Last night we had a forum in Newcastle discussing the desire for this once heavily industrial town to become a center for innovation. Unfortunately much of the panel discussion, and subsequently the audience questions, got bogged down in discussing the past, the limitations of council and old technology. It was a lost opportunity for what is an important and exciting discussion.
Near the end of the night I couldn’t help myself and grabbed the microphone to offer my simple plan for creating an innovative city. Here it is in writing for anyone who cares to take the discussion further or help expand and act on the ideas.
Incremental examples of creeping innovation from existing players won’t be enough to launch a town like Newcastle to national or international prominence as a smart and innovative city. A couple of major initiatives are required to create that catalyst for a dynamic leap forward.
Firstly, universal access to high-speed broadband is essential for a community to compete and indeed lead the way in innovation. In the digital economy we must be connected. It is not good enough to wait for the National Broadband Network to finally arrive in town. It doesn’t give us an advantage, it just puts us on par with the rest of Australia when (or if) it finally arrives.
Fortunately there are other options. I am aware of companies with the ability to have high-speed broadband setup here in Newcastle within six months if they were given the support to enter the market. And it would cost not much more to set up than it recently cost to have a new brand designed for the city. Whilst I agree that the City Council shouldn’t be expected to be responsible for innovation, they can certainly get the ball rolling by supporting and partially funding access to broadband, which I am certain would quickly attract financial support from the private sector and Chamber of Commerce.
Having early access to high speed broadband gives Newcastle an advantage and will help attract new business as well as foster innovation amongst existing businesses and organisations. As I said, this is essential.
Part two of the plan is to set up a truly outstanding innovation and technology festival similar to South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. SXSW, for those who aren’t familiar, is a 3 part festival / conference held every March. Part 1 is Film, Part 2 is Interactive, Part 3 is Music. Together they attract some of the world’s best thinkers in each field to discuss, workshop, perform and present. They also attract thousands of people to listen, learn, meet, socialise and network. Let me tell you, Austin during SXSW is one of the most exciting and vibrant places in the world.
But SXSW has also had a massive impact on the Austin economy. Austin has grown to become a significant technology hub with a huge job sector in the technology industry. Past research has shown that Austin’s technology industry and strong startup sector make up large portions of Austin’s job market, which helped Austin’s job market recover after the 2008-2009 recession. The event now brings an estimated $100 million to the city.
I believe there is an opportunity to do something similar (not the same, but similar) in Newcastle. With all due respect to Australian tech and innovation conference organisers, there isn’t currently a great event that brings everyone together and that generates the buzz and innovative thinking of SXSW and other tech events I’ve attended on the USA. Newcastle would be a great place to do it.
An event like this would attract thousands of innovators to the city and also showcase the natural benefits of Newcastle; harbour and beach-side living and working, less expensive office space and domestic rents, and a large University producing thousands of excellent graduates hungry for work.
Add a high speed broadband network to the mix and suddenly Newcastle looks very attractive to tech startups and other innovators. Newcastle City Council could consider concessions to attract innovative businesses to the town.
Sure, creating and growing such an event would require a lot of energy, but with the right team behind it and the support of the Council it could become the spark that lights the fire for a smart and innovative city.
So who’s on board? Please give me your feedback, ideas and put your hand up if you think you have something to contribute.