marcus westbury

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What’s the difference between enabling and programming?

October 26th, 2013 by marcus
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Following on from yesterday’s post where i boldly declared that “interaction with funding bodies actively destroys enabling mechanismsseveral people responded to what i thought was pretty much a throw away point. It was my quick and dirty way to frame the debate. They either asked about or noted that they’d appreciated the explicit distinction i’d made between an “enabler” and “programmer” when it comes to arts policies and arts organisations.

As the comments accumulated, particularly over on Facebook, I realised that this “enabling” v. “programming” distinction is one i’ve used in my head for a while. I’ve probably kind of grazed past it in writing but never really stopped to take the time to articulate it. So, just for fun, this morning i sat down and did a little lazy table that makes a distinction between how i see an enabler differing from a programmer. This list is by no means definitive. It’s not even particularly thought through given i knocked it up an hour ago. Consider it my whiteboard scrawl, not my thesis — but it’s the basis of a discussion i’d be keen to be part of.

I believe we need more enablers or more organisations that behave that way. The overwhelming majority of funding and resources goes towards Programming and that we need to invest a lot more Enabling, but it’s also worth making one additional point:  reality is most organisations do, in fact, have some qualities of both. This isn’t a binary thing but i think if you take this frame in mind you can see where resources cluster in relation to the spectrum.

So with that in mind, should you find this the slightest bit interesting i actually did you all a bloody table…

Enabling Programming
Relationship to the creative practitioner The practitioner is independent and autonomous. The enabler is primarily a service provider who works for the creative practitioner – designed to do things they cannot do themselves. Endeavours to be responsive to their needs and limitations. More likely to “employ”, engage, hire, or direct a creative practitioner. The artist, at some level, is a means of filling the organisation’s need for a program.
Certainty A low degree of certainty, security, and predictability is traded off against the ability to do more things, take more risks, and support more people and experiment with more audiences. A high degree of certainty, security of funding and resources traded off against a more limited capacity for risk, experimentation, and failure.
Assumption about creative practice That it is relatively decentralised. That it comes from a very diverse range of independent practitioners, with a diverse range of qualities, needs, and opportunities and is made for a diversity of audiences. That is relatively centralised. That there are a smaller number of higher quality artists whose works can be channelled, promoted, sold or exposed to a relatively fixed/ predictable series of audiences.
Identity That projects, artists and programs are primarily presented with their identity (and not the brand of the enabling organisation) at the forefront. That this is important in building the capacity of their practice. The programming entity tends to subsume the identity of individual artists, events, programs and initiatives under its “brand” eg the venue, the company, or the festival, etc
Timeliness Accumulates smaller activities and grows them over a longer period of time. Starts with today, tomorrow the next day and builds a cumulative capacity of projects individually and collectively. Plans well ahead and at a larger scale. Does individual activities, sequentially or in parallel but usually for fixed period of time before moving on to a new one.
Audience Seeks to connect an individual project or artist with the appropriate audiences not the organisation’s fixed one. A diversity of audiences to match its portfolio of approaches. Connecting audiences and discovering new ones results from engaging with a breadth of projects. Usually stems from a fixed idea of who the market, the demographic or the audience is. The relationship to the fixed audience (eg. The subscriber, the return visitor) is actually the key value the programming entity holds. The brand positioning of the organisation determines the market and content.
Approach to “quality” More likely to involve a “portfolio of risks” where are a variety of things of different standards, experience, and potential are allowed to co-exist. A spectrum of “qualities” as opposed to fixed idea of quality. Primarily emphasises “quality control” where the bar to entry is high or matches the perceptions of its relatively fixed sense of who its audience, constituencies and stakeholders are.
Risk Focuses on upside risks and opportunities of doing something. Sees the dangers of not doing something are more important than the fear of doing the wrong thing. Is driven more of fear of the dangers of downside risk. Risk averse and afraid of doing the wrong thing.
Genre boundaries Less likely to be defined by boundaries of genres and artforms – more likely to be defined by areas where practical needs intersect (eg. Creative people who need empty space, or legal advice, or some other area of benefit). More likely to be defined by traditional boundaries of genres, artfroms, and areas of practice.
Infrastructure Assumes that a variety of infrastructures are required to achieve a range of ends. Looks for the possibilities within a range of formal and informal, physical and virtual infrastructures – is willing to vary those as required. Often tied to infrastructure – a theatre, a venue, a hall, a gallery, a program that needs to be filled, relationships with services providers (eg. caterers). The logic of filling the fixed infrastructure drives may creative and programming decisions.
Use of resources Seeks to do a lot within the limitations of any available set of resources. Seeks to be adaptable and flexible in response to resource constraints. Seeks to attain the resources required to do things “properly”, “professionally” or to a fixed standard. Reluctant to compromise on “quality” and places more emphasis on seeking appropriate resources than adapting to available ones.
Legitimacy and authority Has a low (but not zero) capacity to confer legitimacy on a project or artist through a relationship Has a high capacity to confer legitimacy or authority on an artist
Financial arrangements Usually not in an position to take a great financial risk of investment in an individual project so must compensate by providing practical support of other kinds Can, in some cases, invest considerable finances in individual shows or projects. Can lead to higher quality outcomes but more risk averse programming or greater consequences of failure.
Allocation of Resources Resources often tend to remain outside the enabler — they flow directly to, or are brokered directly on behalf of the artists and creative projects. They are less likely to pass through the enabler’s books and less likely to be cash. Can be harder to quantify but more efficient. Resources are more likely to pool within the programming organisation in the form of overheads, salaries, facilities and other costs. More likely to be quantifiable and show up on the books of the programming organisation but less likely to be efficiently delivered to the artists.
Uncertainty Embraces uncertainty as fertile ground for possibility. Treats it more as a series of risks to the status quo

