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Is This Even Possible?: Co-creating University and Industry Learnings for Immersive Experiences

DOI: | Issue 7 | Oct 2021

Bronwin Patrickson and Helen Davies (University of South Wales)


This article discusses an ambitious university-industry collaboration based at the University of South Wales that was designed to further develop digital storytelling practice within the UK Creative Industries. During this UKRI-funded, Audience of the Future R&D demonstrator project, the authors collaborated with Bristol-based animation studio Aardman, who were both licensors and content contributors for an immersive transmedia experience called The Big Fix Up based on the globally loved Wallace and Gromit intellectual property. Working closely with Aardman, the consortium drew upon their combined skills in games production, animation, creative marketing and new technology development to create a mobile application that marries Wallace and Gromit with mobile storytelling and the latest augmented reality and mixed reality technologies. One of the key aims of this larger industry-led demonstrator programme was to propel new immersive storytelling insights informed by extensive audience research. In their article, Davies and Patrickson examine this university-industry collaboration in methodological terms, outlining the factors that enabled them to negotiate cross-sector issues whilst reflecting on the multi-faceted approach to audience research that emerged from those negotiations.


In this article we discuss an ambitious university-industry collaboration designed to further develop digital storytelling practice within the UK Creative Industries. While the collaborative project has flourished it has not been without its challenges. We reflect upon the reasons for those challenges, as well as the ways that together with our research partners we were able to successfully negotiate mutually satisfactory resolutions to issues arising.

During a UKRI funded, Audience of the Future R&D demonstrator project the authors, Dr. Helen Davies (Research Fellow: Audience Research) from the University of South Wales (USW) and Dr. Bronwin Patrickson (Research Fellow: Impact and Evaluation) collaborated with a consortium of creative commercial practitioners known collectively as Fictioneers. The Audience of the Future initiative enabled USW to work alongside all members of the consortium, which included Potato (the London and San Francisco digital production development specialists), Sugar Creative (the Cardiff, Wales based creative innovation studio specialising in emerging and intelligent tech), and Tiny Rebel Games (a Newport, Wales-based game developer).

Fictioneers simultaneously collaborated with Bristol-based animation studio Aardman, who were both licensors and ongoing, proactive content contributors towards an immersive transmedia experience called The Big Fix Up based on the globally loved Wallace and Gromit IP. Working closely with the Aardman team, the consortium drew upon their combined skills in games production, animation, creative marketing and new technology development to create a mobile application that marries Wallace and Gromit with multiplatform storytelling. Combining the latest augmented reality and mixed reality, this networked mobile engagement invites the audience to actively engage with the narrative through different forms of media. Using transmedia elements such as augmented reality interaction, gaming, comics, YouTube videos and mobile tools, these enhanced experiences aim to engage new audiences and provide innovative ways for long term fans to interact with a media favourite.

One of the key aims of UKRI’s industry-led demonstrator programme was to propel new immersive storytelling insights informed by extensive audience research. As academic partners our role was to provide an expert spine of evaluation and research in order to help inform the evolution of the project and ensure that the learnings gained as a result could be shared more broadly through both industrial and academic channels. The University team included principle investigator Corrado Morgana, co-investigators Richard Hurford and Ruth McElroy, plus Research Fellows Helen Davies, Bronwin Patrickson and James Rendell. In addition, 4 USW students were recruited for internships that enabled them to also participate in our two-pronged research methodology involving 1) audience research both before and also during the Covid-19 pandemic and 2) behind the scenes documentation and evaluation.

To examine our university-industry collaboration in more detail, we will now consider four related aspects. First, we review common issues in university-industry partnerships. Following this, we discuss our personal experience of these issues. The third section of this article outlines the factors that enabled us to negotiate those issues, whilst the fourth section explains the multi-faceted approach to audience research that emerged from those negotiations.

