ThinkCreate has four themes developed collaboratively between academic staff and external partners.  In 2016/17 the themes are:

Power and Social Change

How do we effect change in the world? Voting, campaigning and running for elections are the typical activities associated with the task of creating social change by way of seizing control of the apparatus of state. But civic engagement goes beyond these obvious activities. The UK alone is home to 162,965 voluntary organizations. 27% of UK Residents volunteer with one of these organizations each month. 500,000 British Citizens are registered members of political parties and 6.5 million are involved in trade unions. Additionally, voluntary donations to Environmental NGOs and International Aid are higher than they have ever been. Each of these activities is a form of civic engagement. But what kinds of activities, precisely, constitute civic engagement? And how, as individuals, citizens, institutions, and corporations, should we engage civically? What should our goals be in doing so?

The Power and Social Change theme is concerned with what civic engagement is and how we ought to do it. Specifically, we will look at the models of engagement used by three vastly different organisations, Amnesty International, DLA Piper, and the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union. We will examine how these organisations (and their members) are engaging with the wider world, as civic agents, and examine what they might do differently.

Civic engagement is typically understood to take one of three forms. It can refer to the personally responsible citizen, the participatory citizen, and the justice-oriented citizen. Is one of these conceptions of civic engagement necessarily better than the others? Are any of these models more appropriate for specific types of organisations or civic projects? Another challenge for anyone partaking in civic engagement is how far practical efficacy weighs against certain values the citizen or institution wishes to engage with. In a period of global disorder marked by the ongoing European refugee crisis, the East African famine, political instability in the UK brought about by Brexit, the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum, as well as a local crisis marked by the highest level of homelessness in Yorkshire since 2008, it is imperative that we understand our civic roles as students, as citizens, and as organisations in order to engage with our communities and societies (local, national and global) accordingly.

As a member of the Power and Social Change theme, you will join a team of 8-10 Arts and Humanities students to take up a week long investigation into civic engagement, in theory and in practice. You will have the opportunity to create a lasting digital artefact on civic engagement that will address pressing ethical and practical concerns related to the activities of one of this theme’s partner organisations.

Partner organisations:

DLA Piper: DLA Piper originated in Sheffield and became the world’s largest global law firm. They have a large civic engagement program and an extensive range of pro bono work. They are specifically interested in questions about how they choose civic engagement and pro bono projects and where those should be.

Amnesty International: Amnesty International is the world’s largest and most influential human rights organisation. Globalisation has changed the world we live in. It presents new and complex challenges for the protection of human rights, particularly in terms of corporate accountability.

University of Sheffield Student Union: The SU’s purpose is to represent, support and enhance your lives (the lives of it’s over 27000 members) whilst at Sheffield University.

Art and Community

According to a recent article in ‘The Stage’, £56 million of arts funding was cut by local councils in England between 2009 and 2014. Although such cuts have had a notable impact upon high-profile arts organisations, they have had the most significant impact upon mid/small-scale organisations that historically catered for their communities; local authorities argue that they have been forced to prioritise funding for mandatory services like adult social care, children’s services and waste collection and that, in the age of austerity, ‘the arts’ will inevitably lose. This situation merges with a long-standing national imbalance; despite the various cuts, organisations in London receive almost twice as much arts funding as the rest of England combined. This theme considers the role and function of arts organisations within the city of Sheffield. It questions the purposes of such organisations in an age of austerity, considers whether they have any rights to funding from either local or national authorities, and questions what such organisations might reasonably do in order to attract an audience. This final point raises a much more fundamental question that underlines the entire theme: whose art is it anyway?

Partner organisations

This theme will run in conjunction with three Sheffield-based arts organisations:

DINA is situated in a unique building in Sheffield created from the merging of a Sunday School and Spoon Factory. Now the building forms a new function, a hub for creative and digital practice. Events include music, learning adventures, performance and exhibition.

Bank Street Arts is contemporary art centre in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. It was established in January 2008, initially as a studio complex for artists. It has grown to include eight public galleries, thirty artist studios and a café. Hamish (theme-lead) is the Academic-in-Residence at BSA during the current academic year.

99 Mary Street is a commercial arts and exhibition space in the middle of the city. It describes itself as a “a post-industrial concept space for the showing and sharing of everything that’s good in creative endeavour”.

Cultural Value

‘Culture’ is generally used to describe creative productions such as opera, theatre and ballet, as well as the mass productions of cinema, literature, television and popular music. But ‘culture’ is also used to describe the customs, activities, routines, and beliefs of a society or community, that along with history and heritage, form an intrinsic part of social identity and a sense of place.