Image: Studio Batch (a 3D printing, craft and design studio) which is part of Renew Australia‘s Docklands Spaces program. 

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Enabling as Arts and cultural policy, the problems of prediction and a modest proposal

October 25th, 2013 by marcus
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I’ve spent the last couple of days at an Australian Academy of Science hosted event in Canberra where 50-odd very impressive thinkers, scientists, business leaders, former politicians, even military leaders and came together to basically talk about scenarios for the future. It was great and I learnt a lot. There were also a few arts and culture people there and at one point as we grasped with scenarios of uncertainty, I found myself connecting some dots about the inherent contradictions in forward thinking and embracing unknowns.

Recently we found out that Arts NSW will not be funding Renew Newcastle this year. Their reasons were varied but they followed on from some very mixed messages: on one had there has been an active attempt to change the guidelines so as to make programs like ours ineligible, and on the other hand Arts NSW has an entire section (linked to from the front page of their web site) boasting about supporting and encouraging others to develop programs like ours. A couple of years ago they were sending me to every corner of the state to try and drum up interest in this kind of approach. Now they want nothing to do with it.

As it transpired our application did manage to get past the new eligibility guidelines. It was was considered but unsuccessful. The reasons given are a mix of fair, confusing, and — in one case which i want to explore here — a really interesting policy question. Officially the reasons were that they got more good applications than they could fund (undoubtedly true), another was apparently Renew lacks “evidence of community support and engagement” (I disagree with that) and that there is a “lack of private support for the program” (again, this is confusing as the program has won the highest award in the country for business/arts partnerships) but for the purpose of this exercise I will take those three reasons at face value and assume the committee genuinely believed all those things for whatever reason.

The final major reason, was, essentially, that they couldn’t work out how they evaluate a program like ours looking forward. Evidence of our program looking backward is pretty impressive. I will happily compare it to any organisation, festival, or institution that receives $50k per year or less in total government arts funding. But looking forward, how do you compare the curatorial approach of Renew — which is essentially responsive, immediate, collaborative and about leveraging the momentum and initiative of others — with that of, say, a gallery or a theatre company? They work with fixed infrastructure. They close off opportunities for spontaneity and responsiveness but in return have the luxury then to be able to run a chronological, predictable program of events in a room or to plan two, three, four shows in a years time. They actually can pick and choose what they will have on in 18 months time and know with some certainty that they can deliver it.

Renew Newcastle is not that. It essentially an enabling mechanism. It is an entity designed to facilitate, in a timely and efficient way the works and ideas of others. It is not a programming structure it is an enabling structure. What i have come to realise is that funding systems are incapable of grasping with enabling mechanisms. Indeed, i will go further and say interaction with funding bodies actively destroys enabling mechanisms when they engage with them. The culture clash forces the enabling mechanisms to morph into ones that centrally plan and direct their activities in order to get funding.

