A colourful depiction of civic community ©

Miles Tewson / Festival of the Future City

In one of the most challenging years for the world in recent memory, we’ve been focusing on keeping human connection at the forefront of our work whilst recognising the need to rethink how we deliver some of our international programmes.

To end the year on a positive note, we want to take a look back on some of the highlights from this year – of which there are many….

With the Manchester Network for Creative and Cultural Collaboration with China, for which we are founding partners, we’ve been doing exciting work connecting cultural organisations in Manchester with agreed target cities in China through our Digital Connections through Culture programme. This programme is a special pilot between Greater Manchester and our China Arts team, using the power of technology to develop a ‘digital cultural relations’ collaboration between artists and cultural organisations with partners in  Chinese target cities – Wuhan, Chengdu, Shenzen, Guangzhou -  to encourage the development of online collaborative projects. The programme aims to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Manchester through building upon its existing relationships with China. This all forms part of our wider support to the city in developing and delivering its international strategy for culture and its plans for economic recovery.

Keeping with the theme of the North West of England, we have also been working with our partners at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to commission Culture and Internationalism Research which explores the interaction between culture, education, communities and the visitor economy across the six boroughs within Liverpool City Region. The research that will be produced as part of this work will provide us with a better understanding of:

• The composition of the city’s residents including people from minority ethnic backgrounds

• The international student population

• Visitor profiles and trends

The report will launch in early 2021 and will shape LCRCA’s international priorities for culture over the next 12-18 months. It also features a number of case studies of projects, which capture stories of the impact and importance of international activity and engagement from across the city region.

In April this year, we launched an open call for Digital Collaborative grants through our Transforming Narratives programme. which is managed by our partners at Culture Central, and designed to enable opportunities for connection and collaboration between creative and cultural practitioners in Birmingham, Pakistan and Bangladesh and potentially offer creative responses to the questions raised for society by the Covid-19 pandemic. In August, we announced the eighteen successful projects we would be supporting. From exchanges between young girls from Bangladesh and Birmingham exploring city life and female identities to collaborations that aim to recall and mine personal histories of displacement and loss, these projects will use a range of platforms for new artistic voices to exchange narratives and share lived experience. Each project will use digital technology to links artists, creative organisations and communities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Birmingham.

We were thrilled to announce the launch of the Newcastle Internationalism Alliance in Spring. Along with our partners at International Newcastle, we launched the first UK city-focused Internationalism Alliance with a digital seminar, bringing together representatives from the youth sector in Newcastle and the North East to discuss international and intercultural opportunities for children and young people.  Both the National and the Newcastle Alliances will continue to build on these opportunities and aim to offer international experience to every young person in the UK.

November saw the launch of another exciting opportunity through the launch of our COP26 Open Call for Creative Commissions, where we invited collaborative applications in response to this open call from individuals and organisations across the UK and overseas. We want these commissions to stimulate truly global conversations, bringing together people from different countries, cultures and communities to understand each other’s perspectives and collaborate on creative responses and solutions towards climate change. We plan to bring together people from across multiple disciplines: city planners, engineers, artists, technologists, thought leaders, activists, scientists and others from around the world. We’ll announce successful applicants in February 2021 and we can’t wait to share these with you.

To round off the year, we have always believed that we need to create opportunities for all of us to connect, exchange ideas, learn from each other and work together if our societies are to develop, improve and overcome the challenges they face. In response to this, we contributed to the Conversations of our time programme to help to keep those connections alive. Conversations of our time was a series of free digital events that will give you the opportunity to learn from and engage with respected and inspiring thought leaders from around the globe. Each event addresses a key societal issue and provides insights from our expert panels to equip you to meet your societal challenges that have been intensified by Covid-19. This year has proved the value of working together and we hope this series of conversations showcases exactly that.

You can watch all five of the sessions or just one here.

 While reflecting on the year we also look forward to 2021 and the incredible partners we are working with, and activity we are working on with them.

We continue to work with our partners in Coventry as they work towards their UK City of Culture 2021 programme which kicks off in May next year. A highlight from this year include the Youthful Cities programme (established in 2020 and running until 2022), an international global exchange which brings together young creatives in Coventry, Beirut, Bogota, Nairobi and Detroit to develop creative solutions and ideas to challenges based on research, which will culminate in a Global Youth Summit and be showcased as part of the Coventry City of Culture programme.

We’re also excited about the launch of Prototype City next year - an international architecture exchange programme which will involve identifying architecture challenges that Coventry is facing and inviting international teams of architects to respond with proposed solutions.

Sticking with Coventry, we were thrilled to support the establishment and delivery of DigiPoems, a collaboration and skills exchange between poets, digital artists and creative professionals between Coventry and Southern Africa from December 2020 to November 2021. DigiPoems will form part of the programme of the BBC Contains Strong Language festival in Coventry in September 2021, delivered in partnership with Coventry City of Culture as part of the programme of activity in 2021.

New partnerships

 2021 will also see us working with lots of partners in the West Midlands and building on our strong relationships with Birmingham, the host city for the Commonwealth Games. As part of the Transforming Narratives programme, co-funded by the British Council with Arts Council England, we will be launching a cultural leadership programme for emerging leaders in Birmingham, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We will also be strengthening our work and partnership with the team running the Cultural Festival for the Commonwealth Games.. We will also be announcing new partnership work with other leading civic and cultural events taking place in England from 2021 – 24.

We know that 2021, like this year, will not be without its challenges. Even with a vaccine, there is much to be done globally to rebuild our economies, to restore international air travel and to understand, imagine and redefine what our new reality will look and feel like. The British Council remains resolutely committed to creating opportunities for international engagement and experience for all parts of England – its towns, rural areas, coastal communities and cities/city regions. We hope you all get a good rest over the holiday season.

 A final thank you to all of our partners and friends who have helped to shape this year with us. We look forward to working with you all again in 2021 - and beyond.