What needs to be done to more effectively deploy the creative industries’ expertise to help solve urgent societal problems? Five matchmakers conducted an inquiry to determine what the sector needs in order for this to happen. Below, they give their recommendations for enabling creative professionals to take on the role expected of them – not that of “problem holders” but of drivers of incremental and radical innovation.

The creative industries as a catalyst for tackling societal challenges
The creative industries are considered an important sector whose specific expertise puts it in a position to help solve major societal challenges confronting today's globalised society. The Go Creatieve Industrie (GoCI) programme aims to strengthen the sector’s innovative power and, through practice-oriented research, to increase its impact in the four areas of focus identified in the Netherlands’ mission-driven innovation policy. Those areas are energy transition and sustainability; agriculture, water and food; health and care; and security. To this end, SIA and CLICKNL have created the new KIEM GoCI grant scheme1.

Another initiative of the GoCI programme has been the appointment of regional matchmakers to help creative professionals formulate research questions and put them in touch with research programmes. In 2021, five matchmakers were respectively appointed for the Arnhem-Nijmegen, Den Bosch-Breda, The Hague, northern Netherlands, and Twente regions2. As a first step in the matchmaking process, they researched the needs of the creative sector in these areas, as follows.

Kiem GoCI top themes

Matchmakers’ inquiry
The matchmakers interviewed representatives of eight regional creative network organisations, such as design associations and cultural institutions, and 35 creative entrepreneurs working in various roles and functions in fields including art, design (product and interaction), communication, fashion, architecture and digital technology (mixed, augmented and virtual reality). The matchmakers asked the interviewees about the subject from different angles:

  • How can creative entrepreneurship and design processes be strengthened, and who is best qualified to provide support, substantive as well as financial?
  • What role can designers play with regard to societal problems, how are the mission areas relevant to their practice, and which specific types of expertise do they deem desirable or necessary for getting involved? What role do or might the universities of applied sciences play here?
  • More practical questions, such as: How can parties important to the creative industries, such as CLICKNL and SIA, best make designers aware of programmes, activities and financing instruments designed to facilitate the development and sharing of knowledge related to design and innovation processes?

The matchmakers then held a series of working sessions in which they collected additional information and discussed the results of the interviews. An exception was the Avans session, in which an attempt was made to connect relevant parties in the fields of biodesign and immersive storytelling in concrete ways. Seven additional creative professionals, a cultural institution and an independent film association also took part in the sessions. So what were the matchmakers’ most important findings?

Most popular themes of Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) in Kiem GoCI projects

Creative professionals’ role in solving societal problems 
Most interviewees expressed a desire to help solve challenges facing society. However, there were major differences in levels of engagement, depending on ambitions and actual possibilities. Design and creative agencies and independent designers (solopreneurs) working for technically oriented companies and designers employed at such companies are limited by the paths those businesses choose to pursue. The mission areas play a minimal role here at best. These designers see their job mainly as consisting of asking critical questions and making the company aware of the role it can play with respect to solving societal challenges. Other independent designers and design firms, able to partially formulate their own projects, are able to exercise more control and/or to be more selective regarding who they choose to work with. Architects, in particular, place pressing societal issues on the agenda much more often than creatives in other fields. 

Many designers are unfamiliar with the Dutch government’s mission areas. Those who are tend to find them too rigidly defined. This is partly because they are firmly rooted in a national economic agenda that heavily prioritises technological innovation and economic growth but pays less attention to social, cultural and ethical values. 

When it comes to societal challenges, alongside introducing an approach or methodology, interviewees say their expertise lies in creatively and concretely representing problems, addressing them, and facilitating discussion of them; proposing entirely new and innovative strategies and concepts; and pointing towards possible concrete solutions. They actively connect various fields, stakeholders and organisations and work with them in co-creation processes to frame and reframe societal challenges in terms of opportunities and concrete design tasks. Thus, their expertise dovetails with the KEM (Key Enabling Methodologies) categories formulated by CLICKNL3.

Most important research themes in Kiem GoCI projects

Creative entrepreneurs’ need for knowledge
Many creative businesses are sole proprietorships or small design agencies. To increase their creative, financial and organisational power – through additional expertise, new business models and an understanding of more complex projects – the interviewed entrepreneurs view cooperation or expansion as necessary. Yet they lack knowledge and experience in these areas. Many designers fear expanding, or lack the financial means to do so. At the same time, solopreneurs worry that cooperating with bigger partners will mean losing their independence or accustomed way of working. They need more knowledge of the legal and organisational aspects of strategic collaboration, and access to additional expertise. 

Interviewees also expressed a desire to exchange knowledge and experience with others in the creative industries – peers in their own fields as well as knowledgeable people outside them – about the consequences of the latest trends and newest technologies. To facilitate such discussion, the role of formal and informal cross-disciplinary regional networks should be strengthened.

