Schmidt, Leonardo and video games

First published on November 2011.

When Eric Schmidt delivered the MacTaggart lecture at this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, his views regarding UK education were widely publicised. Whilst most of the 560 comments on the BBC Technology pages subsequently focused on his surprise about computer science not being part of the UK schools curriculum, he also called for ‘art and science to be brought back together’; and, interestingly, that attracted much less attention.

Of course, the computer science call is a significant argument – one that actually the UK video games and VFX industries have already made via the Next Gen skills report. However, it is interesting that when Alex Hope, Double Negative CEO and one of the report’s authors, was interviewed in the Next Gen launch film, he too said something to the effect of, ‘my ideal graduate hire would have a first in the arts and a first in maths.’ Of course, Next Gen didn’t attract the mainstream headlines that Schmidt did, but at least it was commissioned directly by the government – though it remains to be seen if the DCMS can get anyone to listen at the DfE. Likewise, the tendency towards STEM funding prioritisation has the potential to diminish the whole if it happens at the expense of arts funding. The right answer has to be to fund inter-disciplinarity.

Schmidt harked back to the Victorian era, citing Lewis Carroll as an artist and scientist. There are plenty of other examples from history, not least da Vinci and others’ apprenticeships in Verrocchio’s highly interdisciplinary workshop.

The typical video games development studio mix of art and science is a classic exemplar of that; although, sadly, we don’t see many examples of developers hiring talented young apprentices unless they have a good university degree under their belt and a bulging portfolio – and even then, the graduate hire rate is low. This may be a factor of the issue that Next Gen is trying to address.

In 12 successive years of Dare to be Digital I have seen how teams of arts and science students have produced incredible results when they team up and work alongside mentors in a hothouse environment with real deadlines and industry standards. This arts-and-science workplace simulation model doesn’t just have to apply to the obvious things like video games; at Abertay University, we are embedding it across all our courses and disciplines via our staff development programme (a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching with workplace simulation projects).
There are other creative industries too where art and science have remained well entwined (architecture and filmmaking, for example) and their studio-based learning model produces fabulous creative and engineering problem solvers.

The main opportunity for the creative industries is actually much, much bigger than this. Creative teams from architecture, games development and advertising (for example) are used to working across disciplines, harnessing engineering and technology where it is needed to deliver effective solutions for clients. As they engage in that process, a phenomenal learning engine is created that can be opened to the apprentices of the future. In addition, many of these project teams could tackle problems from outside their core area of interest. In particular, at Abertay University, we have also had exceptional results and achievements where games graduates, well versed in the arts and science team mix, join multi-disciplinary academic research teams and together deliver powerful mathematical modelling and visualisation solutions in entirely new (to them) disciplines – such as cancer therapy and environmental science – all powered by games tools and technologies.

By the time this piece is published, the Technology Strategy Board will have decided whether to invest in creating a Technology and Innovation Centre around the creative industries. If they have progressed the idea, the opportunity to ensure that the investment also provides a present-day, highly scaled ‘Verrocchio’s studio’ must be harnessed. If they haven’t progressed the concept, it is disappointing, but all will not be lost. This power from the creative industries should be captured and injected into whatever portfolio of TICs is eventually funded to ensure that the potential of creative interdisciplinary teams is properly mobilized for economic impact. The crucial thing is to ensure that ‘discipline’ silos and ‘activity’ silos are discarded so that research properly allows skills and creative portfolio development, and that artists and engineers work to enhance each other’s learning and curriculum development from primary to tertiary, all based around real-world problems and projects. Vested interests must be sidestepped. Sector Skills Academies need to be founded on an interdisciplinary critical mass or risk failing altogether.

Let’s heed Schmidt, Hope and others with their wake-up call to education so that we can look forward to a future where our interdisciplinary studio-based academies – joined up at all stages of education – are powering economic growth in the UK, to the envy of all others.

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