Project: Connecting through culture as we age: digital innovation for healthy ageing

Project Overview

The ‘Connecting through culture as we age: digital innovation for healthy ageing’ project involves an interdisciplinary team from across the University of Bristol. The project aims to increase participation and tackle inequalities related to the accessibility and content of digital arts and culture as we age, enable vital research and development, and establish new business models to encourage inclusive digital innovation in the arts and cultural sector.

Many in society are experiencing isolation and loneliness that has been accelerated by COVID-19 restrictions and is resulting in increased reliance on digital devices. These same restrictions are also having catastrophic impacts on the arts and cultural sector, with venues closing down and artists and creatives struggling to find work. This project responds to the strong demand for digital innovation in the creative sector with a focus on both building audiences for the arts and increasing social connections for those who might be isolated.

Older people are at the centre of the project. In particular, the team are working alongside co-researchers recruited through community anchor organisations working with disabled, racially minoritised and socially economically minoritised older people within Bristol. In partnership with these older people and creative industries, we aim to understand how these older audiences understand the cultural and social value of arts and culture and their experiences of digital exclusion. With their involvement, we will co-design new digital, cultural products, co-create new audience evaluation tools and provide a robust evidence base for policy-making and digital innovation practice. Our objective is to tackle inequalities in arts and cultural provisions for healthy ageing outcomes.

Our research team involves academics across the fields of education, the arts, and computer science. The project is led by the School of Education’s Professor Helen Manchester, and is supported by Professor Kirsten Cater, Dr Paul Clarke, Dr Kirsty Sedgman, Dr Paul Mitchell, Dr Tim Senior, Dr Tot Foster, Dr. Stuart Gray, Dr Karen Gray, Dr Jenny Barke, Dr Alice Willatt, and Sarah Cox, in addition to our community of 60 to 75-year-old co-researchers and participants, and our partner organisations.

Engagement with older people

Our research programme focuses upon working with three communities of ‘next generation’ older adults living in Bristol. These communities are racially minoritised older people; socially economically minoritised older people and disabled older people. We are working alongside three community anchor organisations to engage with these communities and recruit participants and co-researchers to the project: West of England Centre for Inclusive Living; Knowle West Alliance; Black South West Network; with Alive activities and Age UK Bristol providing additional recruitment support – through their extensive local and national networks.

Our co-researcher approach will involve older people from our three communities at every stage in the project to better understand their lived experiences of digital inclusion and arts and cultural participation. We are building on a previously successful co-researcher model developed by project team members which seeks to not only understand these issues but also to produce positive experiences that empower older people and provide longstanding benefits to their lives beyond the project.

To achieve this, the project will work closely with co-researchers to document their digital lives and arts participation and how this relates to social connectivity through creative methods, one-to-one conversations and interviews with older adults. In addition, close work with the civil society sector, including community arts organisations and creative ageing organisations will enable us to understand and work from best practice in this area.   

Our co-researchers will work with us during a long-term co-design process alongside creative technologists and with arts and cultural organisations.  The co-design process will involve:

  • Empowering co-researchers through an introduction to research methods and approaches, as well as supported creative sessions and digital literacies development using iPads and other devices.
  • A series of workshops working with local artists and designers to experience digital cultural products and services, building a shared understanding about opportunities for innovation in this space.
  • Co-researchers will collaborate with creative technologists and designers from a Bristol design studio, PM Studio, to generate six briefs detailing new digital cultural products for older people’s inclusivity and social connectivity.
  • Six creative teams (including co-researchers) will then develop their ideas through an iterative, collaborative prototyping process.
  • An evaluation of the demonstrator projects will take place with more than 100 60–75-year-olds, with the goal of supporting the creative teams to evaluate the efficacy of their designs and assess the commercial viability of their prototyped demonstrator products beyond the lifetime of the project.

Working with business

At the forefront of innovation in digital, creative and cultural industries, Bristol has been

identified as one of three key city-regions beyond London to have international growth potential in these areas (Creative Industries Federation, 2018). The local ecology is characterised by powerful connectivity between larger and smaller organisations and our partners provide us with excellent links into this diverse ecology of cultural organisations and networks.

To make connections, build lasting relationships, empower older people, and embed the project within the communities that we want to work with, we will work closely with our partners, West of England Centre for Inclusive Living, Knowle West Alliance, Black South West Network, Knowle West Media Centre, Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol Culture and Alive.  Nationally, we are working closely with the creative ageing sector, community organisations, arts and cultural organisations and social technology developers, who are already designing innovative experiences, services and products in this space. Many of them are keen to develop more inclusive design processes alongside older people. Businesses will be invited into our co-design process and will be central to the demonstrator teams. We will work closely across the arts and cultural sector, the creative technology sector (from SMEs to large care tech companies), and the community and civil society sector to build inclusive design processes, and sustainable products, performances and services for next generation older people.

Diversity and environments of ageing

Arts and cultural participation declines dramatically in older populations, a trend that is exacerbated in disabled, and racially and socioeconomically minoritised groups, who are even less likely to participate. The project will be exploring the following questions:

  • What are the structural sources of disadvantage that older people in the three communities face in respect of digital participation? (How) can these be overcome? What organisational practices mitigate against, or enable, the digital inclusion of older audiences in the arts?
  • What kinds of participation in the arts enhance social connectivity and wellbeing for older adults experiencing inequalities? What tools do we require to ensure robust research and evaluation of the effects of digital cultural participation on social connectivity and wellbeing for diverse older audiences? What are the potentials and limitations of these experiences to increase social connectedness? How can we critically assess the assumed positive correlation between social connectivity, wellbeing and quality of life?
  • How do different groups of older people understand their own lived experiences of digital cultural participation? What are the similarities and differences in their participation in digital arts and cultural activities and the value they gain from this? What methods are required to understand diverse older people’s experiences of value in digital arts and cultural experiences?
  • How can we co-design new digital cultural experiences that are accessible and appeal to diverse older audiences? What are the innovation models and forms of collaboration that we need to develop between older people, advocacy groups, designers, arts and cultural organisations and creative technologists? What new business models, processes and practices do we need to co-design and scale up arts and technology collaborations for healthy ageing?
Helen Manchester

Project Lead

Professor Helen Manchester
Sarah Cox
Project Co-ordinator

Project partners