University-Industry Collaborations

Collaborations between university humanities researchers working together with the private sector have become more common-place, often motivated by funding initiatives such as the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) Creative Cluster strategy. This multi-million-pound capacity-building fund purposefully promotes Creative Industry Partnerships as a way to foster cross-sectoral innovation. Designed to pro-actively develop digital storytelling practice within the UK Creative Industries, the Audience of the Future Demonstrator programme ran as part of this initiative. It funded four industry led consortia in the creative industries to create new immersive experiences and test them with large audiences. By providing opportunities for inter-cultural learning, student and civic engagement, as well as regional social cohesion and cultural capital development (Williams et al., 2017) these sorts of research and development partnerships offer many potential rewards. For industry those rewards include access to funds and research expertise, whilst universities can enjoy access to funds, professional knowhow and impact pathways (Nellickappilly and Maya, 2009; Poyago‐Theotoky et al., 2002; Bassett‐Jones, 2005). The potential benefits to students include masterclasses, internships and possible employment opportunities.

Cross-sectoral collaborations also pose a number of challenges. Inevitably, the connections being developed in these complex partnerships are negotiated through a variety of embedded cultures, distinct power structures, systems and methodologies (Josserand et al., 2004). In other words, universities and industry are likely to bring different values, motivations, expectations, even different languages (definitions and understandings) into these sorts of collaborations.

As business change consultant Ron Ashkenas points out:

Everyone seems to agree that collaboration across functions is critical for major projects and initiatives. The reality, however, is that meshing the skills and resources of different departments, each focused on its own distinct targets, to achieve a larger organizational goal is much easier said than done. In fact, it takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information, and cooperate. It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what and what not to do, in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses. And despite all the well-meaning co-operative behaviours, this is often where interdepartmental collaboration breaks down (Ashkenas, 2015).

Across all walks of society, there are ‘persistent points of tension within partnership formation and maintenance’ (Seddon et al., 2004: 123). The main challenge points repeatedly identified in previous empirical studies of university-industry collaborations include:

1. Different expectations, assumptions and languages

Knorr Cetina (2009: 1) who first coined the term ‘epistemic cultures’ (ways of being and knowing) describes normalized, organisational identities as ‘amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms … which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures that create and warrant knowledge’ (Cetina, 2009). As previous research indicates, diverse collaboration cultures are more likely to foster innovation (Nieto and Santamaría, 2007). Innovation is therefore a social process, driven by knowledge exchange across epistemic cultures and communities (Wenger, 2010), but these very differences can create as many potential barriers, as they are a provocation for change.

2. Higher Education (H.E.) knowledge exchange and free publication drive vs industry culture of competitive secrecy and Intellectual Property (I.P.) protection

Knowledge exchange is part of the tradition of universities, which emphasise the value of independent research, frequent publication, rigorous debate, inspired teaching and engaged learning in the pursuit of truth. Industry increasingly draws upon these traditions in the pursuit of open innovation, which describes the acquisition of knowledge outside of the firm in a mobile and networked information society (Chesborough, 2003), as well as cumulative innovation, which emphasises the way that innovations build upon each other through knowledge exchange (Murray and O'Mahony, 2007). Nevertheless, a culture of strict intellectual property protection, particularly prior to market release is still standard industry practice. Concerned by the prospect of corporate fraud, and sensitive to the value of market reputation, industry innovators often work within a culture of enforced Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and strictly controlled promotional campaigns.

3. Cultural enrichment ethos vs profit motivations

Whereas academic values tend to be tied to cultural agendas, industry is more likely to be dependent upon profit and therefore much more sensitive to commercial concerns. For that reason, Nellickappilly and Maya (2009) argue that it is imperative that the commercial motivations of any university-industry collaboration align with the public good. For example, it is not in the public interest if commercial pressures influence research into the efficacy of a proposed medical treatment, and indeed, the very nature of commercialised medical treatment raises all sorts of social justice and equity concerns. Nellickappilly and Maya (2009) urge universities to develop clear policies to help ensure that only university-industry collaborations that serve, rather than hinder, the public interest are able to proceed.

