Pioneering Places Project Director, Jason Jones-Hall, was delighted to be invited to talk about Pioneering Places digital work and Online Placemaking project at the Heritage Digital Now conference, chaired by Anra Kennedy of Culture24 and with fellow-panelists Laura Crossley of National Football Museum and Ben Cowell of Historic Houses. In a lively and informative session on Digital Leadership, it wasn’t possible to even begin to cover all the ground or questions from the 300+ audience, so here’s a summary of some our responses on the day and some answers to questions that we at Pioneering Places didn’t get round to covering live….
There can be an assumption (or fear!) that in order to be an effective advocate for digital activity and development you have to be a technical whizz, which I don’t believe is the case. What skills or characteristics do you think are important for effective digital leadership?
Digital leadership is about cultural change, not technological change. As a digital leader, you need to fully embrace the fact that not everyone is a technical whizz – including, perhaps, most people in your organisation and – more importantly – your intended audience. You may not even be a technical whizz yourself … and that’s OK too. Your job as a digital leader is to recognise that this is the nature of your audience and your challenge. Most of the hurdles you encounter will be in how you bring this audience along on the journey with you and help them feel more comfortable using digital tools, products, content and processes.
So the characteristics you need are patience, understanding and a willingness to listen, mentor and provide support – often without getting too distracted by that whizz-bang technology. If you get that right, the shift to a more embedded digital culture in your organisation should feel very painless, organic – even welcome. It should never be forced down from above or led by the technology or technology providers.
What is your approach to amplifying the digital skills of others and building confidence?
You have to understand what level of digital skills you’re working with before you can amplify them. For our Great Place Scheme project, Pioneering Places, we’re just launching a new Online Placemaking project – which, broadly, looks at using standard digital tools like Google Maps and Wikipedia to explore how heritage and culture based placemaking can exist online. Building digital skills across a wide volunteer base is a large part of this.
Our starting point was to first understand what that skills base is, so we sent a simple survey to the volunteers – and being absolutely non-judgmental about their existing skills level was a large part of that. Assume nothing – do you have access to the internet? Can you use a mobile phone? Have you ever used Wikipedia?
For the most part the answers to all those questions was “yes”, which tells us that we don’t need to start at the very beginning – although we can offer tailored support where required – and it also gives some reassurance and a good starting point to those volunteers … “yes, I can do that”. “Yes, I’m familiar with those things”. So “yes, I can get involved with this project”. That’s a great way for people to feel confident right from the outset … not just in their own skills and abilities, but also confident in the fact that you are going to value their contribution and help them on the way, no matter what their starting skills base may be.
Where do you see opportunities for digitally literate leadership in encouraging new and more diverse voices in the sector – both in our workforce and audiences?
This almost goes back to that thing about not having to be a technical whizz – which , in turn, gives a lot of freedom about the diversity of voices in your team.
A large part of the reason why we’re focusing on those digital tools and services people use every day for our Online Placemaking project – Google Maps, Wikipedia, TripAdviser and the like – is they are almost audience agnostic – and that’s where the biggest opportunity for diversity and plurality of voices and experiences lies. These tools have become so embedded in our everyday lives that we barely even think of them as “digital” anymore. People aren’t in any way nervous about using them or working with them and they’re certainly not seen as the bleeding edge of innovation. So running a digital skills and content development initiative using these tools means we can include and involve the widest possible audience for the widest possible impact. At its best, technology should be invisible … something that is such a seamless part of your experience that you can focus on what you are using it for rather than the technology itself.
Testing and experimentation is a great way to build confidence and for leaders making space for their teams to do this – how do you allow for this in your work, organisation or CPD?
Technology is a tool. Nothing more. At its most basic level, technology is a paint brush – and thousands of artists over thousands of years have developed different styles and effects and unique points of view and ways of engaging audiences from using that one simple tool, sometimes in really surprising and unorthodox ways. Technology is no different. It’s about looking at that tool and thinking “what happens if I take that and do this….?”. That’s the question at the heart of all innovation – and anyone can and should be involved in it.
Tom Loosemore and his Public Digital colleagues define ‘digital transformation’ as ‘…the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era.’
I had the pleasure of working closely with Tom co-commissioning projects through the Digital Media Innovation Fund in partnership with 4iP at Channel 4, where Tom was Head of Digital at the time. One of the many, many things I learned from him was that inclusivity was key, which means removing as many of the barriers to adoption, understanding and regular use as you possibly can. Openness, transparency, open source, ease of use, simplicity rather than over-complication… all of these are things Tom helped build into Government Digital Services and should be fundamental goals of every digital project. The bit that’s often difficult – particularly for larger organisations – is that often a lot of this, particularly the stuff about openness and transparency, is about learning to let go. Which, again, takes us back to cultural change.
