How does a city become smart? That seems to be the question of the moment as countries and cities around the world try to figure out how to catch a little bit of Silicon Valley’s magic.
As part of the 2012 City Talks series, the City of Sydney hosted a discussion on how the city can become a smart city;
Sydney is bursting with talented, creative and forward-thinking people. How can we harness the energy of government, education, businesses, media, and creative thinkers to create space for innovation?
While it’s questionable that a “creative space for innovation” is a worthy objective – albeit laden with buzzwords – it’s certainly true that Sydney, along with other Australian cities, has the components to be a entrepreneurial centre, the question is how does the city harness the various talents across the different sector.
Working to advantages
Rather than aping Silicon Valley, New York or Ireland all cities should be exploiting their natural advantages. Fast Company Magazine recently looked at how Oklahoma City has advantages over its bigger cousins in New York and California.
For Sydney, and Melbourne, those strengths include an educated, multi-cultural workforce with first world legal systems in a similar time zone to the world’s major growth markets.
One of the tragedies in Australia’s marketing over the last twenty five years has been the failure to mention the ethnic diversity of the nation. This is huge competitive advantage that is barely being discussed.
What can governments do?
At the Sydney City Talks event, Lord Mayor Clover Moore said that creating a smart city requires “the same incentive to be given to innovators and creatives as is given to property investors and mining companies.”
That change requires state and Federal governments to change laws and businesses, particularly banks, to pick up on those price and policy signals.
Education too needs reform although this needs real consultation or we’ll end falling for short term fads or copying the damaging anti-teacher jihad that has infected the US.
A welcome change for many Australian innovators would be changes in government procurement policies as currently all levels of government prefer to deal with the local offices of large multinationals. As the Queensland Health Department debacle shows, these organisations are often less competent than local providers.
Making those changes though will require major reforms to policies and laws, something that neither major Australian political party at any level has the courage or vision to do.
That the NSW Digital Action Plan is now in its thirty-first draft speaks volumes about the inertia among the city’s, state’s and country’s political and business leaders.
Ditch the Silicon
Probably the first failure of imagination is the “silicon” tag – US entrepreneur Brad Feld skewers this nicely in his blog post on The Tragedy Of Calling Things Silicon.
Sydney has already has a group called “Silicon Beach” which has spread out to Melbourne and the Gold Coast and it’s interesting that both Google Australia’s CEO and Engineering head want to co-opt the name.
On of the suggestions was “Silicon Banana” a tag which brings to mind the phrase “kill me now please?” to anyone already uncomfortable with the ‘Silicon’ label.
The “Silicon Banana” idea comes from the curved shape of Sydney’s ‘digital heartland’ which curves from Darling Island to the west of the city and curves around the edge of the city centre through Surry Hills across to the film and television facilities at Fox Studios.
Describing Sydney’s centre of innovation as lying within the ‘banana’ illustrates the lack of thinking outside the current app and web mania. It also neglects the bulk of Sydney, particularly those parts of the Western Suburbs where languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic or Hindi are spoken.
Once again we neglect those assets because they aren’t white, Anglo or living in the prettier parts of the city.
Does it have to be Sydney?
We should keep in mind that the Silicon Valleys of the past haven’t been the biggest cities – Silicon Valley itself is barely a city and San Francisco is not one of the US’ biggest cities.
It’s quite possible that an Australian centre of innovation could be any one of dozens of smaller towns such as Geelong, Wagga or Cairns.
The problem in Australia is, once again, property prices. Compared to the US or Europe, housing and office rents aren’t substantially cheaper outside the big cities unless you’re prepared to move to seriously blighted parts of the country.
Spinning the wheels
Probably the most disappointing thing of the ‘smart city’ discussion is just how bogged down we’ve become – there was little in the City Talk that wasn’t being spoken about five, or even ten, years ago. Things have not moved on.
Creating a smart city isn’t about picking winners among industries, suburbs or groups. To really be smart we have to give the opportunities for clever people to succeed.
Simply jumping onto today’s technology fad or mindlessly aping Silicon Valley is to squander our advantages and not learn from the mistakes of others.
The real worry though is just how little progress is being made in seizing today’s opportunities. It doesn’t bode well for tomorrow’s.