Similarly, the word ‘value’ also holds multiple meanings. It might, for example, refer to a principle or belief that a group or community holds in common. Alternatively, it can refer to the ‘instrumental value’ of the arts and their ‘economic value’ for justifying public investment in the arts and culture.

The cultural value debate seems to have focused predominantly on a celebration of the value and importance of the arts, and persuading policy makers that cultural events are worth spending money on. At the same time, mass de-industrialisation has led to the fragmentation of traditional communities and the gentrification of former industrial districts, overseen by policy makers, planners, and government agencies, is seen by many to be destroying distinctive regional cultures.

Ongoing cuts to cultural activities coupled with confusion regarding the economic and social value of cultural activities has a direct impact not just on the performative arts and mainstream heritage (theatres, galleries, museums, and libraries), but also on the way we manage our green spaces and connect with our urban environment in the midst of development and abandonment of municipal centres. Town planners, national heritage organisations, proponents of the Arts, and local communities often hold cultural values that are in conflict. In this theme we consider the how ideas of cultural value include and exclude, and in doing so, reproduce existing structures of dominance in defining what culture is and how it should be valued.

By choosing this theme, you will; tackle issues that are dear to local and national communities, question concerns frequently debated by politicians, and scrutinise policies implemented by a broad range of creative and governmental agencies. You will also; consider what value culture can have to the modern state, question notions of cultural value and their appropriateness for diverse communities, consider how understandings of value change over time, and ask what counts as culture, and who is it valued by?

You will have the opportunity to work with external partners including Sheffield City Council-Parks and Woodlands and the S and E Yorkshire Branch of the National Federation of Self Employed & Small Businesses.

Partner organisations:

Sheffield City Council’s Woodland Team manage one of the most complex urban green resources in any European city. The social and economic indicators that span the city are extraordinarily broad and the council has been promoting green space as a locus for outdoor activities ranging from cycling, cultural festivals, to heritage appreciation for some years. The council is keen to work with students to scrutinise the system of values that underpin the management of this cultural resource and to explore ways to allow Sheffielders to benefit more from a very special environment.

The S&E Yorkshire Branch of the National Federation of Self Employed & Small Businesses offers a forum for local independent businesses in the region and comprises a network of immense diversity. Many of the members consider their activities “cultural” in that their business activities contribute to the distinctive character of the region (certainly more so than global corporations and chain organisations). The Federation is keen to work with the University to examine how local trades, industries, and businesses, can contribute to the cultural provision of the region through exploring their own histories, regional relations and practices. The Federation is eager to connect teams with local members to research and develop materials and methods for promoting and communicating cultural value in the context of work and business.

Representing Humanity

This theme looks at the way humans are represented in art, media and public spaces. This could include images or other representations of the human body (or parts of it) and of groups of humans (communities, families, etc). We will consider who these representations are aimed at and why, the thought processes that have gone into the choice of particular images, the positioning and context of those images (in a certain part of the city, or on a certain website, for example), and their potential impact, both positive and negative. We are particularly interested in how individuals and groups (self-identified and otherwise) are represented by themselves and others, and in questions of how images can be used to create community, diversity and in/exclusion. We will look at a broad range of images from web pages and advertising, to street art and public sculptures, as well as the kind of language and symbolism that is used in non-visual representations.

One example of an issue that you could work with within this theme is the types of representation that are associated with the ongoing refugee crisis. This has raised important questions about identity concerning: the migrants who are having to fashion a new identity for themselves; the right-wing outfits in Europe that are concerned about the ‘dilution’ of their culture; the media coverage of the crisis and way migrants are represented to inspire particular emotions in readers and viewers. The question of power is also very relevant here, especially the question of the treatment of the dispossessed and the powerless.

Another example is to consider how local groups (these could be identified by culture, ethnicity, class, gender, age, nationality, and so on) are represented in Sheffield. You could consider “official” campaigns and council-funded art, and the “unofficial” street art, posters and performances which are so much a part of the city. You may also want to think about members of society who are often under-represented (perhaps the elderly or the disabled), and to explore the challenges of increasing their visibility in a positive, truthful and useful manner.

Partner organisations:

Nick Bax: founded Human Studio a multi-disciplinary creative agency with global credentials in design, digital and moving image since 2007.

The International Rescue Committee helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain back control of their future. Over 600,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the onset of the Syrian crisis. The IRC provides healthcare, works to protect and empower women and girls and runs economic programs for refugees and strained host communities.