In a couple of days I’ll be back in Adelaide to sit on a panel as part of the Festival of Unpopular Culture called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vibrancy Forum.” I thought that was as good a reason as any to post a few comments on this long neglected blog and float a few ideas about prior to that conversation, which you can read more about here.
The Vibrancy Agenda is coming under a lot of fire lately, not just in Adelaide but internationally. The three major criticisms of it are:
(A) It confuses effect with cause, assuming that giving a city some of the features of places like Melbourne, Copenhagen or Portland it will attract the creative class that fuels the knowledge economy in those cities.
(B) Particularly in regional cities, government funded activities clustering or ‘activating’ fairly specific areas tends to produce a false boom in land values and rental rates that paradoxically scales out smaller scale and innovative activity, as well as existing residents and businesses. This is a critique Richard Florida has famously made of his own work, albeit after pretty vicious duress from other researchers.
(C) The term ‘Vibrancy’ itself is so ambiguous it often leads to confused policy directions that aren’t adequately grounded in local conditions. There’s a secondary element to this in that the indicators of a successful ‘vibration’ are often so broad they conceal poorly performing agencies and individuals. In other words, those who are unable for whatever reason to engage in more substantial reform will tend to fall back on token placemaking gestures safe in the knowledge that this often all that’s required to declare their city ‘vibrant’, even when their work has no lasting impact.
I’ve been thinking particularly about the last point – the ambiguity of the term and the impact it has. To my eye, it often means good strategy at a higher level often dissolves into bad tactics for delivery because there’s not enough clarity as to what the final outcome should look like. That, in turn, creates a tension between those in government and those in the community or business sector.
As a case in point, a couple of weeks back I got a call from the managers of a creative hub who’d had their development approvals jammed by the Adelaide City Council. This meant lost income as they’d been forced to cancel events. In trying to figure out what Council actually wanted, they’d been bounced between nine different staff who all said different things, none of whom seemed to have the power to make a decision. They’re exactly the kind of young, creative entrepreneurs the ‘Vibrancy Agenda’ aims to support, yet like so many of the creative enterprises I worked with back in Adelaide, active disincentives were placed to prevent them from succeeding. As Elizabeth Raupach noted back in 2010, “Artists report that they don’t mind complying with appropriate legislation if only they could work out how to go about it.” Raupach’s Theatre Spaces and Venues Audit for Arts SA noted Council was intending to review By-Laws in relation to its handling of creative spaces. Three years later, that hasn’t happened.
A couple of hours later I got a call from a friend in State Government who was upset that, after years slaving their arse off to force change through the system, all they ever heard was people whinging about how ‘vibrancy’ is a waste of time. He felt, quite rightly, that the complaints derailed the agenda for change and allowed the status quo to reinforce itself.
My friend has worked hard and done great work and pushed through real reform. But if a creative hub is having to deal with nine different staff and losing business because a local government agency can’t figure out a basic temporary use approval or provide adequate small business support, then the heavy work in strategy isn’t producing tactics that deliver for their intended targets.
So what exactly is Vibrancy meant to achieve? The State Government Strategic Priority around ‘Creating a Vibrant City’ offers a clue:
Many of our young people are still leaving our state. If we want people to stay here we must show that we can accommodate more lifestyle and career choices.
To achieve this, Adelaide needs more people living, working, investing, visiting and spending time in the city.
That frames it as something to do with the link between economics and demographic. South Australia wants to encourage people to invest their time, energy, money and labour in the state. Sounds great. Although The Thirty Year Plan for Greater Adelaide puts it more bluntly:
If no action is taken to increase the working-age population in Greater Adelaide, the ratio of dependent people will increase from 49 per cent at the 2006 Census to 66 per cent by 2036.The large majority of this increase is projected to come from the aged population. This will have a significant impact on the capacity of future generations to provide health and related services to an ageing population.
So that would suggest the issue is, “If we can’t get more people to invest more time, energy and money into South Australia, we’re going to have trouble paying the state’s health care bills.” That makes Vibrancy sound a little more pressing. There’s an added weight to with the loss of the AAA credit rating, with Standard and Poor commenting on the “state’s weak budgetary performance, rising debt burden, and modest budgetary flexibility.”
Of course, these aren’t new problems. A while back my friend Jane Howard pulled together a couple of graphs for me. I think I posted these a while back, but they’re worth revisiting:
I’d asked Jane to chart the State Final Demand after reading this article from 2012 by the Economic Analysis Department of the Reserve Bank, which recommend Final Demand was a good measure of the “growth in consumption and investment spending by the household, business and governmental sectors combined” or, in effect, all the economic activity within the state.
I chose to track it from 1984 because I wanted to see how things changed after the Australian dollar floated and the nation entered the global economy. What this graph suggests is that most of the states experienced two periods of growth, with an initial rise after the dollar floated, a dip caused by the recession in the early Nineties, and then another rise around the turn of the century. But overall, Australia’s done pretty well. Except for South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra which all stayed pretty much on the same trajectory.
One of the suggestions we can draw from this is that those three states didn’t enter the global economy. They stayed doing what they were designed to do: acting as primary industries portals, manufacturing hubs and, in Canberra’s case, a government cluster. This is often why regional cities have adopted a ‘Vibrancy Agenda’. With manufacturing moving to the cheap labour of the developing world, many first world cities can no longer do what they were designed to do. They’ve suddenly got to shift to a knowledge economy, which is a hard transition.
So what about the population stuff? Does SA need more working aged people? Well, Jane dredged up some data on population and growth for the same period. Particularly I wanted to look at Qld and WA. My rationale for this was that NSW and Victoria had already been linked to the global economy after the dollar’s ‘soft float’ in 1973, where as SA, Qld and WA were all more or less in the same boat. Here’s the results:
Notice right at the start of the graph, SA is on par with WA. Certainly the state’s population is growing at a much slower rate. But does that mean the population of people above working age is greater than the working age population? Or does it just mean we have a peak population or something?
The report includes the following graph:
Note the drop-off at ages 25 through to 34. This is the decline in working age population the Thirty Year Plan mentions.
There’s a truism that this generation will ‘move back when they want to have kids.’ I’m not so sure. Compare this generation’s age to the economic shift evident in the above graphs. Those aged in their mid-thirties and below would have been entering the workforce from about 1995 onwards, at which point the comparative strength of SA’s economy to its interstate neighbours was increasingly non-competitive. On top of this there’s the dual impact of the casualization of the workforce and negative gearing on pathways to home ownership. Those things are likely to mean more people will stay interstate where the work force is bigger and the drive to come home, get a stable job and buy a house will potentially be less powerful.
So in this light, the Vibrancy Agenda takes on a different hue and you can see why it’s a State strategic priority. The problems it faces aren’t new, and the decline of the State’s credit rating seems more like a long term decline that’s come to fruit under the current government rather than something they’ve caused. Indeed, to their credit, I think one of the reasons these issues are now gaining more traction and being debated with greater passion is because they’ve been pushed into the public eye. So potentially, we could say “Vibrancy” is a non-frightening way of saying “Shit, we’re about to go broke” and thus acts as a sort of feel good mandate for change.
But this brings us back to the disparity between strategy and tactics. If we accept that the State Government’s strategic priority around ‘Vibrancy’ is actually to do with unsustainable demographic trends and the struggle to retain viability in a global economy, then it should shape how we define ‘Vibrancy’, the tactics we use to achieve it and the way we measure its success. Personally, I think disparity between my friend’s great work in State Government and the reality experienced by those running the creative hub suggests there might be something missing.
Time permitting, I’ll have some more on this topic in the next couple of days.