MediaFutures is a Digital Innovation Hub funded by the European Commission to support startups, artists and collaborative projects between startups and artists with a focus on countering misinformation, disinformation as well as a variety of related challenges in the media sector. With a project duration of three years, MediaFutures is soon coming to an end. Throughout the project we have had a number of interesting experiences that we are sharing with our interview series on Lessons Learned for experts working on similar projects.

For today’s series on Lessons Learned, we have interviewed Hugues Vinet, Director of Innovation and Research Means at IRCAM and Nico Lumma, Managing Partner at NMA to give us some insights on the experiences we made running a support programme for collaborative projects between startups and artists.

Hugues, Nico, you both have been running a support programme bringing together startups and artists in the media sector. How did the collaboration work for the startup-artist teams? 

Hugues Vinet: In general, very well. Some already knew each other, others did not, but in all cases a key factor in the success of the collaboration was the existence of clear objectives, roles and a plan of action, jointly agreed at the outset. What artists and startups have in common is that they seek to design new experiences, whether they are aesthetic or functional. Successful art-tech projects articulate both, and benefit from the complementary contexts in which these experiences are proposed.

Nico Lumma: It was interesting to see how startups and artists aligned behind a specific goal and came up with joint objectives. This was not always without any tension, but that’s what happens when you are running at full speed, and all of a sudden you have to align yourself with somebody else. Anyway, friction is part of what makes these projects become more creative, as both startups and artists challenge each other.

Hugues Vinet (IRCAM) at the MediaFutures Demo Days in Hamburg

How did the collaboration benefit the startups and artists?

Hugues Vinet: This framework of collaboration between startups and artists was, for those who were willing to play the game, not only an opportunity of gathering complementary skills, but also an opening factor, bringing together new perspectives, new mentalities and new working methodologies. In particular, the startups were interested in the user involvement that the artists made possible, while the artists were interested in access to technology and, in some cases, to new funding opportunities.

For example, in Ject-Sense, artist Antoni Rayzhekov helped the startup Ject.AI collect and categorise the data needed for his work. Then,  together they designed a new data visualisation interface. In Hammer&Egg, Hella Lux’s artists were happy to have access to SBAE’s audio walkthrough developers and address specific requests, and the startup learned a lot from how the artists used the technology to improve it. In The Oracle network, the “bugs” drawn by artist White Hog Design and appearing in Augmented Reality (AR) around the city were appealing to the public, especially to children, while the Techwave startup opened up new revenue opportunities for him.

Nico Lumma: It is exactly how Hugues Vinet describes it. Startups and artists obviously come from different backgrounds, have different approaches to the overlying topic of misinformation and disinformation, but they found a new common ground to develop their work together. Adding a pan-European perspective to this makes MediaFutures so valuable, as it transcends the scope of the individual projects and fosters a deeper understanding among all teams.

Nico Lumma (NMA) announcing the winning startup from the startups for Citizens Track at the MediaFutures Demo Days in Hamburg

Did the collaboration lead to innovative results? 

Hugues Vinet: Considering the main objective of MediaFutures, as a Digital Innovation Hub in the media sector, which is to raise public awareness about dis/misinformation, my general feeling is that the originality and variety of the forms of mediation developed by the teams to reach this objective, constitute a significant critical mass carrying innovation in the media sector. An important contribution of the artists to this process has been to set up the conditions of involvement and commitment, individual or collective, of the public in the proposed experiences. The AR-extended board game developed by Truth Detectives is a good example, among others, of a relevant medium for a collective process to shed light on issues of misinformation.

Nico Lumma:  There are certainly many innovative results, as Hugues mentioned. Some teams have already worked with media organisations in Europe, others are still in talks about setting up projects. Overtone for example has been working with various publishers addressing the need to improve the quality of recommendation tools being currently used by the publishers. But to be honest: not every startup here will be commercially successful, as they are very early stage and very innovative. While media organisations are interested in what the startups develop, they usually have a more hesitant approach when it comes to implementing new software. Logora [from the MediaFutures project Online Debate for Impact] seems to have found the right fit with their online deliberation tool which more and more publishers would like to use.

Are some of the collaborations continuing and are they sustainable or will they rely on public funding?

Hugues Vinet:  It is too early to have an overall picture as some projects are still in progress and others have been completed recently, but we already know of several teams that are continuing together. Bibliograph, from the first cohort, has raised public funding for innovation and is continuing its project. Other teams are also continuing the same projects and/or on new ones, such as The Oracle Network, Ject Sense or Time-lapse migration.

Nico Lumma: Ask me again in five years! I assume there will be a good mix of teams continuing their work, some will change course and some will stop the project when the time with MediaFutures is over. This is a normal process in the innovation space. Most teams are at  a very early stage and that is the beauty of it: teams can still change their course or stop the project if they figure out that they cannot do what they tried to achieve.

‘Truth Detectives’ the winning startup-artist team from the 3rd MediaFutures cohort Startup meets Artist Track presenting their work

What are some of the major learnings for you in running a support programme for collaborative projects between startups and artists?

