Between April and July 2015, I carried out a small seed project in collaboration with a number of partners. The project, funded jointly by the Communities and Cultures Network + (CCN+) and dot.rural Digital Economy Partnership Fund, looked at how, working with a community of rurally-based craftspeople, we might co-produce new methodologies for online engagement. The project brought together an exciting team of partners: myself and my colleague Paul Gault from dot.rural, Deborah Maxwell from Edinburgh College of Art, Nuno Sacramento and Yvonne Billimore from Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Iain Gildea from Peacocks Digi and Mike Rawlins from Talk About Local.
You can watch a short film about the project here:
The project emerged from our own research findings that many rural creative practitioners, including craftspeople, are not engaging with digital technologies or embracing the opportunities that these present. Even for those able to build a basic website or blog, or use the tools of social media, it’s not always obvious how to create engaging dialogue and connect with relevant new networks. There seemed to be a gap in the work being done to support craftspeople and makers in this field, something not helped by the urban bias that we have seen in recent years following the popularity of Florida’s 2012 thesis on the ‘creative class’. Rural practitioners and industries are often overlooked, even though they add significant value to rural economies and quality of life. In fact, our research has shown that creative individuals are increasingly attracted to rural areas, and can breathe new life into fragile rural communities suffering from population decline and loss of services.
The first two workshops aimed to equip the participants with tools to engage with social media (Workshop 1) and build a basic website or blog on WordPress (Workshop 2). Alongside delivering these skills, we also applied a storytelling approach to helping participants to articulate a narrative of their practices and their brand values. This resulted in meaningful content which was used on their social media profiles, websites and blogs. In the third workshop we introduced participants to digital making tools in Make Aberdeen (now Peacocks Digi), to explore the application of new digital making tools to traditional crafting and making practices.
Our participants reported a number of positive outcomes: they built better networks, in some cases leading to collaborations such as sharing exhibition spaces during the North East Open Studios fortnight (NEOS). They have already engaged a wider number of potential clients and new audiences, due to having created a stronger online presence and identity. A number of participants either took out a membership of the maker lab, or planned to return in the future. Most strikingly though, the majority were most happy about the new confidence and skills that they had developed with digital tools, and are now keen to take this further in their making and marketing practices.
The project has developed new methods for engaging craftspeople and makers with digital technologies, in a way which is meaningful to their practices and values – importantly drawing on storytelling as a way to develop engaging online content. Although this approach was useful for craftspeople and makers, we are keen to explore its applications for other sectors and groups. Our work has shown that there is much scope for supporting and developing rural creative economies. We have a number of dissemination activities planned to get our findings out to relevant organisations and stakeholders. We’re keen to show that traditional digital engagement methods might not be appropriate for all groups. But we also want to make the point that creative practitioners have much to offer to rural economies and communities, they just need a little help along the way. We need to be working harder to support creative industries in rural areas.