Pre-pandemic, it really didn’t feel as if most of the heritage sector had understood the need to change, let alone how to change. Do you think it’s easier to make that case now? And can you share any tips for how we can all make that case for change to colleagues and leaders?
Yes and no. Certainly, the lockdown period has made it crystal clear that change is needed and heritage sites and properties need to find new ways to engage with audiences beyond physical visits.
The challenge is still in the “how” part, not least because it’s important we don’t lose the physical, place-based interactions – the all-important aspects of heritage setting – in our quest to enhance the digital experience. How these two come together and complement one another – the virtual and physical worlds – is an important part of our Online Placemaking initiative. With this project, we recognise that whereas “content is king” in the digital world, where heritage is concerned, it’s context that’s king. Crucially, we also need to ensure those who are digitally-excluded – the 7 million people with no internet access at home and 9 million who can’t use the internet without help – are not left behind.
As leaders in the sector, how can we support each other to collectively build up our organisation’s digital skills?
The Heritage Digital project is a good start … the webinars, toolkits, resources and peer-to-peer learning is superb and offers vital support.
Building a shared language and understanding of pressure points is also key. I remember running a digital heritage and archive conference a few years ago back in Birmingham, which brought together an audience of digital innovators and developers with archivists from the heritage, museums and libraries sectors. The digital developers were all about “make your archive digital, get it out there, allow people to take it, use it, mash it up, create new things with it, share it …. for free!”. Of course, the archivists were largely horrified by this since they come more from a culture of preserving, protecting and maintaining the integrity of their collections. So “mashing things up” was anathema to them. Over the course of the 2 days, both sides started to understand each other a little more and find some common ground … resulting in some really interesting collaborations and new commissions built from that shared understanding, dialogue and respect for each other’s positions. The more we talk and find a shared language and understanding, the better.
Is it a mistake to sell the idea as ‘digital’, which essentially means nothing at all? Should we not concentrate on the idea of connecting and networking people together using digital media, looking at the new opportunities presented by various digital media?
Absolutely! At its most fundamental level, the internet is a network of people, connecting them together. That’s what it is and how it functions. Rather than focus on digital tools and technologies, think about that purpose of connecting people and what it is that connects us … people’s interests, their passions and tools to explore them, (in that order).
Getting people to engage with digital alternatives is one thing, but getting them to pay for it is something else again. Traditional news media are still struggling with this. What hope for heritage buildings whose bread-and-butter has been on-site tours if Covid-19 is here to stay and social distancing is impractical at that location? Any good news stories that deal with this?
There are lots of different digital business models to consider – paid for content, subscriptions, online donations etc – but don’t forget that digital and social platforms can also be very effective as a means of driving sales of physical products. It doesn’t all have to be digital.
One example is the #100RamsgatePlaces campaign being run on Twitter by Historic England South East and the pop-up exhibition trail of photos to promote Geraint Franklin’s book for Historic England, Ramsgate – The Town and its Seaside Heritage.
How can we bring people that think digital is from another planet or elderly people that have no knowledge about digital technologies to use digital heritage? And can we add oral memories to the digital conversation please?
We shouldn’t assume that elderly people have no knowledge of digital technologies. Even video games – which we tend to associate with teenagers – have been popular since the late 1970’s – and at the time of writing the Playstation is celebrating its 25th anniversary – so the first generation of gamers may even be pushing 70.
How many of your parents and grandparents regularly use the internet, have a smart phone or use Facebook? Probably more than you think. So getting them involved and engaged on digital platforms is about using the tools and services that they may be more comfortable with using in their everyday lives, without necessarily thinking of them of ‘digital’ or particularly high-tech. This is partly why we’re looking at using familiar and easy-to-use platforms like Wikipedia and Google Maps for our Online Placemaking project. It’s a way of easing people into thinking about how they can use these tools – which are free and widely available – in ways they might not have previously considered and play an active role in their towns and history.
That said, we also can’t assume that everyone is online or is comfortable using a mobile phone or the internet. According to Good Things Foundation, 9 million people who struggle to use the internet independently are being left out. Good Things Foundation does fantastic work in bridging this digital divide and are always worth talking to about joint initiatives.
Beyond that, remember that not all digital content or projects start their life digitally, which brings me to the second part of the question …“can we add oral memories to the digital conversation?”
The Pioneering Places Memory Cafe project in Folkestone did exactly that, with content, stories, memories and communities feeding directly into the wider project, which is still rippling out in both the physical and digital world, including through East architect’s proposals for the former Folkestone gasworks site and the forthcoming commissions for the next Folkestone Triennial.
Heritage Digital is a new project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund Digital Skills for Heritage funding stream, aiming to increase the amount of free digital skills training and support available to heritage organisations.
For more information about Heritage Digital, please visit Heritage-Digital.org