My plan for creating an innovative city
30Jun11

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.

Smart and Innovative Newcastle

Newcastle offers many advantages for innovative companies - photo MattLauder.com.au

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.

SXSW is one of the most innovative events in the world

SXSW is one of the most innovative events 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.

 

Posted under Innovation, Start me up

Written by Craig Wilson


26 Responses to “My plan for creating an innovative city”

Agreed and agreed.

The only thing I’d add into the mix is a way to help with office space.

For a start-up, rent and fitting out an office is a rather costly exercise. Maybe there’s a way to cluster 2, 3 or four little start-ups in one larger office so they can save on rent, share resources and collaborate easily.

Comment by Matthew Hatton on June 30th, 2011

I like it. I think at the lower end of the scale we can use the example of Renew Newcastle. Most web tech companies need space, electricity and broadband,but not much else.

Comment by Media Hunter on June 30th, 2011

Office space is a good idea and build it into a full service incubator. Get local lawyers, accountants, pr/marketing, VC/investors and others to offer different info sessions on setup a company, basic accounting, marketing 101, so that they are legitimate businesses that people will be willing to invest in. The incubator can be the HQ for Australia’s SXSW.

Comment by damian holmes on June 30th, 2011

Love the vision. A city like Newcastle has a lot to offer from an innovation perspective. The incubator idea is a good one. The festival idea even better. If you can sell this to the council, you’re onto a very, very good thing. Even without them, get onto it. Be interesting to see if you can get any help from a venture perspective as well.

My partner is from Newcastle and wants to move back, I’ve been holding out on the idea. But the way you’re talking…it may be me leading the move.

High speed broadband, a laptop and the beach. Sounds an easy sell to me.

Comment by Dan Jones on June 30th, 2011

spread the word

Comment by Media Hunter on June 30th, 2011

Nice.

+1 for Renew Newcastle.

TEDxNewy in October will be a great contribution to part 2.

Comment by Andy Howard on June 30th, 2011

get on board, its gonna need a team effort

Comment by Media Hunter on June 30th, 2011

Love it. Would also love to work on an event like SXSW in Newcastle. I think it would definitely work wonders in terms of tourism and reducing the ‘brain drain’ to Sydney.

Comment by Tara Ryan on June 30th, 2011

Collaborative office arrangements are a fantastic idea for innovation. When I went into business w/ Naomi at the start of this year as part of RenewNewcastle, a whole new world of opportunities opened up for us by dint of being in an office with a bunch of creatives – in different fields, which is the key. There are six businesses and the ideas we throw around with each other are such a source of inspiration.

After a few years I suspect that most fledgling setups like that would be in a good enough position to look further afield for office space, thus making way for new fledgling setups. Renew is doing so much for the city, if it could be expanded upon the opportunities are endless IMO.

And geez, our own version of SXSW would be fanfreakingtastic.

Comment by Xanthe on June 30th, 2011

For an entity to be innovative – I think it pays to think about past efforts by others to foster such an environment. What works, what doesn’t. Some ideas that have worked for others before:

- Cross section of disciplines and ideas? SXSW is a great example and would be awesome to see in a town like Newcastle. The catalyst effect alone would be invaluable. But is the focus too narrow? What about industry, corporates and governemt, i.e. the ones who have the serious money? Can they be included intelligently into such a festival?
- Can agents, secret or otherwise ;), infiltrate old fuddy duddy visions like NCC is displaying and turn them around, without making them feel stupid?
- Involve the centres of education more in city and innovation development. Can the Uni and Tafe have focus groups that are able to action results?
- 20 percent time ala Google. Can it work for a city in some form or another? I know that’s a fairly abstract idea…

The key would be figuring out whats been done before, what worked and what didnt. Learning from past mistakes. I’m not so sure about the office space idea – this has been done to death before. I do like the idea of a group of lawyers/accountants/other pros getting new business moving more easily though – but arent such services alreaady available though IDC hunter? Maybe a lot can be learned from them, but then again maybe the IDC needs a good shake up too.