4. H.E. bureaucratic structures vs industrial speed & emergent processes

University-industry collaborations are contextualised by very different performance considerations (Perkmann et al., 2011). In a fast changing market, quick response time and efficient development processes can make or break industry initiatives (Santoro and Chakrabarti, 2002). Whereas university reputations can rest upon research that is thorough, as well as effective. Any research breakthroughs are likely to be rigorously questioned and checked before publication. Furthermore, those checks are likely to be guided by the established protocols and procedures of a bureaucratic public structure sensitive to the need to foresee all possible risks, as much as pursue likely rewards (Cyert and Goodman, 1997). As a result, industry cultures are much more likely to be deadline driven, privileging responsiveness and punctuality. When these two cultures have to coordinate, industry partners can feel hampered by the rules and regulations of university research practice and find themselves impatient to see work outcomes, such as research results sooner, rather than later once researchers have had time to triple check the results and reflect upon the broader implications of their findings (Plewa et al., 2005, Plewa, 2009).

5. H.E. long-term knowledge expansion orientation vs industry’s short-term problem-solving goals

When it comes to audience research, Griffiths (2014: 158) similarly explains how academic and industry research is often negotiated by different sets of priorities. Academic research is carefully planned with clear aims and objectives. Multi-layered methodologies are often used, adhering to strict ethical frameworks. The research is often grounded in an established terrain of published work using traditional methodologies. The main goal of academic research is to make an ongoing contribution to knowledge with open access outputs such as publications. In contrast, industry research is often driven by specific tasks such as validation, timescales tend to be compressed with a degree of pressure to produce instant results. Analysis can be less comprehensive with a focus on finding general patterns. Often due to the commercially sensitive nature of the findings, research tends to remain closed and confidential.

Even despite the overwhelming value of the Audience of the Future cross-sectoral collaboration for all concerned, entering into that collaboration as university support researchers meant that we also encountered each of these same challenges listed above. In the next section we briefly discuss examples of the ways that each challenge manifested during the course of the project, before reviewing the various practices and systems that enabled us to work through those issues.

University-Industry Collaboration Challenges in Practice

The ways that these issues emerged during research and development of The Big Fix Up are influenced by our own professional backgrounds and related expertise. Dr Davies has over 10 years’ experience of working as an academic media researcher and industry practitioner, working specifically in children’s media. Dr Patrickson has previously trained as a transmedia producer making documentaries and features for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She has a PhD in computer game design.

1. Different expectations, assumptions and languages

As part of its contribution to this project, the university opted to document and evaluate this collaborative audience research project. Whilst on the surface it appeared that the idea of documentation was embraced by the consortium, nevertheless it soon became clear that assumptions of what that entailed varied widely. In particular, it soon became apparent that the Research Fellow’s (Bronwin Patrickson) understanding of documentation differed from other members in the Consortia. With a background in broadcast documentary production, Dr. Patrickson was expecting to undertake a fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes video documentation project over time, whereas it soon became apparent that for some other members of the team, documentation implied one off, reflective and celebratory interviews at the end of the project. So, it did not take long before the team realised that all members of the consortium needed to sit down and talk through what was OK, what was not OK, and renegotiate the whole approach towards documentation. What resulted was a stripped back approach which balanced still image documentation with the option to conduct audio-only interviews both during production and after launch. These key elements were supplemented by occasional video documentation of group meetings coupled with access to company archives and an ongoing participatory observation study.

2. Higher Education (H.E.) knowledge exchange and free publication drive vs industry culture of competitive secrecy and IP protection

Conflicting publication drives also became apparent early in the trajectory of this research and development project. There are limits to what the researchers can say in research outputs, particularly prior to the public launch of The Big Fix Up, largely due to the need to respect our partner’s commercial requirements and non-disclosure agreements. For our collaborators these are not only creative and commercial matters, but also legal concerns. In a partnership context we are conscious of the need to maintain confidentiality in order to help ensure that project innovations are not copied by any third parties before Fictioneers has had a chance to fully develop and release them themselves.

