From my new home in the leafy surrounds of Surry Hills, I’ve been continuing to debate that age old chestnut of ‘What Ails Adelaide?’. And not only have I developed the following hypothesis, but I’ve managed to keep it to under 500 words. Please do let me know what you think – it is just a hypothesis.
For those who like their blog posts long, and those who like checking my research, there is an additional footnote on the ABS stats I was going through when I was writing this.
Adelaide’s basic problem has two parts:
(1) It needs to innovate so it can compete, culturally and economically, in a globalised economy focused on the production of knowledge over primary goods or manufacturing.
(2) Innovation generally involves risk taking. Adelaide has a ‘risk averse’ regulatory environment that lessens its capacity to produce innovation and retain ‘knowledge workers’.
Adelaide thus struggles to attract the ideas and activities that would allow it to compete with other, larger and better connected cities.
This is an old problem. Adelaide was founded to be a wheat and wool feeder to the British Empire, not compete in a global, knowledge based economy. It’s too far away from everything. It did fine in the protectionist environment of Menzies but when Australia started deregulating in the 1970s, and after the dollar floated in 1983, it struggled, particularly after the State Bank collapse. People started leaving it during the Nineties for cities that competed better. That’s now reflected in the 30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide’s comments about the lack of a ‘working age population’. (see Note 1)
Paradoxically, Adelaide is great at producing innovative thinkers and has very supportive conditions: low living costs, three universities, major festivals and the kind of cross-disciplinary collegiality that happens in a small city. It’s a good, cheap place to try out new ideas, safe in the knowledge that if they don’t work you’ll still be able to afford the rent.
It also had a bit of a head start, because Dunstan’s reforms pushed it towards a knowledge economy early with funding for major flagships producing a level of ‘cultural excellence’ beyond that available interstate. Unfortunately, over the last four decades, every other state has developed major flagships, so that no longer makes Adelaide unique.
Additionally, Dunstan’s ‘top down’ mentality is counterintuitive to the ‘bottom up’ nature of innovation. We see this in the current attitude that a publically funded mimicry of Melbourne, Copenhagen and Portland will allow Adelaide to compete with Melbourne, Copenhagen and Portland. The obvious flaw is that a ‘working age population’ would rather be in a city where they can innovate and make their own ‘vibrancy’ than live in a city where civil servants supply ‘vibrancy’ like it’s a service akin to rubbish collection or street sweeping. To be fair, this is a mistake being made by the local government sector in numerous struggling regional centres both in Australia and internationally.
This leaves us with a conundrum. South Australia needs risk takers and innovators. It can’t compete for the top of the food chain, but it can definitely compete for grassroots and start-ups, and it could grow them. It would need to let this happen organically, because that’s how innovation works. Unfortunately, the ‘risk averse’ regulatory environment, combined with a remnant faith in ‘top down’ culture left over from Dunstan, hinders its capacity to recognise, let alone grow, this smaller, less glamorous portion of the cultural environment and knowledge economy.