Watershed is a registered charity and cultural organisation focussed on togetherness. Established in 1982 as a media centre, in the 40 years since we have evolved into a cultural hub comprising a Cinema, Café & Bar and Creative Technology Research and Development space (the Pervasive Media Studio). As an organisation we produce accessible and inclusive experiences that fire up the imagination in our venue, online, and across the world. 

Pervasive Media Studio was launched in February 2008: a collaboration born out of a desire for open innovation. The founding team behind the studio comprised of Clare Reddington and Dick Penny of Watershed, Phil Stenton of HP Labs, and Bill Sharpe of Appliance Studio. Shortly thereafter the team was joined by Jon Dovey of UWE Bristol. Funding for the studio came from HP Labs and the SouthWest Regional Development Agency.  

The studio was set up to fill a specific gap at a time before co-working spaces in Bristol City Centre were well-established. The founding team aimed to create a space for R&D for those with particular interest in creative technology; a space where freelancers could come and rest their proverbial head, engage in generous knowledge exchange, spend hours and hours making and tinkering and testing and forming relationships with one another and a network within the SouthWest’s creative ecology- and often further afield. The studio continues to support both individual creativity and collaborative reinvention of the future by offering free space, producer support, and shared knowledge; enabling people to try out creative technology ideas in a way they couldn’t on their own. 

The desire to open the studio came from Watershed’s particular way of working with artists, creatives, and technologists, as well as some of HP’s practices towards innovation. As a city, Bristol itself seemed to hold a lot of progressive practices in immersive technologies, theatre, street games, play, and location-based experiences using tech. Creating a space where these practices could be implemented at scale, and with more cross-sector collaborations, felt like it was really needed. Vanessa Bellaar Spruijt, Producer, Pervasive Media Studio 

There were a set of factors that made it possible for Pervasive Media Studio to come into being specifically in Bristol, and to continue to thrive 14 years on. Different members of our team, some who’ve been here from the very beginning and others who’ve joined along the way, all agree that the Bristol-specific factors that contributed towards the studio’s creation and success include: the fact that Bristol is a port city which also housed anchor institutions such as the BBC Natural History Unit, Aardman, and HP Labs- all which employ(ed) freelancers, and so Bristol is a good base location as a freelancer; the vibrancy of the creative sector throughout the city; a strong sense of DIY culture with a subversive streak; especially at the time the studio was starting up, a permissive local authority which includes instances of the council gifting space towards creativity; the scale of the city itself which allows for connectedness; a strong research culture across both universities within the city, which are both also strong on tech and engineering and arts & culture; the studio’s physical location in the city centre, right next to the harbour; and a culture of public space utility that includes, but goes beyond, graffiti and street art, festivals, theatre, and games. Amidst all this provision, the studio still had many gaps; many people and communities were doing innovative work that we got connected to only later on.  

We were undertaking projects that grew knowledge and skills around cutting-edge technology but when the funding came to an end, the energy dissipated, and we lost ground. The studio was a permanent home for that energy - so we could foster an ecology and thrive. People find the studio when they are at a moment of change. Even if they don’t realise it, I think it's often about finding safety to do something challenging. Clare Reddington, CEO, Watershed  

There is a lot of potential for fusion across Bristol’s creative ecology, and we know this potential is not fully realised. We don’t have all the answers on the best ways to activate new forms of this fusion but we are going beyond thinking, and tangibly supporting our growing studio community- many whom have grassroots impact. It is also very important to note that community-wise, Bristol is multicultural and yet segregated. And we recognise that as a creative hub that is often regarded as a cultural beacon in the West and SouthWest of England, we need to play an active role in fostering diversity and parity of participation within our spaces, projects, and collaborations.  

At present the studio has 45 hot desks, and just under 130 residents who have joined us at various points over the past 14 years. We are a community that spans and overlaps all kinds of artists, creative producers, writers, creative technologists, academics, and makers. Residents become part of the community through a simple application process, and as part of the studio community we all operate on an understanding of generosity and interruptability

Just after the studio’s 10th birthday, we were supported by UWE Bristol researchers to ascertain how impactful the studio community has been within the creative economy. The survey revealed that the studio network had an annual turnover of £13.7 million (this number was likely affected by some big projects at the time), with residents being responsible for over 250 jobs. In 2021 (and thus during the pandemic), based on a survey of 126 residents within the studio, total annual turnover dropped to just under £6.5 million. We still recorded successes as our whole community supported 373 employees (including freelancers), and the combined total audience reach of all our residents was just under 37 million people. Getting to this point, where the studio was able to support residents and define our own strategic objectives, took proactive iteration. 

Because Pervasive Media Studio was conceptualised as an R&D space, we have always been intentional about our work and welcome evolution. Over the years, we began to interrogate our culture, structure, makeup, and how we might be proactive about welcoming and supporting difference beyond only interdisciplinarity. This internal reflective and evaluative work- and actions and tangible outcomes thereafter- continues.  

In its current iteration the studio is led by an Executive Producer who has broad oversight of three teams, which each has a lead of its own: the Studio Community Team team (which facilitates an ongoing programme providing the studio community with check-ins, one-to-one meetings with experts, opportunities to showcase their work, and networking opportunities); theTalent Development team (which supports individual artists and young creatives to develop ideas, skills, confidence and networks); and the Research team (which houses action researchers and creative producers working in partnership with research institutions and cultural hubs, who bring expertise, critical curiosity, strong links to several practice-based communities, space for learning and testing, fun, and an ethos that excelling and “failing well" are both keys to research). 

Our talent development programmes support artists and young people in the development of their skills and knowledge, to begin to position them as joint investigators/protagonists of creative technology R&D. In recent years the focus has been on creative content production through programmes such as BFI Film Academy, our annual documentary training course; Gathering Moss, a UK-Korea creative climate change lab; and Rife Magazine, a platform that amplified the voices of Bristol-based young creatives. Rife Magazine supported over 300 creators who went on to work with gal-dem, The Guardian, Rising Arts Agency, Crack Magazine, Bristol 24/7, the BBC and many more.  

When it comes to research, we’re just as keen to focus on process as we are on output. We’ve been thinking deeply about how to catalyse responsible innovation in creative technology, and how as an organisation Watershed can take meaningful steps towards climate action. What this looks like for us ranges from implementing a kinder and more inclusive recruitment strategy, to supporting community research on inclusive governance, inclusive spaces, and inclusive communities of practice, and the creation of a climate action toolkit for creative SMEs. We have also published inclusion data from our community, which we have committed to keep updated for transparency. In addition, over the past decade we’ve been research partners across several projects including REACT, South West Creative Technology NetworkBristol+Bath Creative R+DNetwork for Creative EnterpriseMyWorld, and Connecting through culture as we age. These research partnerships have drawn over £40 million to the region.  

As our community grew and our R&D work expanded, we began to review various practices and concepts we engage - or at least encounter- within the ecosystem. For instance, how we contend with being a funder, albeit an unorthodox one amidst the academic research funding landscape. Also, different technologies from 5G to crypto

None of this impactful work, thinking, and learning would have been possible without collaboration- which underpins the work we do, without the interdisciplinarity our various delivery teams lend to their strands of work, and without our thriving community of brilliant residents. 

But beyond the sociocultural and economic benefits of the Pervasive Media Studio, our aim remains to be a creative and cultural hub housing a community of evolving practice and R&D that seeks to stimulate the wider ecosystem in the SouthWest region, and internationally.

This article was originally published as part of a series by Promising Trouble and Power to Change’s work on Community Tech.