Words from Substrakt’s Digital Works, Leeds, April 2024

Seb Chan
14 min readMay 1, 2024


In late April 2024, Substrakt asked me to deliver a keynote on day one at their inaugural Digital Works conference that emerged from their Digital Works podcast. I was a guest on Episode 31 of their podcast, recorded in January 2023 which went online in August 2023. In that podcast, Ash Mann asked me to talk about the notion of expanding an organisation’s ’ “digital imagination”, a concept that had emerged from the CEO Digital Mentoring program that I developed at ACMI during the pandemic.

Here’s a rough transcript of what I said, a selection of some of the slides, some photos taken by Thom Bartley, and some answers to the questions that I didn’t have a chance to answer in the live setting.

Digital Works was nicely set up in the round . . . in the round room at the heart of Leeds City Museum // Photo by Thom Bartley.


A big thanks to Ash and the Substrakt crew for making this possible.

It is 2am, in the future, back home in Melbourne. I arrived in the UK only yesterday so my body and mind feel like it is somewhere else so I think I will sit down for this talk.

It has been a while since I was last in Leeds. It was last century. It was before I started working in museums.

In which I try to control slides, read notes, whilst handling jetlag // Photo by Thom Bartley

Back then I was researching youth subcultures and the spatial geographies of music and I was speaking at a conference at Leeds Uni on popular music. A bunch of us went to hear jungle legend Jumping Jack Frost drop some heavy drum and bass on one of the nights.

It turns out that Mixmag snapped a pic of that night. They didn’t realize I was one of the boffins. It was 1998.

[photo redacted — you had to be there …]

Back then I was writing about music while I was deeply involved in the Sydney music scene, organising parties, doing radio, running things. The internet was new. My modem was only 56k and it used the phone line to my old student rental.

That was a long time ago.

In the last months of the last century I started my first museum job in the IT team at the Powerhouse managing the final months of their Y2K project. Five years later my team at the Powerhouse was making museum collections more accessible by putting them online in new search-optimsed ways, then the wave of social media hit museums. A lot of the work we were doing was picked up by larger “global brand” museums on the other side of the world and there was a healthy competition between institutions sharing their methodologies and online practices.

In 2011 I moved to New York to join the team rebuilding the Cooper Hewitt museum for the Smithsonian. You may have heard of The Pen, but really the transformational work was under the hood, using the disruption of a major building project to quickly shift the Cooper Hewitt into a future where all their collection would be digitised and online — and their core audiences and their expectations would have changed.

At the end of 2015 I moved to Melbourne to be part of a new leadership team that was undertaking a similar task at ACMI, Australia’s museum of screen culture situated on the lands of the Wurundjeri people in Naarm/Melbourne.

As a museum of film, TV and videogames — “high capital creative works” as they might sometimes be described — and in a rapidly changing technology environment with a collection of “unstable media”, ACMI has no choice but to continuously change and experiment. [Some of the technical experiments are documented on the ACMI Labs blog]

ACMI is also a State-owned museum — so we exist in part with public funding in order to fill ‘a market failure’ — this influences how we think about who we are ‘for’.

After the successful relaunch of ACMI after a major capital works redevelopment and rebrand, I recently became the Director and CEO in mid 2022.

The context

This bulk of this talk is about something that first emerged from being asked about a mentoring program for cultural sector leaders than I first developed during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.

Back then the cultural sector was rapidly trying to catch up with two decades of inaction in engaging with networked communication technologies and media technologies.

This inaction was mostly benign.

Theatre companies didn’t have a huge reason to pre-emptively engage with virtual production, virtual sets, or broadcast. They would wait for playwrights, directors and performers to bring those ‘innovations’ to them. Contemporary art museums and galleries did similar — when an artist required a specific technology they would aim to fulfill that request. Like museums and galleries, the performing arts mostly engaged with nww networked technologies in terms of marketing, ticketing and the ‘business’ side of things — the backstage — kept separate from the ‘art’ itself.

Technology was, for the most part, a ‘necessary evil’.

Pointing at things in the air // Photo by Thom Bartley

The problem with this was, of course, that once the pandemic hit everyone had to play catchup and many dived into becoming a ‘niche’ broadcaster — but without the longer term investment in people or the right infrastructure to support those new activities.

Buoyed by pandemic economic bail out money, lots of new ways of delivering on their old organisational missions emerged. But these were turned out to not be sustainable — and once that bail out money was spent there has been remarkably little structural change.

The mentoring program paired CEOs and senior leaders at galleries, museum, performing arts companies, venues with some of the folks who not only ‘did’ digital in their organizations in hands-on way, but were also seasoned mid to upper level staff.

Seniority mattered because we wanted to make sure that the mentees and mentors both shared a similar organisational context. And practical making is experience mattered because it is important to understand the grain of media technology.

During the first round of mentoring I was paired with two mentees. One ran a major venue, the other ran a policy organization. In the second round, I worked with the CEO of a major festival. In our sessions we talked a lot about what different technologies might or might not make possible.

