Sheffield / Bristol

A far too short visit to Sheffield DocFest to chair a panel on the US market with a stellar line up:

A really interesting take on the new opportunities of the factual landscape, especially in the US. The big investments from Netflix and Amazon in particular are generating a new wave of significant production, and triggering changing commissioning patterns from traditional broadcast channels like Discovery and Nat Geo (e.g. full buyout commission).

The strategic moves of companies like Snap, Facebook, Hulu appear to show the potential for another wave of “digital first” content commissioning. And with investment announcements in the last week of a $100M Snap / Warner Bros deal and $450M into Vice (plus new entrants like Awesomeness TV) this feels like a market with plenty of buyers. Interestingly the evolving position was blurring lines between the producers / distributors / commissioners on my panel – all taking much more agile positions (especially in distribution) as a result of new opportunities and new threats.

And as with all things a counter intuitive effect. Examples were cited across the panel (e.g. PBS’s Black Panthers doc) where a theatrical release massively amplified eventual TV and online audiences. The right content will find an audience (or multiple audiences) on the right platform (or platforms) – the hard bit is the same as it ever was, “the right content”…


As I walked back to Sheffield station I passed Sheaf Square, an empty piece of ground highlighted in the local newspaper as the site being put forward by the city as a potential new location for Channel 4.

I’ve been working with Bristol City Council and Invest Bristol + Bath (plus industry, Universities and others) to build the Bristol offer into this DCMS consultation.

Regardless of the shape or likelihood of outcome it raises some fundamental questions on the wisdom and efficacy of top down interventions in cluster development. If your industrial strategy is to use available levers to rebalance an economy, how do you judge additionality?

The cities who are publicly interested in Channel 4 represent a mix: a city with no real scale creative economy, can you catalyse something from scratch?; a city which has already seen significant investment, so does a small incremental addition make any real difference?; a city with a scale creative economy but structural weaknesses, does adding resilience to an ecosystem with potential feel transformative enough if you are also looking for a political impact?

We’ll see how this plays out. As is often the case, the process of galvanizing attention has secondary benefits in focusing minds on the immediately possible.

I’ve had a long held belief that the next wave of innovations will come from second cities, cities where the accessibility of diverse talents allows a crowding of different viewpoints around a problem, and where a collaborative approach is second nature as there is a shared desire to grow the local economy (one day I’ll devote some proper research time to it).

Interesting to see the John Harris article for Demos this week which sees the economic challenges of London as an amplifying factor in the same effect across the UK:


The picture above shows the unofficial twinning of my garden with the “Happy Terrace” garden on the roof of Kyoto Station (thanks to Jas for making me a replica sign from my original photo).

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Local / Global

Local – Smart Oxford Playable City Commission

Two weeks to go until the closing date for applications to the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission.

More details on the scope and Shared City theme here:

Global – Creative Producers International

The call for Creative Producers International has just closed. Over two years the scheme will generate an international cohort of 15 Playable City producers. 540 applications were received from across the globe:

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Los Angeles / Austin

Across a trip to the US further reminders that the scale and capitalisation of “digital content” channels there has very few comparators to the UK market, and that the traditional channel and studios are rapidly entering the space in order to remain relevant.

In a series of meetings I appeared to cover the full spectrum as digital businesses scale and traditional media players adapt:

  • A major studio now looking at a more open innovation approach to strategy for new platforms and audience engagement
  • A digital first platform business now with major channel investment and looking to reverse brand IP into a mixed TV/digital play
  • A content production business grown entirely on the internet, now leveraging a massive fan base to extend a dialogue with its audience across diverse programming, live, merchandising, TV etc

A long conversation with a viral production company on authenticity and the particular visual language of social / online highlighted a particular dichotomy. Whilst by definition online content is visible anywhere many of these businesses were very US-centric – able to build audiences in the 10 > 100 million+ range and drive significant commercial value whilst remaining culturally relevant within one (home) market.

Visiting Rooster Teeth in Austin was a particular highlight. With studios spread through a series of old hangars at a disused airport on the outskirts of Austin it produces multiple shows focused on technology and gaming (distributed via YouTube and its own platform), all united by a strong sense of brand personality developed since 2003.

