance online opens up a global audience, enhancing understanding and people’s view of Britain around the world, enhancing our soft power, transcending borders, bringing people together and potentially generating income too.

Alongside the Arts Council, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre, are now working with organisations like Canvas and The Space to offer training for organisations to develop and distribute digital content.

One year on from the launch of The National Theatre’s Learning Programme’s On Demand in Schools scheme, 2,200 schools are now signed up to the free service, with two-thirds of schools located outside of London and the South East. Schools can now watch recordings of six National Theatre productions in their classroom: Frankenstein, Hamlet, Othello, She Stoops to Conquer, The Comedy Of Errors and the NT’s first title aimed at primary schools, Treasure Island.

World Ballet Day 2016 more than doubled its audience with a Facebook live feed from five of the World’s top ballet companies, including The Royal Ballet, from 350,000 in 2015 to over 700,000. At 20 hours, it was the longest stream ever to be shown on Facebook Live and #WorldBalletDay trended worldwide on Twitter.

Many of our cultural institutions cluster around our great cities - London, Liverpool, here in Manchester - and aren’t in easy access of everybody. Digital can now make everywhere local. Earlier this year you may have seen the stunning tribute to our fallen at the Somme, We’re Here Because We’re Here - all those ghostly soldiers - but how many of you encountered it in person?

Certainly fewer than the estimated 30 million who experienced it via social media.

Who actually saw London’s Burning, when a model of 1666 London was set alight in the Thames? Who like me watched it on Twitter?

Even the smallest organisations, and the most remote, can market their work to an international audience.

And remember this is two-way traffic. Interactivity, and crowd-sourcing models are proving hugely beneficial across all the cultural sectors. Take Historic England’s Pride of Place website, which uncovers and celebrates places of LGBTQ heritage across the country and throughout its history - from the frontiers of Roman Britain to the gay pubs and clubs of today.

A key feature of this work is an interactive crowd-sourced map, where people can identify places that might otherwise be missed by conventional research.

The Imperial War Museum has used similar crowd-sourcing to identify the sites of Blitz photographs it holds.

And, for the first time, this year’s Turner Prize collection at Tate Britain is positively encouraging photography - hundreds of selfies featuring buttocks, trains and pennies are appearing online every day, taking the featured works to a wider audience, all with the hashtag #TurnerPrize. Engagement, inspiration, interaction, promotion, all in one visit.

Published 17 October 2016