Beyond bricks and mortar: Technology for good

Beyond bricks and mortar: Technology for good

Written by Derek Manns, Co-founder & CEO Stagehand

Photo by Freckle Face Media Co. 

Technology offers an unprecedented opportunity to build, grow and support an inclusive and diverse arts and culture ecosystem. But it won’t happen by chance, we need to be intentional about our strategy to ensure the best possible outcome. Historically, big ticket investments in local arts and culture have included building facilities that showcase our biggest and most successful organizations. But it's 2023, we are in the midst of a digital revolution and technology presents some new opportunities that are accessible and inclusive to a much larger grassroots arts community. Technology is the elephant in the living room. Stewards of local culture need to develop proactive strategies to leverage technology so that we can maximize the good and mitigate the bad. Here is why technology is so important.

Technology is the 1000 pound gorilla.  The stock market is dominated by technology giants.  The “Magnificent Seven” which is made up of Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, Tesla, Invidia and Meta currently makes up 29.6 percent of the S&P 500 market value! In other words 1.4% of the companies make up almost 30% of the value of the largest companies on the US Stock Exchange. You don’t need an MBA to recognize that as a pretty clear signal that technology is having a disproportionate impact on our economy and on our lives. Think about how the industrial revolution changed our world, that is happening again but this time it is a digital revolution. All industries, including arts and culture, need to consider technology in their strategic planning. A rising tide lifts all boats, right now the tide is high, it is important to have a boat in the water. 

Technology is scalable. Software is scalable which means that it can grow and shrink quickly, it can provide new skills and capabilities to millions of users without the need for time intensive individual support. Shopify made it easy for anyone to sell products online now they have 2 million merchants managing 4 million online stores and that is disrupting traditional retail. Airbnb helps 4 million hosts rent spare rooms and collectively they have become a formidable competitor to the hotel industry. According to the Canadian Census and the US Bureau of Labour Statistics there are over 2.75M artists in North America and that only counts artists that spend more time at their art than any other profession. Most artists work day jobs to make ends meet so the real number of aspiring artists is much higher. Emerging artists can’t afford grant writers, managers or promoters to support them. This is the epitome of a “DIY” market where artists must rely on their own initiative to move forward in their career. The industry would benefit from an end to end digital ecosystem that augments the status quo. 

Conversely, bricks and mortar are difficult to scale, buildings are expensive and if you discover too late that they are too big or too small they can be very difficult to change. To be clear this should not be an either/or decision, there are times when new physical infrastructure is vital to the ecosystem, both options have a role. Metaphorically speaking, arts decision makers have the opportunity to support both ‘Shopify’ and ‘Traditional Retail’ to ensure the maximum possible benefit to the largest possible community.  

Technology is good at collecting data. An arts leader once told me that investments in local arts and culture are seen by politicians as “small budget but high political risk”.  Why?  Because the benefits of this type of investment are often measured qualitatively which is challenging in light of competing societal challenges. In the eyes of a decision maker how something made you feel is less important than what it made you do. Are you more likely to live, work or play downtown if you feel safe because there are bustling vibrant streets? Did a musician at the airport improve your first impression of a city, start your vacation on the right foot and make you want to come back? Did you linger longer in a neighborhood because a musician was performing and as a result you spent money for a burger and a beer on a local patio? Technology runs on 1’s and 0’s, it forces us to think in measurable ways that are reflected in data. We all want to be emotional and inspired but if we can’t justify our indulgences with quantitative data then the impact of the arts will continue to be a small but high risk line item. 

Technology is accessible. According to Pew research in 2022, 95% of Canadians used the internet and 98% of people between the ages of 18-29 own smartphones. That's an astounding level of market penetration and it provides an opportunity to reach a huge audience regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual preference or social status. In a world where the wealth gap between rich and poor continues to grow, access to technology seems almost ubiquitous regardless of how much you earn. Arts leaders have done an admirable job of advocating for DEI and the first step of being inclusive is connectivity and communication. It is difficult to support a marginalized community if you don’t know who they are or how to contact them. Technology provides the opportunity for extraordinary connectivity and reach.  

It's time for tech!

Technology represents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. We are in the middle of a digital revolution that shows no signs of slowing. Efficiency and scalability have enabled innovative business models that could serve millions of emerging artists. When managed properly data becomes a byproduct of the technology and that data can be a tool to measure impact and justify investments. Technology has disrupted many industries like travel, journalism, hospitality and retail and you could argue that local culture and identity are also being eroded by social media, streaming and global influences. But technology can be a positive force, it can be a catalyst for local culture and identity but it won’t happen by itself, stewards of local culture need to be proactive, they need strategies that embrace technology. Carpe Diem!  

In my next post I will talk about a specific example of where technology played a catalytic role for local artists, local culture and small business.