Rural Crafting Communities in the Digital Age

Rural Crafting Communities in the Digital Age

Research question: How can we co-produce digital practices which empower rural craftspeople and promote their professional and creative practices?

A growing number of academics are exploring the potential of the digital economy to connect communities and empower local economies. This project adds a new area to this field: digital engagement for rural craftspeople. In rural areas, crafting practices play an important role in local heritage and identity, contributing to the local economy and quality of life (Kazana and Kazaklis, 2009; EU Commission, 2009). Crafting industries form part of the creative industries, an important sector in rural areas and a major area of growth in the UK. Yet much literature on creative industries reveals an urban bias, perpetuated by Florida’s (2012) “creative class”. Recent research has embraced contemporary craft movements but typically focuses on the amateur level (‘craftivism’) – professional crafting practices are not so frequently explored1. The last two decades have seen interesting developments for crafting industries. Some traditional crafts have declined due to mass production and rising consumerism, leading to the devaluing of craft as a practice and reduced sharing of traditional crafting skills. Others have evolved, for example by embracing contemporary cultural ideas in their practice (Levine and Heimerl, 2008). Craftspeople can benefit from embracing the digital age, particularly in marketing their products and engaging with new clients, collaborators and audiences. Existing crafting communities can connect online with others to develop their bridging social capital and explore wider collaboration. The rise of the web as a place for sharing, collaborating and growing networks has been revolutionary for some, providing opportunities to reach a wider (even global) marketplace, for example through the use of online selling platforms such as Etsy. Craft and digital technologies are by no means contradictory; indeed there may be synergies between them that can bring value to craftspeople. Yet our research with creative practitioners in rural Scotland and Cornwall suggests a need for support with digital engagement in order to realise these benefits (Townsend et al., forthcoming), for example through engaging with social media. Rural craftspeople, like other rural dwellers, are less confident and less likely to adopt technologies than their urban counterparts (Townsend et al., 2013) and are therefore at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly digital society.

The research addresses three related themes: crafting practices, rurality and digital engagement. It responds to the issues and concerns of CCN+ thus: we explore how a rapidly evolving digital economy can leave certain groups (in this case, rural craftspeople) behind. Digital technologies represent an opportunity for creative workers; ironically they can also represent a threat when not embraced (Townsend et al., 2013; Townsend et al., forthcoming). We will facilitate a crafting community to digitally represent their craft practices, raise awareness of traditional crafting practices, and reach broader audiences, markets and communities of practice. We will generate interdisciplinary dialogue between academics, arts development agents and craftspeople that speaks to current approaches to digital engagement of relevance to policy, industry, academia and practitioners.

(Townsend, Case for Support)



Townsend, L., ‘Rural Crafting Communities in the Digital Age: Final Report.’ Working Papers of the Communities & Culture Network+ Vol.6 (Oct 2015).


Key Participants

Dr. Leanne Townsend, Research Fellow, dot.rural Digital Economy Hub, University of Aberdeen: Working across various dot.rural projects, Leanne explores the impacts of digital engagement in rural areas; barriers to engagement; social media for rural communities and businesses; new applications of alternative technologies in rural areas. Leanne has acquired funding from British Telecom and the RCUK Partnership Fund to investigate digital engagement among artists in Cornwall. Leanne has expertise in co-produced digital engagement for creative practitioners, and is ideally placed to lead this participatory project as PI.

Professor Claire Wallace, University of Aberdeen: A co-investigator for the dot.rural Digital Economy hub and CCN+, Claire has co-ordinated European grants in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Framework programmes as well as undertaking research for other parts of the European Commission and the UK Research Councils. Her research interests span cultural heritage, rural development, communities and quality of life, and digital transformations. Claire will provide an uncosted co-investigator role in this project.

Nuno Sacramento, Director, Scottish Sculpture Workshop (SSW): Nuno leads SSW, a rurally based making and thinking facility central to the Scottish arts community. His work concerns ruralities, skills–sharing, 21st Century Arts and Crafts and the commons. He is involved in research, project curation, writing and lecturing. As collaborator, Nuno will offer access to the community of practice (with whom we have already worked) and to the community space for the workshops.

Dr. Paul Gault, Research Fellow, dot.rural Digital Economy Hub, University of Aberdeen: Co-investigator on the project. A designer focussed on digital interaction, Paul has design-orientated skills for idea generation through to well-resolved solutions. He has led qualitative user-led research, using approaches such as observation, interviews and video ethnography. Recent work has concentrated on areas such as social media and design thinking, exploring why and how people use digital technology, the existing barriers, and ways in which they can be overcome.

Iain Gildea, Director, Make Aberdeen: Iain, a digital and media artist leads ‘Make Aberdeen’ – Aberdeen’s first fab lab. He is responsible for introducing practitioners from diverse backgrounds to new digital technologies (such as 3D printers and digital laser cutters) in order to innovate their practices. As collaborator, Iain is ideally placed to lead Workshop 3.

Debbie Maxwell, Research Fellow, Edinburgh College of Art: Debbie is a co-investigator on Design in Action (DiA), an AHRC-funded project being led by six Scottish Universities. Debbie is ideally placed to contribute skills and expertise in digital storytelling as a means of creating online narratives. She also has expertise in engaging entrepreneurs with fab lab technologies, so will contribute to the final workshop as collaborator.

Michael Rawlins, Talk About Local: Michael is a manager at Talk About Local, an organisation working with communities of practice and place to give them a powerful online voice. Michael has collaborated on a number of community-led projects e.g. in the AHRC-led Connected Communities theme, and is ideally placed to work as collaborator, to facilitate introductions to digital engagement with our community of practice in Workshops 1 and 2 at SSW.

Professor Mike Wilson, Dean of Research, Falmouth University: Mike is a member of the RCUK Digital Economy Project Advisory Board, the CCN+ and AHRC Connected Communities and Digital Transformations programmes. He has published extensively on Storytelling. His work has explored the interface between storytelling and digital technology and the telling and sharing of ‘extraordinary’ stories online. Mike will act as uncosted mentor to Leanne. His areas of expertise make him an ideal choice for mentoring the storytelling activities on the project (Workshop 2).