Consultant Dr Trevor Davis and Professor Martin Charter of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) track the sustainability maturity of the creative industries in the UK. Here, they share the sustainability lessons for us all.
The creative industries (advertising, architecture, crafts, design and designer fashion, film, games, radio, IT, photography, publishing, TV, video and visual arts) may not spring immediately to mind when you think about climate change and sustainability more broadly. Sure, the waste associated with fast fashion has hit the headlines, but how about advertising? TV and film production? Music streaming? Gaming?
The UK creative industries represent 6% of the UK economy (more than life sciences, automotive and aerospace combined), employing over two million people. Their creative outputs touch billions of devices worldwide. In the sector, information technologies (IT) are transforming entire value chains, leading to greater global demand for data centres and more end user devices. The associated energy consumption, water consumption and electronic waste is certainly non-trivial.
Whilst undergoing a profound digital transformation, the creative industries are waking up to their role in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, global environmental targets and decarbonisation efforts. IT is creating new ways to minimise the footprint of creative products, services and content, but simultaneously raising new ethical, social, and environmental concerns. For instance, training large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and Midjourney generates significant CO2 emissions and threatens creative jobs, and there are reports of workers in Africa being employed at rock bottom wages to prevent toxic content reaching users.
The rise of Createch
Integration of technology throughout the creative industries is a megatrend, with the swift rise of AI, virtual reality (VR) and blockchain creating a new sub-sector: Createch, the fastest growing part of the creative industries (themselves growing over twice the UK national average rate), is R&D-led, intellectual property rich and all about technology.
There are various definitions for Createch, such as ‘the beneficial symbiosis which occurs when creative designers collaborate with technologists such as engineers, programmers or data scientists’ used by Sir Peter Bazalgette, co-chair of the Creative Industries Council. Let’s look at a few practical examples:
- Numerion Software, providing cloth and flesh simulation software for virtual fashion and film production
- Humain, whose body and face animation technology makes more expressive characters in video games
- Musemio, a start-up offering extended reality (XR) solutions that can create immersive experiences for younger audiences
- GroundWaves, who make haptic shoes that generate vibrations based on the music you listen to.
Based on UCA research, we see four technology domains dominating, and all bring sustainability challenges and opportunities:
- AI-powered platforms and content
- 3D capture and immersive solutions, such as VR and XR
- Web3, blockchains and metaverses
- Workflow automation and advanced analytics
The world behind the screen
Createch brings the sustainability world behind our screens into focus. For example, a Createch with an AI platform for virtual production in TV and film (think Disney’s Mandalorian) exists in a global value chain of thousands of artists working on the effects, and billions of viewers.
Imagine the data centres and user devices involved and their contribution to climate change. Not all data centres have high power unit efficiency, and the global energy mix still contains over 75% fossil fuel according to the International Energy Authority (IEA). Think about all the embedded carbon in that value chain, and the challenges associated with the end-of-life processing of the equipment.
Do Createch founders understand this? In 2022, UCA ran a survey of UK Createch companies. From the 83 responses, nearly 80% consider sustainability as core to strategy and over 70% see technology as essential to delivering their sustainability plans. But over half raised concerns about their technologies, frequently citing low confidence and a lack of transparency in the sustainability data from their technology service partners.
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Our survey measured the maturity of UK Createchs from zero (no strategies or plans) to advanced (progress documented, measured and reported). The reality is that over 75% of the Createchs are at zero or basic maturity, lacking the time and knowledge to improve. Despite a plethora of sector initiatives and tools, the majority said they struggled to find the right tools and skills (to address this, we’ve recently launched a Createch sustainability maturity tool globally).
How can you improve maturity?
We think improvement begins with clarity of purpose and with business and technical leaders taking accountability for the sustainability impact of their products, services and content. The following key questions should be addressed:
- Why is sustainability important to us?
- Where can we make a difference in this climate emergency?
- What commitments are we making to nature, biodiversity, good work, protecting vulnerable members of society, ethical use of technology, etc?
- Does our culture align with our vision and core values?
- Do we have the evidence to make robust and resilient strategies and plans?
A positive feature of our 2022 survey is that the majority of Createch leaders view sustainability as an opportunity with staying power. For many, there is a personal dimension as they think of future generations, and they are motivated to demonstrate their sustainability credentials through action. A lack of sustainability skills and knowledge relevant to Createch (e.g., green IT and responsible computing) appears to be the main barrier to progress — something that BCS and its members can play an important role in addressing.
Where all companies should start
- Strategy and mission: Begin by defining your sustainability vision, which should align with your company's purpose, core values and principles. Be explicit about the role of technology as a driver for improving sustainability maturity.
- Business policies: Develop sustainability policies that address key areas such as carbon management, energy efficiency and green IT, waste management, responsible computing and responsible sourcing. Ensure that your policies comply with relevant industry regulations and standards. Clearly communicate your policies to employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders to ensure a shared understanding of your company's sustainability ambitions and commitments.
- Goals and KPIs: Establish specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for your sustainability efforts. Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress towards your goals. Regularly review and update your goals and KPIs to ensure continuous improvement.
- Roles and responsibilities: Assign clear roles and responsibilities for implementing and managing sustainability initiatives within your organisation. Provide training and resources to empower employees to contribute to your sustainability efforts. Foster a culture of sustainability by involving all employees in your company's mission and promoting open dialogue and collaboration.
Createch and the creative industries may represent a different world, but due to their use of the latest technologies and growing potential to act on sustainability-related issues, we see them as showing the way in many respects. Createch is quick to harness the latest innovations and sometimes finds out the hard way what the impacts are before the rest of us.
There is one key area in which these companies stand apart: they are all storytellers. So beyond changing their own internal narratives, they can communicate the urgency of the current situation and the need for fresh obligations that are so vital to our planet’s future through their art, writing and images.
With almost four billion people in areas vulnerable to climate change, the forthcoming 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) will stress the need to move faster, and with greater urgency, to get the world back on track and avoid a greater than 1.5°C increase in global temperature this century. The creative industries are rising to the challenge. How about you?