Creative entrepreneurs lack the time and means to upskill in urgent, topical areas such as sustainable and circular design, certification (e.g., in sustainability and health care) and the latest digital production topics (such as parametric design, AI and the IoT). Research institutions could better respond to this problem with knowledge transfer aimed at the creative industries.

Not only creative companies new to the Kiem GoCI scheme

Ownership of societal issues 
Many design and design research methods have their origins in traditional commissioning situations with clear problem holders (clients). Increasingly often, however, challenges in the mission areas have no clear owners. The industries feel the absence of the government playing its old role of commissioning body or guiding force. And societal organisations that could play a key role in the necessary transitions are scarcely part of the picture for creative partners, with the exception of architects. Designers are therefore blocked from getting involved in solving societal problems.

The need for knowledge to solve societal problems: methodology
Complex societal issues call for a hybrid approach blending research and design. Knowledge, experience and practical tools are needed to build an integrated methodology fit for tackling complex issues that lack a single obvious problem holder and involve many parties with divergent, sometimes conflicting values and interests (wicked problems). The methodology must also promote equal cooperation within the creative industries themselves, as well as between designers and stakeholders from the so-called quadruple helix: science, government, business and society.

For longer innovation processes, larger agencies often use the Delft Innovation Model (DIM) or their own variants for problem analysis, concept development, design and testing. For exploratory projects, they often use design thinking methods with a shorter cycle. These are unsuitable for developing good solutions into actions that can be implemented in society, however. Designers involved in transdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder design and research processes could benefit from using a combination of the two types of methods. Designers working from a more artistic and/or autonomous perspective often develop methods of their own, working in a hands-on way and on the basis of practical experience, and these can complement the technical universities’ more formal methods in interesting ways. Despite their needs, most creative businesses don’t have the scope or attention to evaluate the methods they use, improve them, or preserve knowledge gained.

The role of research programmes
The interviews indicate that people in the creative industries are unfamiliar with research funding and the various regional, national and international research programmes. Designers may know NWO, SIA and CLICKNL by name, but they typically have no idea what these bodies do or whether they are relevant for their own professional practices. These organisations’ funding schemes are hardly reaching designers. There are various reasons for this:

  • Research programmes and their associated funding schemes are not directly accessible to designers but only indirectly, via universities.
  • Creative professionals are rarely viewed as researchers by funding bodies such as NWO and SIA. At best, they are defined in funding applications as SMEs with innovation-related questions for practice-oriented research.

  • The policy and research jargon that organisations like NWO/SIA and CLICKNL, as well as the Creative Industries Fund NL, use in their programme descriptions and calls for proposals is not a type of language that speaks to creative professionals.

  • The interviewees criticised the extensive, complicated and lengthy application procedures, which are accompanied by elaborate conditions requiring large amounts of information to be known in advance. This procedure contrasts strongly with the way most creatives work. The average timescale for awarding a grant and executing a research project is ill-suited to a small creative business’s dynamic operations. It is also difficult for such a business to remain involved for such a long time alongside its daily practice.

Those interviewees who had participated in research projects did not report uniformly positive experiences. Their role within the consortiums was often unclear. They were not included in the group of SMEs with practical research questions, but they were not seen as researchers either. They were typically called upon to visualise and prototype research results. Designers seldom see participating in a research project as an investment in new knowledge but rather as an interesting means of expanding their professional networks. Creative professionals often observe a lack of clarity in the division of roles between grant providers, research institutions, other consortium partners, and themselves. The majority of the budget typically goes to the institution on the assumption that it is the party doing the research. But if research and innovation are seen as an iterative, interactive process involving all the consortium partners, such a distribution is unjustifiable, in the designers’ view.

Universities of applied sciences’ role as research institutes
The fact that most funding for practice-oriented research goes to universities of applied sciences is also difficult for designers to understand, since they view education, not research, as these institutions’ primary purpose. They value students’ open-minded outlook and efforts by the universities that contribute to interdisciplinary cooperation aimed at solving complex problems. However, the role of research and researchers at these universities is still not widely acknowledged or recognised. Designers also view research institutions as slow, bureaucratic, untransparent organisations in which it is difficult to find the right people to set up a collaboration. 

Universities of applied sciences should use practice-oriented and applied research to bridge theoretically founded methodologies with practical application. Most interviewees had not observed them playing this role, however. In their view, knowledge gained from research should be shared much more often within advisory bodies and creative industries associations rather than in scholarly journals, for example. The universities of applied sciences could more explicitly play the role of connecting research with practice and bringing together the partners needed to solve complex innovation challenges.

