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The people behind museums: Donald Hicks, co-founder and CEO of Saganworks

A serial software technology entrepreneur, Donald Hicks co-founded Saganworks with Erika Block after a lightbulb moment at the British Museum in 2013. Today, his 3D immersive experiences now boast thousands of users globally, including museums, galleries and a range of other industries.

MuseumNext caught up with Don just as he was preparing for a family trip to the Galapagos. He shared the enjoyment he gets from bringing new solutions to market time and again; his optimism about the future potential for 3D experiences in the arts and culture sector; and why museums – like every other sector – must evolve to avoid extinction.

Like many serial entrepreneurs, Don Hicks has a resumé that’s hard to capture in brief. Having worked for the best part of 30 years applying software technology in scientific and engineering fields, he quips that recounting his entire career would make for “one long-ass interview” as we chat.

Perhaps best known for founding LLamasoft, a modelling and analytics optimisation studio – founded in 1998 and recently sold for $1.5bn – Don has come a long way from his early beginnings as a coder. As is often is the case with business founders, Don’s career has gradually taken him away from day-to-day operational work into management.

As he puts it, the requirement becomes about “leading organisations to execute on their visions, to help people think more clearly and make better decisions.”

Above: The Henry Ford

The story behind the genesis of Saganworks is an inspiring one: a lightbulb moment that occurred in the halls of the British Museum back in 2013. With just a few minutes left before the museum closed, Don still had many of the museum’s exhibits and collections to view. Struck by a simple thought: “I wish I could take the collections with me”, the seed was sewn for Saganworks and Don’s next great adventure began.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about the idea once it was in my head. Four years later I sold my supply chain company to private equity and we got Saganworks going. I had been working on the idea the whole time.”

What began as a desire to have access to images of the collection and supporting information on a USB memory stick, has evolved over the years into solution with much greater ambitions. Saganworks gives creators the ability to generate visually engaging 3D spaces using a simple drag-and-drop format. A Sagan is a Spatially Accessible Gallery of Archived kNowledge and Don believes that in the future, the creation of 3D spaces or Sagans will be considered another media format – just like video or 2D image files.

“At Saganworks, we see that we have the right technology and right solution to catalyse this moment. I see that we have a responsibility to get this right and to get people comfortable with this tool and this capability in the here and now.

“We know that we are an enabling technology. We’re just something people use. It’s the curators, the customers, the visitors that are going to make it all work. We need to make their jobs as easy as possible. It’s available on mobile and web, and it’s free . . . In many ways this is the capstone of everything I have worked on to this point.”

Asked how Saganworks can build a product that is free for users to create with, Don replies:

“People say, ‘That sounds too good to be true.’ So, my usual response is: ‘I’ve had a career making a killing in enterprise software; so it’s paid for.’ We’re doing this because we’re thinking about impact and we’re thinking about legacy.

“We know that this technology of curation on demand and facilitating the organisation of knowledge items in order to share them in 3D immersive experiences is relevant. We think it’s really important to make it available to the broader community. We have the financial backing to make this a philanthropic endeavour as far as users are concerned so that we have an ecosystem that really add value.

Above: Blue LLama Jazz Club

 

The return on investment for Saganworks comes from businesses utilising the technology on their websites – turning the flat two dimensions of the standard website into something wholly more immersive and three dimensional. Don says,

“Let’s keep it free for consumers and build a community – no advertising and no selling of data. But for businesses to whom we sell it as an embedded technology, they’ll simply pay as they receive visitors, just like any other ticketed experience.

“The crucial thing here is that we don’t need to price this to make quick returns; what will happen is that as businesses become successful by using these technologies then we can benefit from that.”

Positioning the museum sector

Having worked across a number of different industries, Don brings an interesting perspective to the unique characteristics of the arts and culture sector. “Each industry has its own dynamics. But one thing I’ve found is that the farther you go from a focus on pure profit and loss, in some ways the trickier it is to make rational decisions.

“There are many admirable traits in arts, culture, education and academia but when you aren’t focused entirely on performing cost-benefit analysis, conversations and decision making become more complex.