In the crisis of the present it was very difficult for cultural leaders to find time and mental space to ask questions that were about strategic possibilities rather than operational realities.

It was easier to explore whether the online ticketing system was going to need major capital investment to fund upgrades than it was to consider whether the nature of ‘performance’ itself was changing.

Or, in shifting to cloud storage for AV recordings of performances, would this change cost less (hint — it wouldn’t!) rather than considering what might become possible if all those recordings, once in the cloud, were all in the one place and thus able to be analysed as a ‘corpus’ of data. Would this open up entirely new opportunities? Or what that once analysed, what that performance data might reveal or lead to.

And, in museums, whether the open access polices many of us pushed for might require reexamination now that generative AI would be mining those datasets and opening up new potential labour tensions.

During these sessions mentors and mentees talked a lot about what digital ‘is’. Digital was a code word for ‘networked technologies’. And shorthand for ‘marketing’. And it something audiences ‘did’. Especially desirable ‘younger audiences. Whatever ‘digital’ was — it was seen as fundamentally transformative — and at the same time both reductive and expansive.

We talked about software and hardware. We talked about disappointment. And asked, why do most technology projects run over budget, are delayed, and ultimately fall short of their original brief and promise?

What if ‘technology’ is just disappointing?

We talked about maintenance and the fear of buying, building, or deploying the wrong thing.

We talked about cybersecurity and risk. Risk that is exponentially increasing.

Software and hardware has a significant influence on the possibility space — and how one’s own capabilities and tolerance of a ‘slightly broken machine’ frames a sense of what can be done — and thus also, what cannot.

Digital imagination

These one on one sessions led me to a shorthand way of describing the nature of the challenge in the arts and cultural sector as one of ‘digital imagination’.

It wasn’t that people were not imaginative — everyone is — it was that often their situations didn’t allow them or their teams the time and space to imagine.

And also that their organizations were deeply constrained by old infrastructure that framed all technology as a maintenance problem rather than also as an opportunity.

Cybersecurity, and then crypto hype, and now AI, were seen as unknowable threats. Threats for experts to deal with — but not for investment in internal staff expertise.

I hear these things a lot and it resembles an austerity mindset.

But instead of economic austerity it was imagination austerity.

Some — but not all — is the result of a changed level of institutional risk tolerance and a reduced risk appetite

Some — but not all — is the result of a reliance on outsourcing, not bringing digital practice and practitioners inside or at least close to the organisation

Some — but not all — is the result of wider shift in how we, as a society think about technology. Our societal fears and concerns. Our shifting sense from optimism to pessimism.

A Gen X kid like me has grown up on a very specific set of ideas and ideologies about technology — what it might achieve, what it looks like, what the risks are.

This frames our sense of what is possible in particular ways. It also limits us with regard to seeing potential harms.

These learned contexts blind us to the harms that some technologies and their application might cause. Some of the other speakers have alerted us to some of those harms.

On the flip, though, is a kind of ‘critical paralysis’ which leads to institutional inertia where we over-correct for potential harms rather than engage with the grain of technologies and be part of the design and development of more ethical tools

As I’ve become an institutional CEO I have become fascinated by how this paralysis can be all encompassing.

And how little time there is for strategy.

And how easy it is to fall into reactivity — a thousand fires are always burning.

And a lot of effort can easily be spent avoiding change and hoping it will is “going back to how it was”. When it patently cannot.

Futures Cone from JISC’s Vision & Strategy toolkit 2020 — https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/vision-and-strategy-toolkit

In futures work there is the concept of the futures cone. The cone describes the way in which there are obviously many possible futures, not infinite possibilites, but constrained by context. Within these possible futures there are plausible futures and probable future, and then there are the preferable futures. Defining and then charting a path through time that keeps us heading towards a preferable future is tricky but able to be worked on.

The futures cone has increasingly less fidelity as we move outwards on the time axis. There is no straight line from present to future.

What is our individual agency in this, how do our organisations navigate this? And critically, who might you need to collaborate with in order to chart a good course — or even understand the context of the present.

This cannot be a single-institutional plan, nor is it wise to look at this in a singular top-down way.

Institutional imagination needs to be decentred and decentralised.

There needs to be a building of different internal technical literacies and staff competencies as time progresses. How might you incentivise a bottom-up or middle-out exploration of future technologies? How do you empower your whole staff to have the opportunity to be ‘more than reactive’?

This requires innovation on the backstage and innovation on the front stage, not just one or the other.

This will inevitably be constrained by the infrastructural realities that cultural organisations have inherited from late last century.

Like my Gen X positional context, infrastructural realities shape and constrain infrastructural desires.

But if you can leverage ‘the next performance’ or the ‘next capital project’ successfully, then this can unlock new forms of infrastructural transformation and new collaborations.

