A new strategy report advises Edinburgh’s festivals to improve their digital offering if the city is to avoid complacency and remain a cultural world-beater.

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Edinburgh’s position as the “world’s leading Festival City” is threatened if the sector does not address gaps in digital, infrastructure and funding programmes, according to an extensive strategy report which concludes that “the festivals are behind the curve on digital innovation… and risk being overtaken by others”. The report, Thundering Hooves 2.0, proposes a series of wide-ranging reforms for the city’s 12 festivals, but remains optimistic about the potential for continued growth of the city’s brand, and praises the trust and confidence amongst the festivals that has been generated as a by-product of its research.

Report authors Festival and Events International and BOP Consulting note that one of the biggest shortcomings since the original ‘Thundering Hooves’ was published in 2006 has been a lack of appreciation of the need to establish Edinburgh’s festivals as both a physical and digital phenomenon. As a result, “digital should be the next big area of growth in content distribution and audience development, across all festivals”. The report encourages the festivals to consider the balance between the live and digital experience. It notes that rolling out a strong digital offering is hampered by heritage and planning constraints in some areas of the city. As a solution, the authors implore the Festivals Forum to work with the City Council to develop a more joined-up digital infrastructure, which would involve dark fibre and digital capacity in key venues, and an increased willingness to create and curate new work online.

In addition, physical infrastructural problems are creating a “tension between the needs of residents and of visitors,” which weakens Edinburgh’s offering in comparison to competitor festivals. Some of these problems seem fairly trivial – such as not including charging power points in large public spaces – but, given the 2011 estimate of £261m of additional spending by festival visitors, are key to pushing on the Edinburgh offer.

This emphasis on factors external to performance is echoed in recommendations for a deeper and wider engagement with the local community. The report says that whilst it is clear that all of the festivals have top-quality outreach programmes, the majority have not been developed to their full educational potential. “This whole area needs to move up the agenda,” says the report, with a particular focus on social justice; the authors are keen for the gaps between civic pride, engagement and participation to be closed, particularly in deprived areas.

Thundering Hooves 2.0 urges financial sponsors to maintain core and project funding, but also for the festivals to consider alternative funding models and prepare themselves for the “fiscal cliff” facing local authorities. It finds that whilst public subsidy is essential for the business model, in that an “erosion of public investment is likely to have a disproportionate effect on earned income,” the festivals are not overly reliant upon it: only 29% of the combined festival turnover of £36m for 2014/15 came through public subsidy. Looking ahead, the report cautions that the swing in political support in Scotland from Labour to the Scottish National Party could shift Edinburgh’s cultural context in as-yet unknowable ways.

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