“People’s incentives are very different in different fields – and understanding those motivations has been very important as we’ve worked to get Saganworks off the ground. Those industry drivers are to be understood if you are hoping to get a foothold in the market.”

He continues,

“It’s also important to point out that drivers can be wildly different from institution to institution, which makes catering for an organisation’s needs a very tailored and bespoke thing. It’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all requirement. Some people are about trying to deepen their relationships, some are trying to engage with digital technologies, others just want to experiment with cool stuff.

“What I will say is that the way people interact with software, especially in the business of helping them think; the learning curve is shockingly similar from sector to sector. There will always be early adopters who just get things; but there will also be a large proportion of people who need to see things in action, be convinced over time and shown what can be achieved.

Don does say, however, that many of the talents that are valued in the museum world have obvious carry over to the kind of digital curation required using a tool like Saganworks:

“Giving people unstructured access to knowledge items or ‘KIs’ as we call them can be daunting for some people. Often people want guidance or instructions on how to go about organising those keys, visually and spatially. Most people are not practiced at this. But those who are, for example museum curators who know what to do with a blank space or room; these guys have a set of skills that I think have incredible value and can be utilised in a range of ways.

“I look at this moment where we are overwhelmed with digital information and what we need is a healthy dose of ethical curation. If anything, the pandemic has forced people into the digital space and caused more content to be generated than ever before. So, we’re in a moment where quality curation is in high demand.”

As an entrepreneur within the tech world, it’s interesting to get Don’s perspective on what many see as being a digital pivot over recent months. He challenges the idea that the museum sector is going through a period of rapid digital transformation. While innovation is taking place, he says that more often than not the sector is simply making more use of existing tools and doing a better job of utilising technologies that are already established.

“Quite frankly I don’t see a rapid transformation at this point. I’m not seeing museums, or many other sectors for that matter, making giant strides forward. I dearly love many of these institutions but what am I seeing right now while I can’t visit their collections in person? I get an email with 2D pictures of the stuff I want to see. And yes, there’s lots I can learn from the information provided. But is it digital transformation? No.

“What museums do very well, is build relationships and retain those relationships after visits. But I don’t see them using their curating skills providing me with enhanced experiences all that well.”

Yet by creating a 3D immersive experience using Saganworks, Don says that so much more of the essence of museums and galleries can be shared – without placing extreme demands on digital teams or in-house software developers:

“Using the flat pictures of artworks from the Louvre, my thirteen-year-old was able to build a 3D hallway in one hour with all of the paintings on it that we could wander down the hallway and look at them. I was reminded of physically being there again. And it’s that connection with space that museum curators know intuitively; a connection we need to help them act on.”

Digital as a distractor or a detractor?

Asked for his view on whether digital innovation could serve to undermine the traditional in-person experience at museums, Don says,

“I take something of a Darwinian view on this. The truth is that there is only a finite attention span from the public and that museums are always going to be faced with competition from all different areas of interest – be it movies, sports or cat videos.

“You can wish that that were different but we can’t change the fact that competition for people’s attention is going on all the time. I don’t think the fear should be, will digital formats of museum experiences cannibalise the real-life ones; it’s whether people will instead spend their time watching cat videos.

“At Saganworks we are trying to empower museums to fight for that attention with their own collections and their own content. Because they’ve got the goods! They have sublime beauty, knowledge and value.

“I absolutely believe that if people walk through the halls of a 3D immersive experience to see how a museum has created their installations in digital form, they are going to want to come and see the real thing in person when they can.

“What we are trying to achieve by digitising and creating 3D immersive experiences is to make the relationship between curator and visitor less dependent on physical location. Instead, it’s more dependent on emotional impact, on storytelling ability, on intelligence of communication and on imagination.

“It should allow people who’ve built skills of curation over many years the toolset to become more influential, more productive, more impactful than ever before. And when you put it on your website and gain 10,000 visitors you may need to pay Saganworks a few bucks. But that’s a success story in itself.”

You can find out more about Saganworks by visiting the website here.

 

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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