By Professor Larissa Hjorth
When NISA released their innovation report that led to the ARC developing the Engagement and Impact (E&I) framework, people were palpably nervous. Not yet another framework which already over-worked academics had to consider in their research trajectory. And yet, the roll out of E&I - from the pilot in 2017 to its implementation in 2018 - suggests that the framework can actually help to articulate, capture and mobilise all the complex ways the academy is valuable to society. Especially multifaceted areas like social impact. It made visible some of the invisible work academics do.
In particular, for creative practice, the emphasis on social and cultural impact - and not just economic - affords a way forward to tangibly demonstrate how it matters. With the ERA and E&I 2018 complete, it’s a good time to pause for reflection on what ERA and E&I mean for creative practice - its value, the success of these measurements, opportunities for improvement and how we might work together to further how both the academy and general public view the significance of creative practice now and in the future. Given the recent “climate change” election outcome in which the public chose economics over the environment, there is a sense of acute sobriety about the future and how the creative arts can put forward alternative models for social change.
A way forward?
The creative arts is in constant transition. Globally, frameworks and metrics have moved towards advocacy- acknowledging creative practice’s significance across social, cultural and educational areas of impact. Some of these transformations in how we design techniques, translation and knowledge transmission are being taken up by research councils - especially in the UK, Canada and Australia.
For example, the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council funded a report, The Hidden Story: understanding knowledge exchange partnerships with the creative economy, that explores some of the issues facing designing, tracking and evaluating impactful research (Williams et al., 2017). The report advances the importance of evidencing actual versus imagined (or more traditional outmoded) pathways to impact, while recognising that insufficient methods for doing so has led to the “dilution” of reporting in funding body case studies. As Chapman and Sawchuk note, “research-creation” in Canada can be understood as a series of methods and modes of inquiry that question “formulaic representations of the academic genre” by challenging the ways in which we make, present, translate and implement the research (2012, 6). This correlates with the work of Batty and Kerrigan who see creative practice as a mode of enquiry that seeks to produce new knowledges and ways of being in the world (2018). When Jen Webb in 2016 asked provocatively - are we there yet? - it gave words to the uneven ways Practice-based Research was being taken up. As Linda Candy notes in 2019, the question is still pertinent - however we need to be asking “where” is “there”. Moreover, Candy argues that creative practice at the nexus of art and technology has been successful across three areas: interdisciplinarity, methodology, dissemination.
The movement in digital humanities and creative arts towards interdisciplinary applied approaches and frameworks has long been about locating lived experiences at the centre of the research design. For some, such as the innovative del Favero, the movement increasingly towards interdisciplinary research as a key way to make impactful research, values the power of creative practice to transform societal issues (2018). The rise of digital storytelling to not only understand but to transform binary narratives around ageism is just one example (i.e. the work of May Chazan and Kim Sawchuk). As we know, real world problems like climate change and ageing populations can’t be solved within the silos of disciplines. We need to work together in the in-between or “un-disciplined” spaces.
In work with colleagues drawing from different areas of creative practice ethnography, we argue that creative practice ethnographies not only allow for new synergies between the fields, but also innovation in three areas - techniques, translation and (knowledge) transmission (2019). It is by constantly co-designing modes for research implementation and transmission as part of the collaborative and iterative research journey that the creative arts leads the way.
Models for social change
E&I, consisting of assessment panels with academics and industry, encourages a new way to measure and encourage different methods, metrics and modes of translation and transmission beyond the ERA TRO and NTRO binary. There has been growing literature about the value of the creative arts to provide alternative solutions (through various techniques, translations and knowledge transmission) to social, cultural, and health issues. While complimentary in its conceptualisation, there are some distinct divergences between ERA and E&I frameworks that have impacted on how creative practice is understood, measured and valued.
ERA has successfully demonstrated the value of Australian research nationally and internationally through coalescing and calibrating discipline specific understandings of quality, key benchmarks and university discursive narratives. In particular, while ERA has worked hard to ensure creative practice is taken seriously through NTROs (which should be congratulated), the dissonance between TROs and NTROs means that some intricacies around the value of creative practice research are lost - especially beyond the academy. And, unfortunately, it has given rise to universities trying to gamify the system through musical chair-type poaching.
E&I works in the face of this gamification by embedding measures that include how the institution has supported and fostered impactful research. This is an exciting and productive dimension because it puts the onus on the university to support the research from its conception to translation and implementation in society. The introduction of the E&I has been a game changer in that, by its mixed metrics that combine quantitative and qualitative approaches, it requires researchers and universities to think beyond the academy in terms of impact. For applied researchers - and especially creative practitioners and designers - who often work collaboratively and longitudinally with key stakeholders like community and non-profit organisations, this is finally a way to acknowledge this important work. As can be viewed from the E&I outcomes, it is not only a framework that recognises the important work of the creative arts but also allows it to shine.
With the two parallel, intersecting and yet diverging frameworks offered by ERA and E&I, there are some great opportunities to demonstrate the significance of creative practice through recalibrating the ways in which we do, measure, communicate and embed its value in society. There are some learnings we could take from UK’s REF frameworks - particularly the ways in which the creative arts have not only had increased visibility but also, in turn, increased ways to validate its impactful role across social, cultural and educational areas. It is this addition of the last category - educational impact - which has been a game changer in the UK as a way to implement, document, demonstrate impact of the creative arts. Let’s hope E&I follows this dimension of REF to foster engagement across the education sector which, given the recent government election results, is going to be on the shoulders of the universities and ARC to nurture for future generations.
Batty, C. and S. Kerrigan (eds.) (2018.) Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry. London: Palgrave.
Candy, L. (2019). Inter-disciplinary art and technology practice based research and the creative arts, NiTRO.
Chapman, O. and K. Sawchuk (2012). Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and “Family Resemblances”, Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 37: 5-26
Del Favero, D. (2019). Horizon scanning the creative arts. NiTRO.
Hjorth, L, Harris, A., Jungnickel, K. and G. Coombs (2019) Creative Practice Ethnographies. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Webb, J. (2016). Are we there yet? NiTRO.
Williams, A. et al. (2017). The Hidden Story: understanding knowledge exchange partnerships with the creative economy. Report. https://www.unialliance.ac.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2017/12/THE-HIDDEN_STORY-REPORT_final_web.pdf
Distinguished Professor Larissa Hjorth is an artist and digital ethnographer. Hjorth has two decades experience working in cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, collaborative creative and socially innovative digital media research to explore intergenerational literacies around play and sociality. Hjorth is currently the Design & Creative Practice ECP Platform director at RMIT University. The Platform focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration and creative solution to real-world problems, especially in relation to ageing well, careful and multisensorial methods.