On the basis of their research, the matchmakers drew conclusions at three levels, to which their recommendations are linked: 

Creative entrepreneurship

  • Additional training. Creative professionals need facilities and financing for additional training in entrepreneurial knowhow (business organisation, business models, legal aspects) and relevant current developments, particularly in the areas of sustainability and advanced digital technology. Such financing should come primarily from enterprise schemes, for example as an expansion of the Stimuleringsregeling Leren en Ontwikkelen in het MKB (SME Learning and Development Incentive Scheme), or SLIM scheme. Such schemes are not widely known among creative professionals. 
  • Regional networks and creative associations. Strengthening regional networks and stimulating transdisciplinary collaboration via a creative industries platform will help to meet creatives’ need to exchange and reflect on their experiences with regard to trends, societal issues and new technology. Such networks could play an active role in setting up programmes, research institutes and collaborative projects to tackle challenging design problems.

Applying design to help solve societal challenges
The designer’s changing role calls for collaboration with civil society organisations, citizens, businesses and universities. Such complex cooperation calls for:

  • methods that support this type of transdisciplinary, complex, long-term cooperation;
  • access for creative professionals to the big challenges facing society;
  • topics that suit regional strengths, available expertise and relevant partners and networks;
  • a guiding force to ensure equal partnership on complex design and innovation projects.

The parties best suited to play the role of guiding force seem to be the universities of applied sciences, as bridge-builders between theory and practice and linchpins facilitating connections and collaborations within the quadruple helix.

Research funds should acknowledge creative professionals’ role as drivers of incremental and radical innovation, rather than treating them as “problem holders”, and accordingly make research funding accessible to them.

Participating small and medium enterprises in Kiem GoCI

Research programmes for the creative industries
For NWO/SIA research programmes such as GoCI to effectively dovetail with designers’ everyday practice, they must provide the following:

  • Recognition of creative professionals’ role as innovators/researchers inside and outside research institutions. This means designer-researchers should be able to receive payment for such work, whether or not they are employed by such an institution.
  • Accessibly formulated and written research programmes and calls for proposals, with communication that is accessible for people in the creative industries and sufficient scope (and trust) to allow for open, experimental processes whose course and results do not have to be established in advance.
  • Access to individual or collective holders of societal problems, for example via new “elephant paths” that enable the creative sector and civil society institutions to meet more easily.
  • A balanced mix of schemes, from simple, brief exploratory studies to multiyear transdisciplinary research, in which creative professionals can participate as artistic and designing researchers.

On the basis of the conditions outlined above, the matchmakers make the following six recommendations:

  • Research programmes should simplify application procedures by dividing them into different stages of grant awarding and project execution. For example, they could make small amounts available for an initial exploratory study and award larger amounts for more detailed plans at subsequent stages.
  • Research programmes should create an equal playing field for research partners. They can achieve this by not clinging too tightly to roles such as “researcher” and “problem holder” and allowing SMEs to determine which questions are asked. The mission areas relate to societal challenges, for which all the partners are “problem holders” but also “knowledge providers” who can play a relevant role in devising broadly supported, socially accepted solutions. An equal playing field should be facilitated through funding. Thus, schemes should be opened up not only to research institutions but also to creative businesses and civil society organisations, on the condition that the parties work together, possibly at the regional level.
  • Research programmes should take successes from the creative industries as examples. Certain past programmes are regarded as successes by people in the creative industries. They include the former Dutch government architect’s series of competitions aimed at tackling pressing social issues. A number of preconditions are seen as factors in that programme’s success. One is collaboration between a wide range of partners whose involvement in the desired innovations and transitions was regarded as necessary from various economic and societal standpoints. Another factor cited was the relative openness of the competition, which allowed methods of change and cooperation to be developed in an experimental way, tested in practice, and evaluated with an eye to validating, disseminating and preserving the knowledge gained. Another example of an effective project is Overijssel province’s successful Met Creativiteit Meer Industrie (Creativity Means Business), which paired artists and designers with SMEs. A variant on this idea could involve pairing artists and designers with holders of societal problems.
  • Research programmes should increase the accessibility of their schemes. They can do this by focusing not exclusively on the mission areas but also on other urgent societal issues and on areas in which artists, designers and academics conduct future-oriented fundamental research with practical partners. They should preferably partner with an organisation such as the Creative Industries Fund NL in order to increase accessibility. They should ensure hat language use, means of communication, and formulation of calls are better attuned to the experiences of people in the creative industries and that there is sufficient scope for fundamental creative research.
  • Research programmes should focus on the creative industries’ methods. Research schemes should explicitly emphasise the creative industries’ design and research methods as their most important area of expertise for tackling societal challenges. The KEM categories should be used as a set of basic principles, a source of inspiration and a development tool, not as a compulsory framework that applications must fit into.
  • Research programmes should strengthen the role of matchmakers and lecturers. They should further develop and facilitate the role matchmakers and lecturers play in relation to the creative industries, as regional coordinators who set up exploratory projects, bring together relevant partners, widen access to financial resources and make research results visible and accessible. All this will serve to strengthen the universities of applied sciences’ role as research institutes.