In Newcastle alone i have been involved in starting three organisations — all of which exist to this day — that were designed initially as enabling mechanisms for independent cultural producers. The first was the organisation that has become Octapod back in 1996, the second was the festival that has become This Is Not Art (and many of the festivals that make it up or once made it up) in 1998 and 1999 and the final was Renew Newcastle which began a decade later in 2008. Renew came, in part, from the lessons learnt from the first two.

Essentially, conceptually, all three platforms began from the same premise: that there are a large number of artists, creative producers and culture makers of various kinds who want to act on their ideas and inspirations but, for whatever reason, they are finding it too hard. So the aim of the entity is to create a legal, practical and logistic framework that allows people with ideas to plug into appropriate infrastructure. That was a space, a community and an auspicing entity in the case of the original ‘pod, a logistical structure, a program, venues, and an audience in the case of TINA’s relationship to the independent festivals that make it up, and, finally space that would otherwise go empty and support navigating the legal complexities of accessing and using it in the case of Renew.

All three succeeded as enabling entities. Indeed they all grew quickly and with a vibrancy and a dynamism that would simply not be possible in a traditional top-down structure. That’s why they worked. Eventually they were rewarded for it with funding. Then it becomes awkward because they are expected to morph into something else. Their enabling functions weren’t really part of the package but they managed to sustain them by scraping off resources allocated for something else or exploiting ambiguities in how you talk about and deliver what you do.

Today, its interesting to look back and see what happened to that enabling capacity: Renew very much still has it but as noted above in order to maintain that we have effectively rendered ourselves unsuitable for arts funding, TINA still has elements of it but it’s enabling capacity has dramatically diminished, Octapod has morphed into more of a conventionally led arts organisations and probably doesn’t see itself as an enabler any more than most small to medium organisations do.  But looking back, to the extent that they have lost that capacity, it has largely been from the pressure of funding expectations to stop enabling and start “directing” or “programming” from the top down because enabling uncertain and not yet existent initiatives doesn’t score well on funding applications.

Perhaps this is an entirely theoretical problem or simply the reflections of a disgruntled and (repeatedly) unsuccessful applicant but i think it’s actually a bit more than that.

It’s a core policy issue for a few overwhelming reasons. The first and most obvious problem is that we are increasingly living in a rapidly changing and disintermediated world. Many artists and cultural organisations are operating in an environment where flexibility, spontaneity and adaptability are more critical than ever but they can’t respond to it.

Most artists and cultural producers are — whether funding bodies like it or not — independent creators of the type who need enabling more than they need bureaucratically acceptable infrastructure. They can only rarely be programmed 18 months ahead.  There is clearly massive unmet demand out there for this kind of practical help — based on my experiences sitting on cultural committees Renew Newcastle probably gets as many applications for opportunities as many state funding bodies get for funding.

The second problem is basically a simple value for money one. Enabling rather than directing or demanding simply gets more bang for your buck. You can do a lot more with a lot less by identifying and supporting creative initiative than you can through old fashioned, top down, institution-centric models. But in order to do that, you need to admit, that the opportunities to be enabled will vary from day to day, week to week, month to month. You can only vaguely know what they will be in 18 months time which is the typical frame in which funding applications are asking you to say what you will do.

So, i’d like to round this off with what i think is a modest proposal that could potential solve this problem. To be honest given that the stakeholders for most funding bodies are ones that are already funded, it is quite likely that this is not a problem anyone wants to solve. But on the off chance that you might a subtle reconfiguration of the funding paradigm could be in order.

Essentially, the trick is to change the form of the question that asks “what is your program going to be?” to something more along the lines of “what is your approach going to be?” Tweak a criteria that says or implies “Evaluate the calibre of the artists in the program named in this application” to “evaluate the likelihood that this approach is going to lead to quality outcomes.” There is a subtle but important distinction between the kind of approaches those questions allow for — a subtle shift to the latter should do nothing to exclude a good quality fixed program but it would at least allow for the possibility that responsive, dynamic, contemporary enabling structures can form part of the spectrum what arts programs can actually fund… if they wanted to.

This follow up post tries to explore the distinctions between programming and enabling. 

Image: Four Points Gallery, Newcastle West (one of more than 30 current Renew Newcastle initiatives) Photo by Boony Loahajaroenyot

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About that book…

September 9th, 2013 by marcus
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My grandfather was a tinkerer. He was incredibly good with his hands. When he passed away, it took a small army to clean out his sheds of a mostly completed speedboat he was building, a half built 1/6 scale model Tiger Moth plane (built from the actual plans of real one) he was building for a 6 year old grandson, countless contraptions and as many perfectly crafted but partially completed popular mechanics projects as he’d had weekends to start them. My grandfather was awfully good at starting projects but he wasn’t particularly good at finishing them.

