THE BLOG
28/10/2015 11:52 GMT | Updated 28/10/2016 06:12 BST

Once Upon a Time in the West...

Four years is a delightfully and tortuously long time to do anything.

This is one of my biggest learning points from producing REACT - which we set up FOUR years ago with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The purpose of REACT was always to get people collaborating. But as one of four hubs established to get academics and creative technology businesses working together, we also wanted to play with temporality. We wanted to address the differing timescales of academic research and commercial imperative, to find gearing mechanisms that smoothed out different ways of working and give ourselves time to learn, reflect and iterate.

To invent something new.

And we have: REACT was designed largely around Watershed's Sandbox methodology, which crowds together unusual ideas around specific themes and helps them to thrive and grow. Building trust and securing buy-in around the pace and process of Heritage Sandbox (our first with REACT) took time and faith, despite our proven track record.

How far then we have come, that by Play Sandbox (our fifth and final), hardly any convincing was needed to appoint a group of 8 - 12 years olds as co-commissioners and mentors. Which turned out to be the very best of plans. The luxury of time allowed room for trust and instinct, and resulted in a greater focus on the end user - something we will take forward into future work.

We rather typically began the REACT programme early - almost as soon as we had the funding confirmed - so when it came to the official announcements we had already advertised a funding call, run workshops, selected projects and were ready to begin production. "You will never be able to keep up this pace" a sister Hub colleague commented to me at the London launch event six months later. They had a point.

The slow processes of large institutions have been a source of great anguish for the REACT team. University contracts can take longer to gestate than a Black Rhino, and seasons pass quicker than many purchase orders. We had thought this was something we might influence - but culture change is a slow process and I suspect we have achieved more in that area too than we know.

Maintaining energy levels over four years has also been a challenge. But at the same time as our peers worried for our ability to keep up the pace, they also called us cowboys - the gun-slingers of the knowledge exchange Wild West - doing things quickly and bending the rules. Perhaps the resilience and stubbornness of being cowboys has kept us going. More likely it has been the joy and energy we draw from being part of a network of brilliant people with unusual ideas. A network of 53 supported projects and many more supported people (I guess somewhere over 800) that these days looks less like separate groups of academics and creatives, and feels more like a community.

Four years ago, I certainly wouldn't have predicted the breadth, strength and quality of the projects we have supported. Or that our last hurrah would be a Festival - of the scale and ambition of The Rooms which launches on 5 November in Bristol and is open to all to come and enjoy.

Of course four years necessarily defies imagination when you set out and we have all got braver over time. I suspect it will take us a few months yet to reflect, understand and celebrate what has been achieved.

Clare Reddington is Executive Producer of REACT, Creative Director of Watershed and an Outlaw. REACT is a collaboration between the University of the West of England, Watershed, and the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.