New ways to invest in creativity

How the UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK programme cultivated innovation by funding research and development in cross-sector collaboration

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UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK commissioned work in a new way. It invested in teams rather than proposals. What’s more, through its commissioning process, it supported the teams, both with expertise and finance, to develop their ideas into open, original and optimistic projects on a grand scale.

The brief of UNBOXED

UNBOXED worked in this way because of its remit. In 2018, the then prime minister Theresa May announced that the best of British creativity and innovation, culture and heritage would be put on show in a year-long festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022.

The brief of the £120m programme was twofold - to celebrate creativity and to bring people together.

From the start it was understood that creativity is not the sole domain of the arts. Rather, it’s an intrinsic part of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), as well as of music, fine art and literature.

UNBOXED therefore never set out to be an arts festival.  Nor was it about individual creativity. It was about collaboration; about what happens when people from STEM and the arts come together to imagine a better world.

“UNBOXED is a celebration of the potential for collective imagination and creative collaboration to shape better futures for people and planet,” said Sam Hunt, programme director.

Investing in R&D

The UNBOXED programme began with an open call.  Teams from anywhere in the UK could come together and submit a bid to be funded to take part in six weeks of research and development (R&D). During the Covid 19 lockdown, as many as 299 teams did just that.

What’s more they were paid. Through a rigorous evaluation process, 30 teams were selected from the 299 teams that applied.  Each of them could claim up to £100,000 to take part in six weeks of R&D, culminating in a pitch to be considered as one of the final ten.

Anyone working in the creative industries knows about the hours of unpaid work that go into developing a creative idea that might never be taken up.  UNBOXED did things differently – it paid for idea development. “This act was a public statement about the value of creativity and that creative work is real work,” said Sam.

Cross-sector collaboration

The make-up of the teams was another unusual dimension of the commissioning.  UNBOXED asked for teams to include emerging creatives as well as established organisations; they had to be made up of people from science, technology, engineering and maths as well as the arts; they had to include people that hadn’t worked together before.

Oliver Jeffers and Stephen Smartt kneeling on the floor looking at a scale model of colourful arches

One of them included astrophysicist Professor Stephen Smartt working with artist Oliver Jeffers in a creative team led by the Northern Ireland based media arts company Nerve Centre, which went on to develop the hugely popular Our Place in Space. Another involved neuroscientist Prof Anil Seth working with composer Jon Hopkins and Turner Prize-winning collective Assemble, which went on to make Dreamachine. Another saw engineers and climate scientists working with artists to create SEE MONSTER.

“It was intended that this approach would result in original collaborations between creative minds who may not ordinarily meet and work together,” said Sam. “In essence, the more diverse the team the more exciting the potential. The formation of these teams was to be viewed as a creative act.”

Wild and innovative outcomes happen when different sectors have space to collide.

— Francesca Millican-Slater, writer-in-residence during the R&D process

The R&D process

The R&D took place during lockdown in the spring of 2021, when the teams came together on a digital platform especially made for the purpose.

It took the form of a Creative Studio – an online programme with talks, seminars and exercises.  Its speakers included musician Nile Rodgers, space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock and historian David Olusoga.

The BBC R&D department also contributed its expertise. As partners of UNBOXED, they shared ideas around human values, communities of practice and interdisciplinary collaboration.  They ran workshop sessions through each stage of their ideation process, using practical tools and techniques to help the teams communicate and collaborate most effectively.

After inspiring talks and practical tips, the 30 teams worked independently – and remotely, due to the lockdown - to put together a prototype and pitch from which ten winning teams were selected.

“It was also a competition,” said Dev Joshi, technical director of Collective Act, which went on to create Dreamachine. “That was very important for providing a focus and a drive.”

Infographic showing various stats for the R&D project

Watch the R&D programme creative advisors

How the teams found it

So what was it like working across a range of different sectors with some familiar faces and ones that were unknown?

Francesca Millican-Slater, writer-in-residence during the R&D process said: “Although there were 30 teams, in reality it was several hundred individuals trying to make creative connections. Many people were meeting their collaborators for the first time online and the tentative beginning stages of working relationships were fast-tracked.”

“In the moment of it, it was chaos,” said Dev.  “It was happening incredibly quickly, it was a lot of fun and on reflection, a little bit scary because it was this thing – you can do what you want.”

“This was like nothing else,” said Angela Chan, head of inclusion and doctoral researcher, StoryFutures, Royal Holloway, University of London, whose team went on to create StoryTrails.