Apart from the good with my hands bit, i think i get a lot of from grandfather. I’m incredibly good at starting things but often lousy at finishing them. I’ve started at least a few festivals, i’ve initiated the Renew stuff and made a habit and a career — to the extent that bailing on things just as they become financially viable is a career move — of being a serial starter of stuff. Over many years i’ve been involved in starting a lot of things and then gently sneaking away from it as it gets up the legs to stand on its own or i start distracting myself with some other thought bubble that attracts my attention. I’m impatient and always in a hurry. I can be incredibly motivated in the moment and but don’t care enough to hang around long enough for the big pay off.

I’ve also realised over the years is that my strengths in collaborative mediums. Events that involve bringing people together so that the team endures beyond my involvement in it. Making TV or even radio where my own inadequacies are well compensated for by the strengths of others. Projects where starting and finishing are two very different skill sets. I’ve realised I need other people to depend on me before i can push myself and nothing i ever do is on my own.

All of which is a round about way of bringing me back to this book thing…

For nearly as long as i can remember i’ve been threatening to write a book. Indeed, i have actually been writing a book for about as long as i can remember. Several of them. Over the last 15 or 20 years I’ve written two or three hundred thousand words of not-quite-a-book. It’s my default project — the thing i return to whenever the rest of the show stops for long enough to allow my brain to go up or down a gear. Weirdly it’s also one of the few things i do — and like to do — completely alone.

Professionally, I’m not really a writer but i write. It’s an occupational hazard that sits between ideas and execution, inspiration and collaboration but not really an end itself or something i want to be. I have something to say I think — as evidenced by the occasional useful post here — but the idea of the book as the project i never really have to finish or share is one of the reasons why i return to it.

I’ve had lots of reasons to start a book. Lots of ideas. But i’ve never had a reason to finish one. ”The book” is my shed. It’s the place i go and start something on a lazy weekend or start putting together pieces that don’t quite fit together to see what shape they make. With tinkering there’s never any reason to finish. I want a project not a profession.  Although i’ve had plenty of actual offers from real publishers that’s never really been the point — I want, as i do with most things, to play with the form not produce to the formula.

Now i have crowd funded a book… Crowd funding the book has been one of the best moves i’ve made in a long time. It’s not a coincidence that several of the most enthusiastic supporters who know me best of the Creating Cities Pozible campaign did so with a comment along the lines of “i’m supporting this book to make Marcus write it”.  It’s given me a deadline — an insanely soon one that suits my impatience, More importantly it’s given me a sense of obligation and expectation beyond an abstract or artificial deadline. It’s given me an obligation not to a corporate entity but to people who care for what I do and people I care about. It’s given me a reason to finish something and, importantly, it’s given me the resources to bring together the collaborators i’ll need to be strong where i’m not and finish this thing.

So, at the end of next week i’m heading off for 8 days in an undisclosed location (The Grampians) to sift through the thousands of fragments of not-book and start finding and polishing the book bit. I’m going to go and start finishing something and, just to keep me on my toes, i’m bringing 921 collaborators with me. I hope they fit in the shed or at the very least help me clear this mess out.

 

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Creating Cities Crowdfunding Book Update

July 8th, 2013 by marcus
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The first day of crowd funding the Creating Cities book based on the  work we’ve been doing with Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia has been a great success. This will sound oddly back to front but my particular thanks goes to the person who gave one single dollar. In some ways that’s the point of the work we have been doing with Renew — it shows that the little things, the small actions of the many, can make a real and tangible difference — as the campaign evolves i’m going to have a think about how we can reward small contributions (particularly from those who want to acknowledge this work but don’t actually want or need a book) a little better.

Fortunately a few people can afford more than that and we’ve actually managed to reach about 75% of my pre-funding target with less than a day and (just as importantly for me) pre-sell over 130 actual books!  That seems like an amazing effort. Very big thanks for everyone who has contributed and particularly those that bought a book already.

A quick reminder that the campaign doesn’t stop when we hit the magical $10,000 though — that’s the bare minimum. That’s the “i cobble together my notes, do my best to polish them up and hack them into a book version.” It’s the level where i still rely on calling in a lot favours, mates rates, and my own inept efforts to see a good book get made. The ideas will be good but it won’t be the best version possible in the execution so the more the campaign grows the better the outcome will be.

