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Building (a digital) LEEDS 2023: a unique opportunity to be bold and inventive

On our journey towards 2023, we are committed to sharing the learning across all our strands of work. In this blog, our Director of External Relations Abigail Scott Paul introduces the work we have undertaken, with Uzma Johal MBE and Rob Gethen Smith from Threshold Studios, to embed digital across our organisation.


The one advantage of setting up a brand–new organisation under lockdown conditions is that we have the opportunity to design digital into our very being from the get-go.  We are effectively a ‘start-up’ without the shackles of legacy systems and processes, operating in a rapidly changing environment.  Good job two of our company values are about being bold and inventive! 

As an emerging company, we have the freedom to think creatively about how to design an organisation and unlock the potential of technology to support our mission effectively and efficiently: to deliver a landmark year of culture connecting and benefiting people now and in the future.   

Our Design Vision 

At the start of this journey, we agreed internally on our vision for digital: to embed and integrate digital fully across our three core elements: the artistic, operational and communication functions.

To help us with the technical and sector expertise needed to design a suitable approach, we appointed (after an open tender process) Uzma Johal MBE and Rob Gethen Smith from Threshold Studios to undertake ‘A Digital Roadmap for LEEDS 2023.   

Below they set out the foundations of what we hope will become a best practice model for a digital year of culture.   

Uzma Johal MBE and Rob Gethen Smith 

Threshold is a creative and cultural agency, that uses creative technology to create space for change and has always sought out to develop and deliver transformative experiences so that people and communities can thrive.  The opportunity to work with the LEEDS 2023 executive team, whose values were so in sync with ours, was an absolute privilege. 

Whilst there was a process to undertake, at the very heart, it was about how such a significant programme such as LEEDS 2023 could potentially create lasting impact in its communities, at a time where inequalities have been exposed and there has been such devastation amongst many, as a result of the pandemic.  

We wanted to make sure we didn’t get carried away with technology ‘speak’ and our own preconceived notions of what digital meant in this context; we all wanted to create a plan that was “live”, practical and agile; to proactively seek out existing expertise in the sector for creative collaboration and embed digital upskilling as part of artists’ development plans. 

Furthermore, we needed to make sure that the founding principle of the roadmap was authentic in its commitment to inclusivity and access; and acknowledge the realities of digital poverty and literacy for anyone who would be coming into contact with LEEDS 2023. The importance of a constant “test, review and refine” approach would need to be adopted, which is easier said than done.  

The significant challenge, of course, is to translate what ‘being digital’ actually means and of course it goes far beyond just digitising content – it goes much deeper and challenges the whole approach to creating extraordinary experiences, developing audiences and engagement, all the while ensuring operational excellence behind the scenes.  

  • Defining ‘digital’ 

So what did we do first? We spent time reminding ourselves what we actually mean by being digital. We introduced the idea that digital is not a noun or a verb and in fact ‘being digital’ describes how you think, how you behave, what you value, and what drives decisions in your organisation.  

Digital is about designing the way an organisation works by optimising the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the digital era to respond to people’s raised expectations. 

  • Design Principles 

Based on this definition we developed a range of design principles. We did this with the team in a virtual workshop. Number one on the list was that no one person owned ‘digital’ – this of course made perfect sense since to fully embed digital practices and thinking into the fabric of the organisation, it has to be owned and embraced by everyone. So at a practical level, this ruled out having any ‘head of digital’ type roles. Other key design principles we adopted included: 

  • We will embrace simple and elegant solutions and avoid over-engineering. 
  • We will use digital to help us be transparent, open and collaborative. 
  • We will design our digital infrastructure with an exit strategy. 

This last principle was very important for an organisation that has a time-bound existence and we agreed that it should be straight forward in 2024 to maintain, retire or hand over our data and systems. 

  • Digital Capabilities  

Armed with a vision, definition and principles we set to designing the digital capabilities that would support the delivery of LEEDS 2023 and extraordinary experiences. We used a customer journey mapping approach to identify what the core digital capabilities needed to be and from this identified the enabling technologies, processes and roles. A big focus was naturally placed on the operating model and the roles to support this. 

  • Digital Operating Model 

Developing, the Digital Operating model was the most exciting and pivotal part of this process, demanding a step change in the way we develop any creative programme. Traditionally, (and in very general sweeping terms) the artistic team produces and creates, the marketing team promotes and the operational functions served to capture and produce the data required to quantify the reach to audiences.  

For the LEEDS 2023 Digital Operating model, we proposed a more integrated approach, that acknowledged the fundamental shift in how audience behaviours and consumption have changed and the role of digital capabilities in enabling a dynamic new way of developing the LEEDS 2023 programme.  

Functionally, we have introduced a Head of Experience Design role (under the comms/marketing team) working alongside the Executive Producer to develop the creative programme, using a constant flow of both quantitative and qualitative data to refine artistic decisions. In reality, this will be a real step change, where the marketing and artistic functions will influence the creative outputs equally and collaboratively and one to watch as it unfolds. There are some amazing learning already evolving out of the sector since the pandemic started and this digital operating model may offer, a distinctive shift in the way the cultural sector might look to change traditional approaches to working. 

And finally… 

We must remember that this really all boils down to people and ways of working. The roadmap identifies key enablers, but it is clear that onboarding and a programme of ongoing digital training are needed to ensure everyone feels included and supported in how we are using digital collaboration tools, systems and technology to achieve our goals.  

We presented the Road Map to our Board in March and it was fantastic to hear that they fully endorse this approach. We are continuing to reach out to people in the sector to absorb as much learning as possible and I am delighted to say that Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company has agreed to join our Communications and Digital Advisory Group, to help us on our journey. We have some ‘nuts and bolts’ to sort out next, like the procurement of a CRM system that will work for us – we will be making sure we stick to our design principles as we choose that – as well as exploring ticketing and volunteer management solutions. 

We will keep blogging along the way as we test and iterate our roadmap. In the meantime, please do join us at the Leeds Digital Festival where we are hosting a range of events

You can download the key elements of our Digital Roadmap here.

IMAGE CREDIT: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash, 2017