Arts and Culture world must “grasp the opportunity of the data surge”

By June 02, 2016
Keywords : Smart city, Data, Europe
Big Data & Culture

As the summer festival season kicked off in mid-May, all eyes were riveted on the famous Croisette boulevard in the French city of Cannes. For the last 69 years, the outward rituals of the Cannes Film Festival have remained unchanged. Backstage, however, there is a huge revolution going on.

Article published in French daily newspaper Le Monde on 18 May

Changing habits, new approaches favoured by the younger generation and the advent of new innovative services is shaking up our relationship with culture and entertainment. Astonishingly the world of arts and culture has not yet fully grasped the opportunity provided by the surge in the amount of data available – what is now widely known as ‘Big Data’ – and major cultural institutions have not yet adjusted their mission and responsibilities in terms of the new data culture, the product of a world which is now increasingly driven by people’s personal data.

Profound innovation

With the emergence of the Internet of Things, our society is increasingly driven by data – basic information which people exchange with each other or with machines, or – very significantly – which is exchanged between machines. The objects around us are becoming ever more connected, they retain the traces of the way we use them and, with the help of algorithms and recent advances in predictive analysis, their creators are constantly trying to improve the services they offer us on a daily basis. Data is now becoming a part of our common heritage and also being used to build up a reference system which defines our individual and collective identities. Data is in fact becoming a form of culture in its own right.

See the speech by Philippe Torres, Deputy CEO L'Atelier BNP Paribas, at the Forum d’Avignon, a think tank and forum for the cultural and creative sectors, which met in Bordeaux in March.

This revolution does not change the central role which arts and culture play and indeed should play in our lives. Given the risks of conscience-free science and technology without ethics, this role is more vital than ever. It calls for those in the cultural and creative professions to take an active part at the centre of this Brave New World of data and to make their voices heard at least as loudly as those of the current masters of data. As we speak, far-reaching innovations are taking place that will shape the face of things for decades to come. Which means that we really need those cultural and creative players right now.

Co-create, preserve and disseminate: these three roles which have traditionally been assigned to companies and institutions in the world of arts and culture also apply to the new data culture. The goal of the new data players is to be able to choose from among all the various possible cultures the culture they wish to promote and this in turn requires them to find out which innovations can bring users real added value, without needlessly encroaching on their privacy in order to do so.

The business angle

Of course there is a great deal at stake from a business point of view as well, because all this data opens up a multitude of opportunities. Not least, major urban renewal projects provide a unique opportunity to combine culture and data within a ‘Smart City’ concept. Ever since the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, joint initiatives involving city authorities and arts and culture professionals have been on the rise, increasingly with a strong emphasis on data applications. Examples here include Data Drives, an installation by Senseable City Lab's Live Singapore team at the National Museum of Singapore; and the interactive guide to the works at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice. These initiatives follow in the footsteps of hugely successful ventures such as Netflix, whose success stems not only from its content catalogue but also from its ability to analyse users’ behaviour so as to be able to constantly offer new content. The purveyors of arts and culture will therefore need to become first of all compelling interlocutors and secondly, super-data-users. In order to be credible, anyone running an initiative which depends on data use will need to have a sufficient grasp of data science, obtaining not just some basic training but also ongoing training in the field. Becoming a super-data-user means generating your own data, being able to re-use it, mastering algorithms and ensuring that the results are verifiable.

Arts and culture exponents must take control

Given that artistic and cultural products may be vulnerable to manipulation by people with a particular axe to grind, efforts must be made to ensure that this field retains its independence. Its exponents must learn to master the relevant tools so as to be able to convey their view of things.  It is more or less generally accepted that cultural assets are a necessary component of society and who is better placed than the arts and culture professionals themselves to ensure that cultural assets remain their own purpose, designed for the benefit of the user, rather than simply a means of seizing on data and exploiting it with a view to turning us all into eternal super-consumers?

The producers of cultural goods and cultural institutions are now taking up the data challenge, but they also need to step outside the traditional boundaries of their sector and express their views on what the data collected should be used for. Why for instance does a city like San Francisco, home to vast technology ventures, which likes to boast that its residents are enjoying a better lifestyle, suffer from one of the worst levels of traffic congestion in the United States? Shouldn’t solving the problem of traffic jams actually be one of the priorities for data use? So, at the end of the day, cultural producers and institutions have a huge responsibility vis-à-vis the new data culture. If they want to keep their promise – which is nothing less than to help create a better world – they need to make appropriate input to the general thinking – including the policymaking debates – on what all this data should or should not be used for.  

About the author:  Philippe Torres, Deputy CEO and Head of Consulting at L'Atelier BNP Paribas

Philippe Torres has since 2007 headed up the Consulting & Digital Strategy department at L’Atelier, the BNP Paribas Group’s tech tracking unit. For over 30 years, L’Atelier’s main work has consisted of identifying, analysing and testing out new usages and ways of working based on Information and Communication Technologies. The task of the Consulting & Digital Strategy department is to analyse the impact of these new technologies on our society and provide consultancy and advisory services on this theme to corporate clients (mainly companies across all sectors listed among the CAC 40) and public institutions (mainly French government departments).
Before taking on his present role, Philippe Torres worked for 23 years in a number of positions in various subsidiaries, businesses and departments of the BNP Paribas Group, all with the common thread of implementing new technologies at the Group.

His last three posts were:                                                 

- Head of Consulting at the Centre of Innovation & Technology                           

- Strategic Analyst at the BNP Paribas Group Information Systems Department                       

- Strategic Analyst, Venture Capital, at the BNP Paribas Group Development Department


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