Comment by Bill on June 30th, 2011

Hi Craig
Thanks for getting some ideas out there. I think the focus on ideas and innovation coupled with high speed broadband can certainly assist in building a sense of a higher order thinking and creative community taking advantage of lifestyle to supplement the benefit of relative proximity to Sydney as a major market and air access to Melb and Brisbane.
In terms of support for startups, and business ‘incubators’ I had an idea last year to replicate the traditional role of the ‘village post office’ as a place of connections. The concept was to provide virtual spaces for startups with connections to a community of users and specialists who could support startups in getting online and in growing a connected presence. The early bones of this idea are at http://newcastle21cpostoffice.org/ The space would work in a similar way to another space I’ve set up to support schools and other groups in the education sector to get a web presence and build connections at http://hccweb2.org That is, once provided with a space, and when people develop skills in use; they then ‘pay it forward.’
Once again, thanks for kicking off the discussion.

Comment by Roger Pryor on June 30th, 2011

Great ideas everyone :)

I’m not sold on the broadband aspect though…

Working for a web development company I have very specific needs for fast broadband including video conferencing, pushing large files around etc. Thing is, my business is satisfied with current broadband speeds at this point in time, so Craig I’m wondering why it is you think uber-fast broadband (beyond what’s currently available) is a requirement for an innovative city?

In my opinion, my company and yours are innovative already, and although fast broadband would be a nice to have, I don’t think a lack of it would be a deal-breaker for new businesses looking at setting up in the area.

Free and fast wireless internet, now that’s another story…

Comment by Wayde Christie on July 1st, 2011

I’m not satisfied with current broadband, it could definitely improve. I agree that having uber-fast doesn’t suddenly make you innovative, but I believe we’re not talking about what’s good now, we’re talking about what’s possible in the near future. I also think that it makes a strong statement to those outside Newcastle that we are progressive and willing to take the lead.

Comment by Media Hunter on July 1st, 2011

and the idea I’m thinking of could potentially provide fast free wifi and low cost broadband.

Comment by Media Hunter on July 1st, 2011

The one thing that seems to be missing from the ideas above is Venture Capital.

Without a true investment market Startups will simply die. It is a huge issue in Australia ATM – the lack of a true private investment market.

Yes there are a handful of people leading the way but without an increase in private investment, like Silicon Valley, Startups and Innovation based companies need seed funding and support. Other wise like “Spreets” companies will be force to look out side of Australia.

Comment by elliot rock on July 1st, 2011

I agree wholeheartedly Elliot, VC is pretty thin on the ground in Oz but there are some decent Angel networks out there. However, VC’s weren’t waiting in Silicon Valley, Boulder and Austin for tech companies to start up, they tend to go where the action is. There first has to be some successful innovators and growing start-up scene before the VC’s arrive. But, its not going to happen quickly. One step at a time.

Comment by Media Hunter on July 1st, 2011

Great idea Craig,

Newcastle has a great opportunity to become the silicon valley of Australia. It just needs some government support.

I thought the steel river park at Mayfield would be a great site for smart businesses as it already has a presence with the CSIRO. If fibre-optic were installed there it may be a catalyst. Ultimately this area could be linked to the CBD via rail of some type to create a green, thriving innovation hub where the best minds would love to work.

Stop the brain drain and bring it on.

Comment by Stuart on July 2nd, 2011

My two cents for an Innovative City is for evolution, not revolution. The always wise Media Hunter has noted that Newcastle was once an industrial town and I think we should capitalise on this existing knowledge base.
Regardless of Australia’s action in regards to a Carbon tax the world will still be mining and manufacturing, and in my opinion making a much bigger mess than our industries ever have (but this for another time). If mining is halted within 10 years I am hopeful that these skilled tradesmen and engineers aren’t just left to spend their days interpreting Whale sounds. Manufacturing in Australia is now virtual extinct.
It would be great to be Australia’s ‘Silcon Valley’, but it’s a long shot. I would like to see a city that leads the world in supplying solutions to these countries that continue to mine and manufacture.

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