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Smart Oxford Playable City Commission

The Smart Oxford Playable City Commission is a brand new commission, challenging creatives from around the world to produce an idea that puts people and play at the heart of the city of Oxford.

Smart Oxford will work with Playable City to select a project that will capture the imagination of those who live, study, visit and work in and around Oxford. Applicants can work in any field, but creative uses of smart city technology must be integral to the proposal.


Oxford is a small city with a global reputation; it is both a city with a long history and one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. The Smart Oxford Playable City Commission invites you to propose ideas, which respond to the theme Shared City.

A Playable City approach to Shared City will start new conversations, imagine new futures and make new connections – person-to-person, person to city.

The winning proposal will be publicly available in Oxford, UK for the public to play in late 2017.

The Commission includes:

  • Commission of £30,000 (to cover fees, development, delivery, testing and production costs of an idea)
  • Access to facilities and connection to a vibrant community of artists and creative technologists in Oxford and through the Playable City Network

Who should apply?

We are looking for artists, designers, architects, urbanists, interaction designers, technologists and creative practitioners who can demonstrate a history of delivering high quality, innovative practice. Individuals or teams can apply.

If you are interested in applying for Smart Oxford Playable City Commission, full details of what is on offer and how to apply here:

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Creative Producers International

Creative Producers International is a new worldwide talent development programme led by Watershed, which will provide fifteen Creative Producers from across the globe with the skills they need to become the city change-makers of the future.

Expanding and leveraging the Playable City concept, the scheme launched today is a landmark extension of the Playable City network and will drive a new wave of international activity.

The programme will run from the beginning of October 2017 to the end of December 2019 and the result will be a diverse group of people and cities who influence, challenge and support each other – sharing knowledge and innovation.

The successful Producers will receive a £2,000 bursary every year for three years plus travel, accommodation and per diems to attend events in Bristol and Tokyo, a £5,000 ideas development fund, training, mentoring, support throughout and lots more.

The Creative Producers International partners are Royal Shakespeare CompanyManchester International FestivalSomerset HouseUnlimitedLagos Urban Network (Nigeria), Rhizomatiks (Japan) and Labaratorio para la Ciudad (Mexico), each of whom will nominate a Creative Producer to join the programme,

The remaining eight participants will be selected through a worldwide open call for applicants, open now.

For all of the call information and application form see here:


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Back from a week in a forest with no wifi – a useful reset, and a moment for reflection.

Playable City continues to gather momentum with exciting announcements shortly on Oxford, Dublin and City of London.

Having deliberately not travelled for a couple of months, next stop for DIT will be Los Angeles / Austin / New Orleans in May.

Closer to home, I’ve just written Bristol’s strategy in response to the DCMS consultation on the future location of Channel 4.

Combined with another piece of strategy development for a new client about to start, feels like some interesting new input.

Add in a landmark too – after almost exactly five years, my collection of photos taken from hotel windows when away on business has passed 100…….

Time to refresh.

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Hyderabad / Mumbai / Delhi

delhiThe inaugural India Gaming Show in Delhi (noisily) showcased a Games sector showing potential for fast acceleration from a low base point – driven by mobile.

Console and PC hardware is still very expensive for many users but the acceleration of smartphone use, especially driven by new data competition (c.f. Jio / Vodafone / Idea) is creating a marketplace of c.300M+ handsets – with lots of room for expansion (only 30% Indian mobile users currently have a smart phone).

Currently gaming is dominated by students, with limited purchasing power, and as many players do not have a credit card payment systems also provide a challenge, e.g. Steam codes in India are requested online but then sent round in person to collect cash.

BUT despite some hurdles in distribution, connectivity and payment infrastructure there is a strong belief that the market will grow rapidly. Game downloads are already significant numbers and there is demonstrable engagement for both global titles and more localised content.

There is also a real corporate interest in e-Sports as an emerging commercial opportunity – does it reach an audience which is highly aspirational in desire to participate but finding barriers to entry in cost / availability of kit?

Visible political support at the show and newly published mapping and statistics on the sector found parallels in the position of the UK a few years back – as culturally and commercially the impact of the Games industry, and significant future potential, began to drive a strategic policy interest and response.