The project website, [1], is another example of this sort of partnership negotiation. Prior to launch, the website content primarily consisted of a database of relevant research summaries, a collection of blog posts carefully edited to omit production details, plus a record of project public engagement events. Yet, even these limited publications were delayed during the early R&D phase. In pre-publication consultation meetings Fictioneers requested that publication of the USW project website be held off until the Fictioneers’ own site was online (due a few months later). The USW team were surprised by this request at first, but ultimately agreed, concluding that there was indeed a need to consult and adjust schedules in order to align with project partners.

3. Cultural enrichment ethos vs profit motivations

In this R&D project these potential tensions were mitigated to some extent by the creative legacy of the popular Wallace & Gromit IP. The Wallace & Gromit characters have been described as ‘cultural icons’ (Youngs, 2005). They are beloved fictional creations that delight audiences due to their rich visuals and humorous treatment, as much as their accessibility. This comfortable merger of creative and commercial value means that creativity has been embedded as a core motivation of the R&D process throughout. Furthermore, that creative and commercial alignment was reinforced by the context of public funding. From the outset, inclusivity was central to the bid and remains important to the team.

4. H.E. bureaucratic structures vs industrial speed & emergent processes

One of the first tasks that both Research Fellows faced when work commenced on this project was to ensure that the research plan be reviewed and authorised by the university’s ethics committee. Knowing that such processes can take time, it was important that a clear research plan was formulated. With that in mind, we developed a clear set of research questions identifying who would be involved in the research, and how they would go about collecting the data. While the project had begun in early spring of 2019, the USW Research Fellows did not start until August of 2019.

By this time, Fictioneers were eager to get the audience research up and running. However, it was not quite as straightforward as that. Fictioneers work in fortnightly research and development cycles known as sprints. At the beginning of the two-week window, a list of tasks will be identified. By the end of that sprint, these tasks should be marked off. However, when this includes rigid bureaucratic structures within an institution like a university, this can be tricky. Ensuring that the research adhered to the strict ethical frameworks required, the drafting of a number of supporting documents, such as consent forms, and letters explaining the research for participants. As the research team wanted to conduct the research with a number of different groups, including children, appropriate communications needed to be prepared for all participants and gatekeepers such as parents, teachers, children, adults, and those with additional needs. Despite this, the university’s ethics team worked relatively quickly to ensure that paperwork was approved. By October, audience research with families was underway. This, however, brought new challenges in the form of research turnaround. In order to fit within the sprint timetables, research sessions needed to be transcribed and distributed amongst the design teams within 48 hours. Subsequently, in depth analysis was replaced by a stripped back approach, at least in the first instance. While different to previous research collaborations, due partly to the size and scale of this project, utilising transcription software and project collaboration tools such as Confluence has meant that the research feeds directly back and remains central to the overall project.

5. H.E. long-term knowledge expansion orientation vs industry’s short-term problem-solving goals

Although the value of UX (user experience) testing and evaluation is increasingly apparent within digital application development, there is still a notable lack of large-scale digital media audience research (Scott and Dietz, 2016), perhaps due to lack of familiarity with the costs involved and time required to do it well. Indeed, part of the rationale of the Audience of the Future Demonstrator programme was to highlight the value of extensive audience research and redress this lack in order to generate the insights required to enrich the UK’s immersive production landscape.

The university’s unique role within this project allowed us to ask challenging questions at times. For example, although inclusivity was a priority consideration and accessibility guidelines were consulted, cost was still a pertinent factor to consider when designing an inclusive game or experience. Our role as research partners has been to challenge some of these decisions and suggest alternative ways of considering inclusivity. Whilst we were not in a position to dictate the results, nevertheless encouraging the team to think creatively and practically about such issues has been central to the role and in the formation of a research plan.

Comfort Points

To help us navigate these issues, in addition to the mitigating factors described above, we also enjoyed a number of what you might call comfort points, i.e. characteristics specific to our Consortium that enabled us to find workarounds for these various challenges.

