Jun 132012
building sydney as a smart city

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.

  12 Responses to “Can Sydney become a smart city?”

  1. So who or what is the catalyst we need to break the cycle of talking and start the cycle of doing?

    • The catalyst is you Chris, and me and anyone else.

      Instead of waiting for government, banks or corporations to do something we have to get off our backsides and do it ourselves.

      Hopefully big business and government will follow or at least keep out of the way.

  2. The Australian psyche is different than in the US. We don’t handle failure as well and we are also less likely to show boldness and pride.

    Generally, we aren’t risk takers. If businesses took more of a punt on local ideas, then innovation will be rewarded and entrepreneurs will naturally appear.

    Commitment from government would be helpful if not necessary but so too the big bucks from banks and investors. We have all the right conditions, we just need to be more comfortable when saying “my idea is brilliant” or “I’m awesome”.

  3. Paul W, agree with your comment 100%, but less-so your article. Having been subjected to the UK’s efforts to stimulate innovation though their TechCity initiative over the last year (and seen no practical outcomes at all, just squandered resources and political posturing) I am sure the best thing the Government can do is stay out of the way of 2nd guessing technnology/ how to stimulate it.

    I think this article is naive, I’m guessing you haven’t built a company or experienced the importance of a strong, local, physical peer network. Geelong and Wagga will not be centres of tomorrow’s scalable digital technology. The remarks on cultural diversity are also naive. If you go to silicon valley you will find plenty of non-english-speaking background diversity, but everyone there speaks English. Even some german friends I stayed with last week, one of whom only arrived in SV from Munich six months ago, speak english with eachother as a matter of self discipline. You can’t have a mandarin, arabic etc silos. These are barriers to a cohesive community, as much as 1000km of sea. People who want to succeed in that community understand that, and would never imagine they could exist in a mandarin-speaking silo.

    The most important things that australian governments can address are I think (aside from the cultural issues which the govt can not change):

    Get out of the way. Repeal an re-implement legislation as necessary to make it easier to start equity motivated companies. i.e. make it easier to do rolling syndicated angel rounds and reverse-vested options/ cliffs for co-founders and early employees.

    Do not impose unreasonable/ uncompetitive costs on early companies, e.g. forcing co-working spaces to meet step-free accessibility and other planning regulations which drive up input costs

    the only caveat I’d make to “getting out of the way” is providing good fundamental infrastructure- like transport. Trying to travel around Sydney, compared to cities like London and San Francisco is a nightmare. The bus system is utter rubbish. What’s worse, is that again unlike London, San Francisco and even Melbourne, Sydney has a dearth of electric transport at a local level. Come the next liquid fuel shock, Sydney and its shitty local transport system are going to have very serious problems.

  4. What you are talking about is ‘social system design’, and it is a sit-down-and-workshop-this design exercise. You start by defining the Outcomes required – very ‘big picture’ Outcomes, with measures. Next you work out what types of People would align with the achievement of the Outcomes. Then you consider the External Factors (For, Against, Neutral).

    Once those are done, you then start to design the “system”, and this is all of the componentry which *together* will deliver the Outcomes. Just to emphasise, this like designing the machine to produce widgets. If you don’t design it for that purpose, then you ain’t gonna get widgets out!

    Once the entire design is complete, the fun begins: Inviting in *only* the types of People we defined earlier.

    In a nutshell, you get the right people interacting with the right people about the right things.

    Did Silicon Valley start by being designed? No. The people gravitated together and ‘grew’ gradually. We can speed this process up…

    A deliberately designed Smart city is do-able, and is quick. We don’t want to mimic Silicon Valley; we want to leapfrog over what they have done and establish a new benchmark.

  5. Hi Paul
    Parramatta is already working on making itself a smart city. See http://www.parraconnect.net.au

    Several projects are underway and looking good, especially the ParraSync card which is being trialled now.

  6. Well I think we want this prize in Newcastle. 😉

    BTW – what’s the definition of Smart in this context?

    My guess is that Smart is what it looks like after Something happens. What’s that Something? That’s going to be where the activity and the action happens. It needs a name. And a explicit nature that everyone involved can understand and to which they can contribute.

    • Actually Lindy you raise a good point, we’ve seen this before – Queensland trying to become a “Smart State” and Keating trying to brand Australia as a “Clever Country”. Both haven’t ended particularly well.

      Perhaps in this context we should define “smart” as embracing technology and encouraging innovators and entrepreneurs.

  7. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen organically. Forced silicon-washing projects will ultimately feel like cheap manufactured ripoffs. i.m.o. a region that becomes famous for truly being smart will receive a nickname after it makes a name for itself, and that name will come from onlookers not from the region itself. Newcastle is organically developing as a smart city as tech areas merge with a growing creative atmosphere. Watch this space.

    • I can’t disagree with you Anthony. A branding exercise ultimately means nothing if it isn’t realated to reality.

      As far as Newcastle goes, it has a shot at being Australia’s centre. It’s going to depend on the community there.

  8. The Aussie are the best business people in the world. They sell hoses to each other at ever inflated prices and in the process they become rich beyond belief!
    The Australian Gov at every level is great as it helps quite a lot with this magnificent enterprise assisting with smart legislation like “negative gearing”, growth boundaries, land banking etc. Right now it seems we have a bit of a problem with FHB being reluctant to jump in the wagon and pay a pittance of what! Just over 1/2 mill dollars for a magnificent 2 bedroom apartment in one of the best suburbs like Liverpool ! I hear excuses like “I can buy the same apartment in Germany for 80.000 euro”. Yes but you have to speak german. Would you like that? OK over 1/2 mill may seem much but rest assured the gov will help again. I heard they may let you use the superannuation shortly and have your kids name on the 60 years mortgage as the 1/2 mill apartment needs to reach the 1 mill mark shortly!

  9. I am in the technology space. The NBN is a great way of the whole of Australia becoming a smart nation..The technologies that will be used and the applications that will give to us will change our life. Video conferencing is just one. We will be able to monitor and manage and adapt very quickly to changes in multitude of diciplines.Imagine the elderly who are having issues with mobility. The medical people will be able to help in monitoring and helping them. Now and and in the future the services will go straight to the people that require them. This is what Smart City will do.We will also see change with the use of more efficient use of energy and the list goes on. Sustainability is and ease of use are the future .

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