The positive view in Delhi had a physical representation in Hyderabad, where the economic confidence and growth of the city was embodied in major development of office space and infrastructure (as the saying goes count the cranes…)

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Chicago / New York (and so it came to pass…)

uprightA very strange few days in (admittedly liberal) America where an atmosphere of quiet despair and the shadow of political uncertainty infected everything and everyone.

Any vain hope that the presidency would make the man more presidential evaporated as each day generated a new WTF moment, whether blatant lies, “alternative facts”, bizarre ratings obsessions or media witchhunts. All of which diverted attention from an inauguration speech which was singularly isolationist and retrograde, and a series of kneejerk executive orders

The Uber driver I had who’d voted Trump regarded the more outlandish statements as noise to be ignored, he’d bet on an ability to create jobs and opportunity (“the American Dream”) – an interesting insight. Others however were more circumspect, aware that what plays well in America looks very different through external eyes.

We can only hope that wiser heads prevail – both in the US and across the globe.

The picture above is of a work by Annette Lemieux (Left Right Left Right 1995) at the Whitney, taken in April. The one below was this week, reinstalled upturned to signal her response to the election.

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londonSo I’ve been invited to a reception in Washington the weekend of the presidential inauguration…part of me finds the idea interesting and compelling, part of me wants to run a mile. Much like the prospect of 2017 really.

For DIT I’ll travel in the next few weeks to Chicago, New York, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi. Clearly the shift of Brexit another notch from theoretical to actual in March will make for an interesting year.

Playable City will launch Oxford shortly and commence the initiative linking Bristol, Lagos, Mexico City and Tokyo. Hirsch & Mann will deliver the latest commission in early Spring and conversations from Austin to Dublin to Kazakhstan will hopefully crystallize into future activity. The concept seems to have gained significant reach during 2016 and the plan is now to attach significant supporting brand and tech partners across the global network.

And with luck, other new and unexpected things will appear.

On a train last autumn I discussed with a fellow passenger how in the future school kids would study 2016 as a pivotal year, now we begin to find out what comes next…..

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San Francisco / Los Angeles

yoda(To answer the question from the Helsinki blog, no-one talked about it, at all, like the whole of California has just decided to mentally block what comes next…)

A really stimulating visit to San Francisco (including VRX 2016) and then down to Los Angeles. Over the course of the week there were a clear series of messages which emerged as a kind of “state of the nation” thinking on VR:

Weak prospects short term
A universal mantra was that the VR market was some way off any real scale or viability – somewhere between 3 to 5 years. This was due to a series of overlapping issues:

  • adoption data underwhelming – hardware is on the market but adoption has not accelerated (Cost / Content / User experience)
  • no prior use case – building an entirely new market and ecosystem with associated issues from physical equipment to ethical framework
  • lack of compelling content – no content has driven everyday use or consistently overcome the barrier to use (kit / isolation / sickness), partially due to the fact that limited market = limited investment in content

The strategy for market entrants should be one of “survival” until…

Belief in the long term opportunity
Despite short term anxiety there was a consistent belief that the longer term would be exponential growth of a transformative technology – whether AR or VR, entertainment or industrial use.

All of the major technology players are already in the market and invested in future prospects for growth. Interestingly the same enormous DigiCapital market estimate is quoted often, plus the contention that AR will be bigger than VR, and that enterprise use will outstrip entertainment.

Time to experiment
Given no prior use case there is a gap in understanding the visual language of VR, the ethical implications, what is different about content in this form and what makes it compelling, e.g. are cinematic rules redundant but immersive theatre practice helpful?

There was consistent agreement on “if it’s not 10x better in VR then don’t use VR”, and also that a sense of presence was important, rather than just viewing (“who am I in this scene?”). On narrative there was less agreement from it’s “like jazz” – e.g. there is an underlying form but room to experiment – to fixed linear as your point of control of the story.

Whilst very few games or content pieces have made any money there was a consistent belief that small scale funded experimentation right now was vital to the growth of the industry in the future – and a willingness of some key players to put resource into seeding new ideas.

One of my highlights was at Oculus, using the Touch to “pick up” and manipulate objects whilst talking to someone I could see in the same virtual “room”. That connection and dialogue was interesting in immediately immersing you in the experience in a way that I haven’t found with other content.

And “time to 50 tattoos” is my favourite new measure of audience engagement…

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