1. Small and close

For the many technology and digital companies that already enjoyed flexible working arrangements using remote collaboration tools like google hangouts (audio-video conferencing and screen-sharing), slack (team chat and online networking), Jira (networked workplace task scheduling) and Confluence (networked document sharing), supplemented by additional software to enable screen mock-ups and visual assets sharing, the move towards remote work during the Coronavirus pandemic was relatively seamless. With these networking processes already in place, Fictioneers were able to swiftly shift gears as the crisis worsened and move to a remote work pattern well ahead of many other companies.

Nevertheless, prior to shifting towards 100% remote work the company also benefited from a crucial formation period of regular face to face team contact throughout 2019. In order to nurture a new team identity from the collaborative efforts of three founding companies it was particularly helpful for the team to be able to spend time together in the same room, bringing shared, practical goals to fruition. When issues arose, as they invariably did, it was helpful to be able to talk them through face to face. In this way, proximity was a strength of our collaboration in the early days of this project. In these early stages in particular, the fact that our consortium all hail from the same region (South East England and South Wales) and are small enough to all come together regularly and sit in the same room has been invaluable.

2. Cultural affinities

Enhancing these connection pathways, there is also some cultural synthesis between members of the consortium. Fictioneers enjoy a fairly diverse workforce. Members include a broad cultural mix with a wide range of age groups and life experiences. Females feature in leadership and technical development roles, plus some of the founders are long-term visiting Fellows of the university. Numerous members of the team are also USW graduates as well. The benefits of these shared culture values reflects the importance of choosing the right partner in the first place, which is a theme that features prominently in previous studies of successful cross-sectoral collaborations (Barnes et al., 2006).

3. Shared mission

Previous research indicates that constructive team work develops out of an incremental collaboration process that focuses upon sharing of individual perception, co-constructing a shared perspective and constructive conflict, which enables those involved to effectively negotiate an agreed consensus (Decuyper et al., 2010). This sort of negotiation is likely to be much more fluid when the team is already positioned towards collaboration through a shared mission, that involves practical task interdependence (Pinjani and Palvia, 2013, Widmann and Mulder, 2018) .

The Big Fix Up project propelled the birth of a new, combined business identity through an ongoing process of discussion and consultation. The three founding companies made the crucial early decision that rather than work together ad hoc, they would commit to building a new independent business entity, Fictioneers, and hire dedicated managers and project leaders to actually manage the project and nurture the culture of their consortium identity.

4. Robust communication pathways

As a result of that decision, Fictioneers are led by experienced managers who work across the three founder companies to champion the emerging, shared business identity. Lead project manager Richard Saggers has almost twenty years-experience driving large-scale product innovation projects at Vodafone, whilst product lead Jamie Innes has worked as Design Lead for numerous companies including Nokia and Spotify. At the same time, a significant proportion of the production team includes recent graduates and early-mid career designers, artists and developers. At least one member of the team working on The Big Fix Up has pointed out that this diverse mix of industry experience and youthful innovation contrasts with standard technology company practice dominated by majority staff populations under the age of forty years. Nevertheless, experienced and effective management is a crucial success factor identified in previous cross-sectoral collaboration research (Barnes et al., 2006).

The consortium’s rich array of collaboration tools also support their R&D approach known as agile (Beck et al., 2001), which emphasises fast, flexible, iterative development cycles. Agile was collaboratively developed by a group of people working in the software industry after it became clear that more traditional linear development cycles were more suitable for established production processes. Previously, long planning phases and a fixed development cycle had created a type of fixation on planning documents. As a result of this sort of fixity the results might only be presented to developers, or even clients upon a predefined delivery date, which invariably caused problems when further changes are required.

The agile alternative is basically a set of principles that are designed to privilege:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Those principles include client consultation throughout with a preference for face-to-face communication, short and iterative development cycles that enable ready change as required, enabled by daily cross team collaborations in tandem with a preference for simplicity, that regards working software as the primary measure of success, supported by processes to ensure regular team reflections, meaningful feedback mechanisms and pursuant work-flow adjustments (Beck et al., 2001).

