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Author Amy Finch
Head of Learning and Impact
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What are we missing when events go digital?

Next week, to coincide with what would have been the beginning of the Tokyo Games, the BBC will be transporting us back to 2012 by replaying the London Games. It follows on from their well-received repeats of iconic Glastonbury sets last month. Festivals and sporting fixtures may be cancelled, but we can still come together virtually to reminisce about shared experiences from the past.

In Jonathan Coe’s 2016 state-of-the-nation novel Middle England, the 2012 Opening Ceremony acts as the high point for uniting a country divided between different generations, geographies and attitudes, creating a vision of the country that everyone could buy into. While the novel papers over the divisions that still simmer under the surface, it is true that shared events can act as a bridge to genuinely connect people from different walks of life. The wildly-successful torch relay alongside public screenings in city centres ensured that the power of a physical experience extended beyond those lucky enough to have a ticket to the event itself. When people talk to us about 2012, it is these shared experiences that resonate eight years on.

When we are thinking about all of the things we have missed in 2020, the lack of events might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But if we dig a little deeper, it is clear that they play a powerful role in the fabric of our society, our shared connections and sense of wellbeing.  

There have been, of course, valiant and often successful attempts to recreate events digitally. We are currently funding 14 different projects that are using collective music making to improve wellbeing – and as my colleague Eibhlish Fleming, one of Spirit of 2012’s grant & learning managers wrote in her blog last month, many have reported being able to reach people who would have found it difficult to get to a physical session. You can still look forward to an online comedy festival, laugh at virtual singalong or feel energised by online Zumba – and we’re truly grateful at the inventiveness of those who are putting on these activities. But in the main, they’re a pale substitute for the buzz and togetherness of the real thing.  

We have heard a lot about bubbles over the last few months, and one of the main consequences of the lack of events this year will be how much people have retreated into their own.  Much of the magic of an event happens in the margins – in the queue, or over lunch.  In their evaluation of Women of the World Bradford, InFocus mapped more than 40 different group connections that had come about from the event, from offers of mentoring to new artistic collaborations.  Women of the World have just held their first digital festival, which allowed people to come together from all across the world – but perhaps may not have created as many small, serendipitous moments of connection. Digital events are usually linear experiences, with a pre-determined outcome, while physical events lend themselves to the organic and unexpected, which in turn offers a more valuable and memorable experience. It’s impossible to calculate just how many missed opportunities are adding up whilst we’re all indoors.

Community events also have a powerful role to play in place-building. A consequence of the move to digital has been to collapse geographic barriers to attendance – something which could allow businesses to reach a much wider range of customers and reduce the environmental impact of travel. But on the flip side we have seen time and time again how the physical location of event can lead to positive social outcomes. From 2017-19 we funded The Mighty Creatives to work with young people to create arts festivals across 12 Midlands towns. These were collaborative, community events that increased young people’s sense of pride in their area while strengthening local partnerships. In Northern Ireland, Springboard has worked with community volunteers to put on events that create a sense of shared ownership over a space that crosses sectarian divides. One of the most powerful images for me of Hull 2017 was of the residents of one estate getting together for a bonfire on the green, where they shared their hopes for the future. Lockdown has greatly reduced our opportunity to build shared experiences that are the backbone to community wellbeing.

However, in some ways the pandemic has made us think hyper-locally – who are the people in my block of flats who might have trouble accessing food?  How can I be part of a collective act of protest or celebration whilst social distancing?  How can I continue to support the local organisations that have supported me throughout this crisis?  Given that travel is likely to be restricted for some time to come, these two opposing drives serve both to collapse geographical divides through digital engagement, and reinforce them through emphasising the importance of what’s our doorsteps.   Projects like the Jo Cox’s Foundation’s Great Get Together are tackling this paradox, running blended events that are developed at a neighbourhood level, connecting people within communities as well as connecting us across them.  

In 2022 Birmingham will be playing host to the Commonwealth Games. Our advice would be to recognise that the best national events are made up of lots of hyper-local moments, and that is often where the most precious memories are made.

We are looking to commission further research on the value of events to individual and community wellbeing. If you are interested in exploring this topic further or would like to suggest things for this research to consider, please get in touch with us via amy.finch@spiritof2012.org.uk.