Progress so far has been fantastic but if you haven’t contributed by either donating or pre-ordering a book please jump in and do so! Oh and please pass it on to your friends via facebook and twitter or loud hailer if that works for you.

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A crisis is a terrible thing to waste (Help – i’m crowdfunding a book!)

July 7th, 2013 by marcus
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First let’s cut the chase: I’m crowd-funding a book and everything below is an attempt to get you to give me money or stuff.  Just go here and do it if you don’t want the long explanation.

The longer version is I’ve spent the last two years working to build Renew Australia up into a successful  sustainable, national organisation and — for the most part we’ve been getting there. We are a not for profit social enterprise. Renew Australia doesn’t get government funding (although Renew Newcastle does and Renew Australia are most definitely working on it!) so we are entirely dependent on contracts from main-street committees, local governments, property owners, corporate clients, etc to pay the bills.

The good news is that in the long term, we’ve got plenty of interest (132 separate communities around Australia have contacted us asking for support!) and we do have plenty of good projects in the pipeline. In the short term though two of the three biggest projects we had on for the first part of this year fell over for reasons that were largely beyond our control. As a result, as a small organisation with no buffer, we’ve had to cut back staff and find savings to keep the organisation ticking over until some exciting new projects start to ramp up. The good news for Renew Australia (but not so much for me) is that there is one substantial expense can be cut back very easily and mostly solves the short term problem: paying me.

So, I’ve agreed to work for free for up to three months to get the projects we know are coming over the line. I have no doubt we will and i have no doubt that it will pay me back one way or another when we do.

Plan B: I’m crowd-funding a book! 

Fortunately a crisis is a terrible thing to waste so i’ve come up with a plan that will hopefully both help me keep myself afloat and get me to finally knock off something that has been on my to do list for a long time. I’m putting the ideas and experiences behind Renew into a book.  Since before Renew even existed i have been writing and thinking about cities, culture, creatvitiy and how they intersect and why they often fail to. I’ve been collecting notes on this for at least 4 years. I have a few high quality pieces and at many tens of thousands of words of notes — some of which has been published in various forms but much of which is waiting around for me to polish it up and do something useful with it.

So, to kill two birds with one stone, if enough people get behind it it will work both as a means to pay my bills for the next few months (maybe even pay me back some of the many tens of thousands of dollars of my own savings i’ve spend on this work) and it will create a chance to get some interesting ideas out there and start a debate or two. The aim is an Ebook primarily — made up of short essays and snippets. It will, at worse, include a mix of new and previously published work but if the crowd funding campaing really goes off i’ll aim for 100% new material. There will also be a limited print on demand version that you can preorder through pozible.

How you can help

1. Support the campaign. Buy the book! 

The first and most obvious thing you can do is get behind the Pozible campaign. Visit http://www.pozible.com/creatingcities and make a donation. Share the link with your friends, spruke it up, talk it up, and pass it on. At this early stage the main reward will be a copy of the book, getting your name in it as a thank you and the warm and fuzzy feeling of supporting my work. If you have money and means and you’d like to see this happen just get online and donate.

2. Can you help provide a reward?

Crowd funding campaigns often stand or fall on the quality of the rewards. Sadly, I’m not an artist but fortunately I have spent half my life hanging around them and leeching off their talents and occasionally had them leech off mine. As the crowd funding campaign will run until the end of August i’m going to use the first 30 days to crowd source some interesting works and donations that i can offer as rewards in the later stages. Right now i’m simply offering stuff i can do myself but come the 1st of August I hope to switch gears and start introducing some unique, exciting, quirky and wonderful rewards.

This is where you, my artist friends, all come in – i know most of you aren’t exactly flushed with cash so there’s an alternate way I’d really like to ask some of you for a favour. If you are an artist who has benefited through Renew Newcastle or Renew Australia would you consider donating a small object? Are you someone whose career was helped by LOUD, Noise, Sound SummitNational Young Writers’ FestivalTHIS IS NOT ART or Next Wave, Free Play or any of the other events I founded or was involved in. If so, i’d love you to consider donating something. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just interesting and meaningful.