Agile innovation cultures are now well established within software R&D cultures with numerous proven use cases (Duka, 2013, Serrador and Pinto, 2015). Fictioneers use agile in combination with a regularly target iteration cycle known as scrum, which is a process framework for working both creatively and productively in complex contexts that features a regular (in this case fortnightly) Sprint Planning and Review cycle, including team leader strategy meetings to clarify targets, and review timelines. Progress in between these fortnightly review sessions is monitored via the daily scrum, or stand-up, which is a start of day ritual sharing of each team member’s daily work-targets either face to face, or via the team messaging application Slack instead. A fourth element in the scrum cycle approach is a reflective Sprint Retrospective to workshop and address any issues arising. Fictioneers dub these reflective workshopping sessions retros. These team building sessions can include discussion of what’s working, what’s not working and how to address those challenges, or playful discussion starters, aided by team coaches.

These combined research and development approaches are embedded within a consciously designed culture of open communication. Again, this links back to the agile stance which promotes flat, non-hierarchical power-structures that ostensibly value the input of all team members equally. In reality, Fictioneers leadership hierarchies are not flat. There are clear lines of command in place, including not only project managers, but also the sub-team leads, who communicate (or negotiate, depending upon the context) logistical issues and strategy decisions between management and the rest of the teams, whether they be the designers, developers, art team and/or operations. In such a complex project as this which involves numerous project partners, as well as a variety of networked media platforms it seems that management hierarchies do indeed help to ensure swift and accountable decision making pathways. Nevertheless, the management approach does aim to be open. Managers and team coaches are continually checking in with the team, either calling for commentary in open meetings, or opening the development trajectory up to team input in specially designed meetings like the fortnightly retrospective, or weekly product cafe sessions which collate and discuss product design wish-lists in thematic post-it note collections. Employees are also assertive within this structure. For example, a key push to reconsider and renegotiate the minimum viable scope of The Big Fix Up was instigated by members of the development team, rather than management. Alongside this, team coaches also devised artefacts to support safe sharing of these scope concerns, such as an ‘elephant in the room’ post-it note board that they briefly installed in the staff kitchen at one point in order to encourage team members to share their unspoken fears, and complaints about the impending work schedule. Indeed, these anonymous post-it notes instigated meaningful results when the schedule was indeed, duly adjusted in a follow-up team retrospective workshop.

5. A general ethical stance

As our collaboration experience indicates, whilst challenge themes may be apparent even before a partnership commences, it's not always possible to pre-define the exact nature of any particular challenge that is likely to arise day by day. So, rather than try to establish a detailed code of conduct, we employed a general ethical principle or stance. Basically, this meant promoting mutually respectful relationships where respect is the right to come with an open attitude, but also to challenge when necessary, to listen and make every effort to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions to challenges that arise.

This dialogical stance sits comfortably with the philosophy of open agile innovation cultures and was also embedded within our partner ethics agreements. For example, the public facing ‘how-to’ documentation website published at underwent a rigorous and collaborative internal review process involving all three of Fictioneers’ founding partner companies and individual staff members. In the midst of a global pandemic, we also had to manage the impact of inevitable production delays which meant that the original research plan to undertake a more in-depth, post-launch project evaluation, sometimes called a post-mortem, was no longer viable during the available research timeline. Reflecting these circumstances, we describe the project documentation website as a collaborative knowledge transfer production, rather than a research report as such.

Discussing the realities of creative partnerships in documentary film-making, Munro and Bilbrough refer to this sort of practical research context as an ‘ecology of complex relationships’ (2018: 257) that involve reflexive and discursive negotiations. Citing Ross Gibson’s (2010) discussion of the tensions between insider knowledge gained through direct participatory experience and the more distanced and potentially debatable knowledge gained through reflective evaluation, Munro & Bilbrough (2018) suggest that these dialogical knowledge flows are increasingly common – so the more that their influence is considered the better:

Most of our inherited disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences all espouse the dispassionate assessment of carefully distanced objects. But all around me now I see cultural phenomena and interactive relationships that are not objects, not stable or amenable to modelled analysis, not susceptible to distanced appreciation. Instead I see networked and interactive phenomena that are complex, dynamic, relational, ever altering and emergent (Gibson, 2010: 7-8).