In regional Australia, there can be partnerships in which regional museums, galleries and venues leverage the fibre-optic connection from the regional university’s fast internet service. This can be transformative. Acts like this can raise the visibility of the importance of the infrastructural layer itself — building an interest in ‘how things work’ — as well as opening up visibility for students and academics in the behind the scenes.

And with these collaborations comes the development of a collective imagination, not an individualistic one.

At ACMI when we were doing our strategic planning and strategy development I used this found-internet image of a braid. How might we braid the different divisions or silos of the institution together into a stronger sum of its parts? And likewise, if we imagined each strand as a different organisations, how might find new coalitions and collaborations to do the same on an outward looking view too? How might we find new partner organisations based on similar audiences and/or objectives?

Recently I was reading an email newsletter by Australian economist Nicholas Gruen. He led the Australian Government’s Gov 2.0 Taskforce in the late 2000s that kicked off a program public sector reform. For those here in the UK, the Taskforce was akin to the period of interesting thinking and doing around Gov.UK. Gruen referred to a decade-old newspaper op-ed he wrote about education reform and innovation in 2012 when apps were peaking. It had this insightful paragraph that I think outlines the challenge well;

“innovation cannot thrive unless there are enough people within the system prepared to endure discomfort of varying existing routines, with the courage to experiment and risk failure and the perseverance to learn from mistakes even while the opposition of the day and the media will be waiting to pounce on any slip”

This matters because at the heart of all this is trust.

Institutional trust has been undermined over the past decade by politics and culture. And, as we see from the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer Report, we see how clearly this trust undermines our confidence in different technologies.

People are feeling left behind.

And the rebuilding of societal trust is essential if we are to tackle the elephant in the room that I have not at all mentioned — the climate crisis and the inevitable societal, cultural and economic changes that will come with an energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Moving forward

Rather than our publicly funded cultural organisations being followers of trends, instead;

  • We need our cultural organisations to be more than just consumers of technology, we need an engaged relationship with the technologies and infrastructure we and artists work with
  • We need our cultural organisations to show alternative ways of operating — and not just ‘outsource’ this responsibility to the artists and creators we work with
  • We need our cultural organisations to build and support a different cultural and creative ecology, and non-market social relations
  • Our cultural organisations need to form new coalitions and shared approaches both within and outside the sector, that can then be shared and leveraged by our communities and those we work with

Thank you — now all the other speakers can pull on those threads over the coming days!

Unanswered Q&A

There were a bunch of interesting questions that I didn’t get to address so here’s a few answers to them.

Q — Is the inverse of ‘benign inaction’ or the referenced paralysis, ‘move fast and break things’ or similarly ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’? And does moving fast likely make technology less disappointing?

I think that is how we’ve been encouraged to think of things in our current society. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The benign inaction I spoke of was the result of organizations having other competing priorities — but it happened at a time when there was more and cheaper capital around for investing in ‘21st century infrastructure’. The inaction back then means we are in a situation that we are stuck in now. I would draw a parallel to when, in Australia, we had a major mining boom but successive governments failed to properly tax that boom at the time.

The critical paralysis we have is new. This is complicated because we have all, rightfully, become more aware of the problems caused by techno fetishism and ineffective regulation. However like the benign inaction, we have generally avoided engaging in developing alternatives or getting our hands dirty. It feels like we have the worst of both worlds.

Having come from a background in both social policy and technology, I think technology is always going to be disappointing. The reality is always less than what you had imagined.

When I had a Commodore 64 as a young kid and I read would a review of a game in Zzap64!, a magazine that we got in Australia via surface mail, three months after its UK publication, I would get really excited about particular highly rated new game. Then I’d eventually get a copy of the game and it would always be less impressive than my mental picture of it. One time I got an audio sampling cartridge and in the tiny memory of the C64 it could store about 5 seconds of very compressed audio — at the time it felt like the future. Just a few years later, it was incredibly underwhelming.

Q — Are we now in an artistic digital “dark forest” where the risks of innovating are outweighed by the cost of failure?

Our risk reserves are used up, maybe our budgets too. At the same time, organizations need to move forward, support their communities, and if not, then make space for other newer models to emerge. The ‘dark forest’ metaphor is a good one — and sometimes new alternatives need time out of view to build and grow before becoming visible.

Q — What if “de-centring oneself” is making you invisible within your org? / What can you do to create a culture in your team so they can be creative without being individualistic? I mean, collective creativity, over “stars”.

This is great question and one I personally struggle with. I think there are ways to do this well — and it’s a journey. There need to be different models for operating in and with an organisation. Collective creativity is how good things get done, and it is important to share the rewards and storytelling around the creative practice and the work itself.

Q — Can you share examples of something you have done with digital that you are proud of and why and something that was a failure and why?

Everything is context specific and I can’t think of any projects that haven’t failed on some level. I would prefer to think to even the worst failures have had upsides — even if it is just socialising a new process or idea. There are plenty of examples of failure that both my teams and I have publicly written about online — I am firm believer in documenting projects whether they succeed or not.



Seb Chan

I’m currently the Director & CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).