Divergence: STEAM in a railway town

Divergence is a new not-for-profit technology and arts startup coming out of the Cheshire Staffordshire borderlands right in the centre of the golden triangle formed by the UK’s leading industrial cities: Manchester,  Liverpool and Birmingham.

Divergence is a Alsager based not-for-profit start-up encouraging people to explore their creativity with new technology. It is based at 98-100 Crewe Road, home to Two Doors Studio (a shop run by and for crafters)  and The Round Group a digital and creative agency. Both join Alex Hough from 100a Crewe Road, as partners in the new enterprise.

As well as regular bi-monthly events like the Pilot Episode, Divergence aims to develop a series of workshops.

Sitting alongside Two Doors’ existing programme of traditional arts and craft workshops — painting, glass making, screen printing, book binding, felt making — will be opportunities to work with emerging digital technologies more associated with makerspaces such as Wavemaker, MadLab, FabLab and Plant NOMA.

People coming to the next event on Saturday 29th September are encouraged to bring their ideas along.

We currently have a good idea of the type of thing we want: They are stemming from our growing number of members’  existing interests around film making, electronic music, coding, interactive video and projection mapping and sound installation, virtual and augmented reality, Minecraft, live coding technologies like Sonic Pi, innovative web based technologies like TiddlyWiki, 3D printing and laser cutting in popular culture and contemporary art.

But we also want to plan to harness new ideas based on new combinations and collaborations. One of the most promising avenues is the potential emerging from the interaction between the existing communities of creatives already working in and around the building. Two Doors has over fifty makers selling their wares through the shop. It will be interesting to see how encouraging collaborations combining new technologies and traditional craft techniques and materials.

Digital tools also offer new ways of communication which can be harnessed to help a community of collaboration or scene develop.  Within a growing, diverse and converging community of practice we will be creating optimal conditions for innovations and spin-offs.

The continuous interaction between this coming together — convergence — and new ideas emerging from the process — divergence — is the key inspiration driving the new organisation. So much so we decided to call the organisation Divergence.

In innovation theory convergence is said to work in cycles with diverence,: Divergence will be aiming to let innovation research into our practices. We’d like Divergence to become unique kind of R&D unit, one  grounded in a community.

We aim to be as open an  organisation as we can, the more diversity we achieve, the higher the probability of genuinely new ideas emerging.

It’s an exciting time for creativity.  The cost of technology is coming down and art and creativity skills now being widely acknowledged as being essential for the future. Art is joining Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (the STEM subjects) to form what been labeled STEAM: STEM plus Art

We’d like to think that we engaged in a broader prototyping process bringing STEAM to the high street of a small town like Alsager and for it to sit alongside traditional crafts and the creative industries. Influenced by the makerspace movement we want to see if the transformative impact of makerspaces in cities can transfer to smaller towns.

Alsager is well placed for STEAMing. It is half way between Stoke-on-Trent with its ceramics industry heritage and Crewe’s ongoing engineering tradition emerging from rail and high end automotive industries. For over fifty years Alsager was a campus town with a strong contemporary art department which focused on once new interdisciplinary arts practices combining visual art, music, dance, creative writing and new media art. The contemporary craft department was separate from contemporary arts, but had better a national reputation, perhaps because it was more unique. May staff and students from these courses still live in the area, some selling their wares through Two Doors, other active in local arts organisations.

The campus in Alsager is now closed, but Staffordshire University is fifteen minutes away by train. Alsager is home to academics working in the arts and creative industries departments there. Games and interactive arts are now part of the offer, joining the one of the UK’s longest established vocational film production courses.

Alsager grew up as a commuter town in the industrial revolution. The next industrial revolution is, according to the World Economic Forum, is going to be driven by digital technologies which facilitate decentralised knowledge work. The challenge for small towns across the world is to become places where people can live good lives and develop good careers without necessarily moving to a city.

We hope Divergence will bring  some of the makerspace ethos to Alsager and that future perceptions of Alsager start to shift from a ceramics-and-rail-worker dormitory town towards a vibrant and creative STEAM town.