“We had seven partners all with different working processes. And you sort of think within the creative industries…I assumed we all had similar development processes – but we really didn’t. The hard thing about the process was, even though we’d worked with these people before, everyone had a different idea of how we were going to get there. And everyone had different timelines.”

Dev agreed: “When everybody is an expert, nobody is wrong. This means that you can occasionally end up in this place of tension because a solution doesn’t just appear on the table. We realised this was outside of everybody’s comfort zone.”

But the teams worked through the process – the not-knowing, the chaos, the scariness – and discovered something new.

What teams learned

Dev said there’s a tendency to want to find quick solutions to problems rather than truly unpick them. “Our creative director, Jen Crook, has this incredible ability to really make you tease it out and undo the knot of the thing - to find out what is in the middle. And having the patience and the constitution to sit through that is what makes this work.”

Angela agreed. “When we haven’t got it, we all have to be patient and keep testing the technology to see what it looks like and testing the audience to see how they feedback and we had time to do that. That’s the first time I’ve ever worked in that way – with a longer development period, with a deadline.  The patience to wait and to say: ‘We haven’t quite got that bit yet, it’s not quite right yet.’ That’s what it gave us.”

I would like that time again. Creativity is about community and connection for me – and God we needed it.

— Angela Chan, head of inclusion and doctoral researcher, StoryFutures, Royal Holloway, University of London, part of StoryTrails


Tellingly, the teams found the process of R&D invaluable, even if they weren’t successful in their pitch to be part of the final ten making up the UNBOXED programme. Several went on to make their work though finding alternative funding streams.

Daniel Bernstein, is CEO of Emergency Exit Arts (EEA), an outdoor arts organisations specialising in co-creating with communities around the country.  He was in a team that took part in the R&D, but was not selected as part of the final ten.

“We had an inspirational few weeks devising a food project with an amazing creative team of partners we’d never worked with before,” he said. “As a direct result of this R&D thinking, EEA put in a proposal for a food festival in Grimsby (Edible Grimsby) encouraging people to grow, cook and share food. It was a fantastic success and we are looking at making Edible Grimsby an annual event.”

The ten that were selected to become part of UNBOXED were commissioned to make work that was bold and ambitious.  There was no template for innovation. Each project was original in different ways. These are just some of the ways in which the projects broke new ground.

A young girl holding a lumenator lamp outdoors at night
  • Green Space Dark Skies developed a geo-locating lighting system that includes real time location tracking, energy storage and wireless connectivity, which will be able to be used in future arts events and will have other applications. It also gave people, often from under-represented communities, new, creative ways to experience the countryside.
  • Dreamachine brought ideas about perception and neuroscience to a mass audience and is doing ongoing research that will have an enduring impact on our ability to understand why we each experience the world in the way that we do.
  • GALWAD brought people together from across Wales as worldbuilders to imagine the country in 2052, inspired by the Well Being of Future Generation Act (2015). It created a new way of telling stories across multiple platforms and in real time..
  • SEE MONSTER explored ideas about reuse, through the transformation of a decommisioned offshore North Sea platform into a massive public artwork in Weston-super-Mare. Despite the fact that reuse is arguably the most sustainable solution, it was the first time this had ever been done with a gas platform. SEE MONSTER has also been a platform for conversations change round sustainability, renewable energy and inherited structures.
  • StoryTrails used augmented reality and 3D scanning to make history. Working with communities, it unearthed the stories of towns across the UK, using technology to bring them to life in ways that hadn’t been done before.


Through the funded R&D programme, UNBOXED has supported new creative partnerships that have resulted in ambitious projects and ideas for the future.

“It’s interesting when you look in detail at each of the commissions, every single one is addressing a particular issue, every single one is focused in effecting some form of positive change, all ten intend to make the world better in some way,” said Sam.

“So, in short. To invest in the idea of collaborative, cross-sector creativity is not just a neat way to develop an original cultural programme, it is how we ensure the future of both people and planet.”

Open + Original + Optimistic

UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK sets out to be open, original and optimistic in everything it does. It demonstrates these values through its commissioning process.

Open: Anyone from any part of the UK was invited to pitch for R&D funding through the open call

Original: UNBOXED invested in a process to make it possible for teams to be truly innovative

Optimistic: Even during the Covid-19 lockdown, the vision was to imagine together a more positive future for people and planet

It said it was open, original and optimistic. I wanted to test if it was actually those things – and it was.

— Dev Joshi, technical director of Collective Act, part of Dreamachine