As Munro & Bilbrough (2018) also point out, even seemingly inclusive motivations to provide a voice for the voiceless within documentary practice are likely to involve power relationships that both give and frame those interventions. Left unexamined, these power relations can also become intrusive. Open acknowledgement of these issues can at the very least help to manage them.

In this project we were working members of an industry-led consortium, partnered with a dynamic, passionate and relatively empowered innovation group. Our process might appear quite novel in comparison with more traditional, independent university research practice, but hopefully what we have shown through this article is that university collaboration in an industry-led R&D project is also possible. The documentation site, for example, may not include a post-mortem, but it does include rare and in-depth behind-the-scenes access to a unique creative innovation project. The learnings are captured through extensive maker interviews and behind-the-scenes recordings, relevant research summaries and ‘how-to’ analysis, authoritative masterclass presentations from numerous team members including artists, designers, programmers and publicists, as well as USW’s student intern contributions and our own video conference presentations.

Although studies have shown that the rate and standard of academic publication differ very little between specialist theoretical and applied/collaborative research (Salimi et al., 2015), partnership contexts nevertheless demand that evaluation frameworks are adjusted to enable both consultation and shared insight. Writing about community research partnerships, Griffiths (2000) notes that the idea that participatory community projects are open and honest exchanges taking place between equal partners, ignores the likelihood that these collaborations are more likely to unfold amidst a much more nuanced landscape of interlocking, but nevertheless discrete spaces, processes and personalities. One of the nuances that we needed to navigate as the university partners of this Audience of the Future Demonstrator programme was the reality that complete editorial independence was neither appropriate, nor necessarily even ethical in a partnership context. In the next section we explain how these adjustments influenced our multi-layered audience research strategy.

Collaboration in Action: Audience Research

Working collaboratively with Fictioneers’ design team, a series of research sessions were undertaken using a combination of research methodologies namely focus groups, semi structured interviews and task-based research sessions. As opposed to focusing solely on user testing, the team collaborated to devise a layered methodology that was considerate of the research participants. Fictioneers were eager to engage with three key demographics: families, Wallace & Gromit fans, and tech enthusiasts. The research design combined qualitative research methodologies, and creative task-based techniques with industry, user experience (UX), and user testing. As mentioned, these sessions were conducted with schoolchildren, families and students. Between October 2019 and February 2020, focus group sessions had been conducted at Aardman studios with families, with children at a school in Bristol and with undergraduate students at the university. Each session had task-based activities tailored to the aforementioned groups. Our research with families at Aardman was centred on using Wallace & Gromit visual aids (namely a showreel of clips from the previous films) followed by focus group discussion and app demonstration to gain a better understanding of the family demographic and their engagement with augmented reality (AR). A similar approach was taken at the university, however as many of the participants were game design students they were able to offer more comprehensive responses to the app’s usability. Thirdly, we conducted research sessions with secondary school children in Bristol to gain a better understanding of the importance of in-game/in-app avatars. Here we utilised a creative research methodology to encourage the children to create their own avatar using printed assets (eyes, ears, noses, etc) in the Wallace & Gromit style. Acetates and pens were also available to allow the children to customise their avatars. From a research perspective the use of a task-based activity allowed for more creative expression and transformed the power relations between researchers and young participants (O’Kane, 1999, Scott, 2000).

Future sessions were also planned with specialist teaching units, hospitals, and more students, but due to the global pandemic the research plan was compromised and subsequently redirected. As the UK plunged into lockdown in March 2020, people working in higher education and those in many other industries were forced to drastically alter how they work. For many academic researchers, the new social distancing rules meant that face-to-face research was no longer viable. The research design needed to evolve rapidly and find a way of conducting meaningful remote audience research. Drawing on industry experience of remote testing, the team decided to explore the possibility of utilising the software Lookback, a research tool often used in product design that allows users to conduct task-based research sessions remotely. This decision meant that the audience research could be resumed in a way that was safe for our participants. The software allows for sessions to be either mediated by a researcher or conducted independently by the participants. Sessions could be recorded and also observed by multiple researchers in real time.

