Wednesday 20 August 2014, 18:04 | By

How can creative technologies contribute to palliative care

CSL Invites

When I first heard about the Creative Skills For Life (CSL) project, I was keen to be involved for both professional and personal reasons.

andrew hugill post pic

I enjoy a rich and rather unusual life as a practicing composer, author and scientist. I believe in the power of creativity to improve lives and agree with CSL founder Ian Spero when he talks about the potential for digital and mobile technologies to engage people living with cancer and other chronic conditions in new, more creative and meaningful ways.

I can see both artistic and scientific merit in such an approach. One key question will be: how do you go about accurately measuring the impact of creative interventions in healthcare?

This is a challenge which CSL aims to address through a multi-disciplinary alliance involving University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, the Institute of Digital Healthcare and other notable institutions. It is a challenge that I, as Director of the Centre for Creative Computing (CCC) at Bath Spa University, (which is committed to making computing serve human creativity better), am delighted to support.

Although it is based in the School Of Humanities And Cultural Industries, the CCC includes researchers from all the Schools of the University. Two key people working with me on the CSL project are: Dr Jerry Fishenden, former NTO of Microsoft UK, who currently splits his time between the university and his work for the Cabinet Office and; Dr Nigel Newbutt, a leading researcher in digital media and animation, who works with virtual worlds and users with autism to help teach social and communication skills.

To establish a meaningful evidence base we need access to significant numbers of subjects. Ian’s idea is to achieve this by constructing a scalable and sustainable CSL web/mobile platform and creative lab, designed to serve as a safe and secure online environment where patients, friends and family can meet, co-create, share ideas, advice and support.

For the past year we’ve enjoyed collaborating with CSL and our lead developer partner Aerian Ltd to construct a prototype platform. This is proving to be an excellent academic project for BSU undergraduate and postgraduate students that contributes to their development on both a social and academic level.

From a personal perspective the CSL project fits into a long-running tradition of trans-disciplinary research in health and wellbeing. By way of example in my previous role as Director of the Institute Of Creative Technologies (IOCT) at De Montfort University in Leicester, I worked for several years with a cross-disciplinary research team and the local hospice LOROS (Leicestershire and Rutland Organisation for the Relief of Suffering) to investigate ways in which creative technologies could contribute to palliative care. We set out to test an assumption that creativity could improve wellbeing by creating a digital environment that included robotics, multidimensional soundscapes, novel communications technologies and various games and haptic devices. We called the environment LifeSpace and were able to run several trials of different aspects of the technology with patients and staff who were very generous in giving us feedback.

A number of conclusions emerged from these preliminary studies: there is a pressing need for a credible and rigorous measure of wellbeing (it is not sufficient simply to ask people whether they feel better after creative activity); there is a surprising lack of resistance to, and willingness to engage with, new technologies even at this most difficult time of life; and the potential for creative use of digital technology to contribute to palliative care is greater than we could have imagined at the start.

With this in mind, the CSL project offers an opportunity to realise this potential in ways that exploit more recent advances in social media and communications, as well as developing a rigorous measurement tool thanks to the involvement of the Human Metabolism Research Unit at Warwick University.

Creativity deploys both logical and illogical processes

Central to all of this is my belief in the importance of a more holistic approach to research. Both the scientific and artistic aspects of the project need to combine effectively in order to address a problem that is simultaneously technical and human. Like most complex problems, the question of wellbeing (especially at times of life-threatening or life-limiting illness) cannot be addressed through the lens of a single discipline if a more than partial solution is sought. Creativity in all its forms deploys both logical and illogical processes, both convergent and divergent thinking. There is scientific rigour in creativity, just as there is creative freedom to be found in apparently technical processes.

The truths of these statements take me back to my earliest stages of development. As a child I knew I wanted to be a composer, but I also knew that scientific and technical understanding would be key to unlocking my creativity. To a great extent, music requires this in any case, with its combination of a high degree of abstract and technical thinking with a capacity for artistic expression. I could see little difference between myself and a mathematician: whereas they work in algebraic notation, I work in musical notation, which demand both logical consistency and abstract beauty. I greatly resented the division into specialisms, and particularly the invidious distinction between “art” (or perhaps “humanities”) and “science” into which we were forced at a young age.

This resentment continued all the way to university level, as ever-increasing specialisation was forced upon me. I was therefore very fortunate to have attended Keele University, where at that time (late 1970s) all students were required to take “subsidiary degrees” outside their main discipline. I was able to study both Mathematics and Psychology as well as my main subjects of Music and English. This enlightened disregard for the supposed boundaries that separate the disciplines was something which I have carried with me ever since. I could see no fundamental difference, beyond the subject-matter, between the various subjects, despite their distinctive technical languages and scholarly traditions.

I have retained this cross-disciplinary approach all my life, and currently find myself largely known for my musical composition and musicological research, while at the same time publishing credibly in areas as diverse as computer science and French literature. My artistic creative work is indistinguishable from my other scientific study and I find continuous and fluid cross-fertilisation between them.

The transformative power of music

Finally, I should add that I have always believed in what some people call the “healing power” of music. I dislike that phrase, because it is redolent of a decidedly non-rigorous approach to medicine, but I nevertheless can vouch from personal experience for the transformative power that music exerts on the human organism even at times of ill-health. I dare say the same may be said of the other arts. I find myself frequently frustrated with “music therapy” which so often presents the patient with a musical experience that is childish or simplistic (the “bang a drum to release your frustrations” approach). Nevertheless, I agree with the basic idea that music can improve health and seek ways both to demonstrate this and improve its efficacy.

For all these reasons, I am enthusiastically committed to the aims and objectives of the CSL project and hope to deploy all my skills as a creative artist, computer scientist, academic researcher and leading figure in British cultural life to enhance and develop the core concept. So far, the undergraduate students have produced a prototype site design for a CSL digital Creative Lab and we are working with our partners at Aerian to develop and improve this. We have investigated both ethical and design issues. Meanwhile, the research team has been exploring innovative ideas for a very user friendly interface and looking at interactive creative tools which facilitate co-creation and feedback loops. In parallel I have also theorised a new index for rigorously measuring improvements to wellbeing: the CSL Experiential Index. This synthesizes and improves upon certain existing and well-established measures. We are now looking at ways that are both effective and ethical for integrating this work into the evolving CSL system.

Professor Andrew Hugill Ph.D., F.R.S.A. is a composer, scientist, and author of ‘The Digital Musician’ (Routledge 2008/2013) and ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide’ (MIT Press 2012).