Hugues Vinet:

  • The need for a well-structured support and monitoring process that balances control through defined deadlines and targets with freedom of action and innovation. The principle of self-assessment based on jointly agreed objectives with each team proved to be relevant.
  • Clear roles, funding and objectives to be assigned to each team member in accordance with their respective agendas.
  • The importance of the mediator/advisor role that follows each team throughout the project, with the help of a set of mentors who provide expertise, training and support on specialised topics such as legal or technical aspects.
  • Particular attention must be paid at the beginning in order to start on a solid foundation (mutual understanding, needs and expectations of each participant, shared objectives).
  • The need to extend the duration of the projects: 6 months proved to be too short for mixed teams, it is necessary to aim for 9 to 12 months.
  • The importance of communication between the teams, especially through meetings and events (ideally physical) to promote networking, exchanges and the potential for long-term collaboration.

Nico Lumma:

  • All of the above.
  • Matchmaking and access to innovation and product managers in media companies is really important to assess not only the quality of the innovation, but also to take the first steps commercially.

Which are the unique challenges that media entrepreneurs face and how could they be overcome? 

Nico Lumma: The biggest challenge right now is that the media landscape is changing rapidly and that news organisations have the challenge to adapt to it – and at the same time they need to reach audiences on various platforms, including print. So startups cannot always rely on media organisations to partner with, they have to find their own niche in the market. To add to this challenge is an extreme reluctance of investors to support media startups early on. It is simply not en vogue anymore to invest in media startups.

Which are the unique challenges that artists face in general and in particular artists in the media sector, and how could they be overcome?

Hugues Vinet: There are a few challenges specific to the media sector, mainly mastering the analysis of complex datasets and knowledge of related regulations, which can be provided by specialised mentors and/or acquired through dedicated training.

In general, artists are first faced with funding issues, as projects do not necessarily fit into existing support programs, while often relying on expensive equipment such as Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, high-resolution video projectors, or multi-channel audio systems. A second major issue is the public dissemination/exhibition of their artistic works, whether online or in cultural venues. They are looking for support on these two major aspects.

Did you face unexpected challenges during the project implementation, and if yes, how were these challenges overcome?

Hugues Vinet: The project started in September 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic and all exchanges until 2022, including those between consortium members, exchanges with teams and within teams had to be done remotely. The first opportunity for consortium members to meet physically was in London in June 2022.

The Russian war in Ukraine was declared at the end of the selection process of cohort 2 and the Ukrainian and Russian projects we had selected had to adapt and redefine their teams in order to receive European funds. They encountered obstacles for travelling, including the Ukrainian male participants who were not allowed to leave their country.

We also had a team whose project had to be modified to be GDPR compliant.

Nico Lumma: The biggest challenge was one that we all faced: we had to make everything available in virtual settings instead of workshops and events in real life. This is especially hard for those who need to network and find partners in established companies. All the serendipity we find in events when we meet with people – all that was put on hold during the pandemic. The economic outlook due to the war in Ukraine also made it harder for the startups to secure investments.

Would you propose certain policy recommendations at EU and national level that would further enable media entrepreneurs and artists to thrive and achieve sustainable growth?

Hugues Vinet: One of the main aspects that emerges from our experience is the relevance of artists’ involvement in media innovation projects, both for the design of participatory processes that engage target users with the services developed and for the critical reflection they are able to bring to the public on key societal issues such as disinformation.

Nico Lumma: It’s necessary for Europe to focus on media and media tech again – we rely too much on platforms in the US and in China.

Hugues Vinet has been in charge of supervising the innovation, research and technological development activities at IRCAM since 1995. He founded and directed the STMS Lab ( Science and Technology of Music and Sound) at IRCAM with the support of CNRS and Sorbonne University, which gathers 100+ researchers and engineers. He coordinated many collaborative R&D projects at national and EU levels, including the first EU projects dedicated to automatic audio indexing (CUIDADO, SemanticHIFI) and more recently the VERTIGO project managing STARTS Residencies, a program of 45 residencies of artists contributing to technological innovation throughout Europe. He curates the Vertigo Forum, a yearly symposium at Centre Pompidou associated with thematic exhibitions gathering artists and researchers on contemporary trends of artistic creation in relation to science and technology. In MediaFutures, he is in charge of supervising the artistic residencies program.

Nico Lumma has studied Political Science and History in Göttingen, Germany, and in Berkeley, California. He hasn’t been offline since 1995 and has a strong interest in digital innovation. Nico co-founded the next media accelerator in 2015 to build the premier hub for media innovation in Europe. Nico co-founded D64 – Center for Digital Process, a non-profit organization that serves as a think-tank on important political issues dealing with the digital sphere. He serves on many advisory boards, including the State Council for Digital Development and Culture in Rhineland-Palatinate and the Roundtable on Digital Business of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

The MediaFutures Lessons Learned interview series was coordinated by the team Leibniz University of Hannover, L3S Research Center, with support from DEN Institute.