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Sparks, Civics and Skills: A Hong Kong Festival

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities & Education, reflects on his recent trip to Hong Kong's SPARK Festival of Creativity.

By Professor Keith McLay - 28 January 2019

SPARK: an onomatopoeia (well almost). And thus it was with a skip, a click and a flick that Professor Judith Lamie (Pro Vice-Chancellor, External Affairs) and I made our way along to Central and Tai Kwun, the former Hong Kong police station recently refurbished as a heritage centre, for the Hong Kong branch of the British Council's three-day festival, SPARK: The Science and Art of Creativity.

Proceedings got off to a rather unprepossessing start as our enthusiasm to arrive in good time led to some confusion. Presenting ourselves at the closed gate (now there was a missed clue) we offered our credentials as SPARK participants (perfectly true, Professor Lamie was scheduled to present at a session on the Sunday, about which more later) and were ushered into the loading bay, asked for ID and very nearly issued with a Festival usher's uniform.

With the muddle cleared up as the gate swung free for the opening ceremony, presided over by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, the local Director of the British Council, Jeff Streeter, and the UK Consul-General Andrew Heyn OBE, the main business of Festival-going could begin.

The Festival's four themes

The Festival programme, divided into four themes, 'Art Meets Science', 'Altered Realities', 'Future Skills' and 'Creative Cities', offered some 30 events over the three days, with around 50 participating international partners from the creatives, education and industry.

Now, any seasoned festival-goer, whether it be the Edinburgh International Festival or Glastonbury, will know that there will be some flops across the piece. And so it proved at SPARK. This author was left nonplussed by 90 minutes sitting outside on a concrete step listening to decidedly variable musical theatre about the weather (how very British), while the dense, detailed academic exposition read from an iPhone at a seminar on technology and learning in the 21st century was off-line (no pun intended).

Still, the Festival's core thrust, and especially the sessions on skills and creative cities, was inspiring and reaffirmed the role and prominence of a modern, applied university engaged civically. No more was this the case than at the session on promoting 21st century skills in the future workforce. Drawing upon the World Economic Forum's recent Jobs Report, presenter after presenter stressed the future importance of creativity, cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence, skills which are integral to the Derby student experience.

Universities as Placemakers

This point, and more, were driven home at the 'Universities as Placemakers' seminar. Here, Professor Lamie took to the panel stage along with other luminaries such as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts, London, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong's West Kowloon's Cultural District and the Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University (which specialises in the humanities and social sciences).

All speakers outlined the seminal role for universities in making the place, shaping communities and reframing the academic and skills horizon of the locale, but it was Derby's range and civic partnership model which SPARKED a resonance with the audience.

Through Professor Lamie's outline of Derby's applied education offer, its engagement with business funnelled through the Business Gateway, its promotion of social innovation and enterprise through the Arts&Culture@Derby Board and the work of Derby Theatre as a Learning Theatre, the audience understood the centrality and significance of the University over the past few years as a placemaker in Derby and Derbyshire.

And so to the SPARK closing ceremony, and a 70th birthday celebration for the British Council in Hong Kong. Save for a wobble when this historian author sought to entertain the novelist Louise Welsh with some witty aperçus on her recently completed dystopian trilogy, Plague Times (my English Literature colleagues would doubtless have been aghast), it was as well to reflect on the journey.

From the heart of England, nearly 6,000 miles to the original Asian entrepôt, the University of Derby had placed its mark at an international education and arts festival as a modern, applied university delivering the skills required for a global 21st century workforce.

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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