While there were some initial concerns regarding the remote testing, the research team were able to devise a multi layered approach to ensure that the research went beyond merely ‘testing’ user experience and continued to address issues such as inclusivity, and media technology change. These methods included embedded questionnaires for the self-testing sessions, and semi-structured interviews for the mediated sessions. From an academic perspective, it was paramount that the software was compliant with our ethical framework, and also had the capacity to accommodate multiple research approaches. Lookback was a familiar tool for some Fictioneers who worked in production design, but something that, at the time of conducting the initial remote testing, had rarely been used in academic research contexts. In terms of collaboration, this highlighted the benefits of knowledge exchange between industry and academic. Utilising the university’s extensive network of students, we were able to involve USW students in the research process.

USW student intern recruitment video of footage of research sessions for The Big Fix Up.

In May 2020, Fictioneers offered a series of lightning talks for students on the various behind the scenes research and development tasks. In addition to this, the university was able to offer an internship program for four USW students over the summer. Students from across the faculty of creative industries were invited to apply with each internship tailored to the student’s individual needs.

Conclusion: Yes, it is possible

In this article we have reviewed common tensions in university-industry collaborations which include different expectations, assumptions and languages, as well as divergent motivations, leading to potential tensions between a cultural enrichment ethos traditionally prized by universities and the drive for commercial profit so important for industry. These potential tensions are compounded by conflicting publication drives, schedules that seem to work at odds with each other, and conflicting research priorities with universities emphasising a big picture view, versus a tendency amongst industry groups to focus upon solving the problems directly in front of them.

As the literature suggests and as our own experience confirms, these sorts of challenges may be inevitable, but they can also be offset by wise choices and effective management. Numerous good practice principles for successful university-industry collaborations have already been identified in previous research, the most relevant to our context being:

  1. Choose partners wisely (with respect to experience, stability, integrity, trustworthiness, openness to innovation, cultural fit)​

  2. Commit to build trust​

  3. Involve experienced/adept project managers​

  4. Realistically assess time commitments and schedules​

  5. Establish robust communication strategies, combining formal mechanisms for day to day communications along with informal occasions for team-building​ (Barnes et al., 2006).

A rich, creative collaboration is all about the quality of the knowledge exchange relationship. When that relationship is not immediately intuitive, or even easy it is imperative that there are robust communication pathways in place, along with a commitment to the relationship despite any teething issues and open, flexible communication to help mediate between diverse work cultures. Particularly in the early phases of a professional collaboration some degree of trust and faith in the mutual capacity to broker effective knowledge exchange may be required in order for diverse teams to work together effectively. A shared belief in the importance of constructive teamwork is equally important, as much if not more so than the drive to further the individual interests of team members. Amongst Fictioneers, which is itself a consortium of diverse, cross-disciplinary practitioners ranging from technologists to artists to publicists and producers this shared ethos was repeatedly emphasised in team meetings. Working group leads were regularly asked questions like ‘What do you need from the rest of us?’, ‘How can we help you to do what you need to do?’, and ‘Does everybody understand this issue?’. Complex cross-disciplinary production teams demand effective communication cultures, so as a matter of course, sub working groups were encouraged to consult across working groups as much as possible, to the point that user experience designers even taught themselves the basics of Unity, one of the developer programmes, in order to better understand the workflow and needs of their partner developers.

Working with Fictioneers on The Big Fix Up, we were lucky that a reflective, iterative and dialogic approach was embedded in our collaboration from the start. If we were to start the project over again knowing what we know now about our collaboration partners, the main change that we would make would be to immediately embrace that team-wide professional consultation culture. We conclude by answering the question that we posed in the title of this article: yes, it is possible for universities and industry to work together on Creative Industries research and development projects, particularly when university partner with industry groups that are just as motivated, and equally equipped to capture the learnings of the experience.


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[1] Full publication of the website is forthcoming.

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