I’m specifically looking for:

  • Simple, original fit-in-an-envelope style artworks that can be offered as random prizes to, say, donors of $20 or more. Ideally this won’t cost you much to make or me much to post and while every donor will be credited on the pozibe site it will be luck of the draw as to who gets what. If you want to provide one or more such works then simply send them in or pass them on (See below for details)
  • Signed books, CDs, or whatever. If you are an author or a musician whose been involved in something i’ve done in the past donating a CD or signed book would be greatly appreciated (at least the participants can be confident that they will get one good book out of it!).
  • Larger, bespoke, one off more valuable things — a large artwork, a piece of jewellery, etc. If you are happy to donate such a thing (say something enough to bundle with a donation of $50 or more) then email me (marcus[AT] renewaustralia.org) a line, let me know what it is, what it would usually sell for and we will promote it as a special one off reward. We will probably need to manage the complexity.
  • Experiences — are you in a band or something a bit famous? Could you play an acoustic set in someone’s lounge room? Can i auction your time or might you want to be part of one of our beers and ideas nights? Zany ideas most welcome but drop me an email first.

The only important criteria for donations is that we are only interested in original stuff! You must have made it and in an ideal world I’d love to know the story that connects it back to Renew, TINA, Next Wave or any of the other projects that i’ve been involved in if they influenced, enabled or just inspired you.

How to practically do it:

Drop stuff off

We will be collecting crowd funded object donations until 1st of August and offering the donated objects until the campaign closes a month later.

If you are in Newcastle and would like to make a donation, the Renew project Make Space will gladly receive them from now until the end of the campaign. They are located at 200 Hunter St Mall (opp The Emporium) and are open Wed – Sat 10-3pm. Your contributions will be collated at Renew HQ and sent on from there.

If you are in Melbourne then feel free to drop things in or off at the Renew Australia office at upstairs 242 Victoria St Brunswick. The office is only attended part time but we are part of a great co-working environment and we will do our best to creates a drop off system.

By mail: If you aren’t in any of those places then feel free to post contributions to Renew Australa’s PO Box: PO Box 415, Brunswick. Victoria 3056.

IMPORTANTLY: Please make sure your donation is clearly labelled with your name, contact details, brief description of the work (including title and it’s estimated value) and a little note about any project which you have been involved with if relevant (Renew Newcastle, Docklands Spaces, This Is Not Art, etc) that would be appreciated.

… Oh, and one last thing. I’m looking for a squilionaire philanthropist with a crazy passion for art, culture, cities, towns and empty spaces. Both Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia have DGR status to donations to both can be tax deductible (this crowd funding campaign is not). On the off chance you know one or are one do feel free to drop me a line.

Image credit: Brenda Gottsabend  via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. 

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Cities: Are they YouTube or Hollywood?

May 22nd, 2013 by marcus
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Illustration by Andrew Fairclough

This essay was commissioned for the May edition of Desktop Magazine. Illustration by Andrew Fairclough.

Over the last few years, I’ve been involved in launching more than a hundred creative projects from artisans, makers, designers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, publishers and creative entrepreneurs in empty buildings in Newcastle, through the scheme Renew Newcastle. Renew has worked with, inspired and been inspired by dozens of amazing creative urban and regional projects across Australia and around the world. After it all, I’ve come to a simple conclusion about where city leaders go wrong: the problem with too many Australian cities is that they think they’re Hollywood.

Not Hollywood the place (although too many Australian cities do take their lead from the car dependent clusterfuck that is Los Angeles), but the big top-down metaphorical film industry that shares its name. Out there online there is a maker-based, design-led, web- and app-enabled DIY, small-scale creative revolution that is taking place virtually everywhere. While it’s everywhere virtually, most Australian cities are failing to come to terms with it. If they want to, they need to start behaving a bit more like YouTube and a lot less like Hollywood.

The contrast between the industrial era system epitomised by Hollywood and the participatory, slightly anarchic, open and engaged dynamic of YouTube (or dozens of other platforms for sharing video or virtually anything else online) is as good an analogy as any to illustrate the problem of what happens when inspired but under-resourced creativity meets Australia places. While both Hollywood and YouTube are nominally in the business of making films and videos and connecting them to audiences, the scale at which they operate and the processes through which they work result in very different outcomes and dynamics.

Most cities and communities in Australia behave a lot like the film, television and broadcast industries do. They act big, think big and they work best on a big scale. At their best, they the produce a streamlined system where everything happens in the right order and everything works – from putting up new skyscrapers to rolling out whole suburbs. A lot of what they produce is only possible due to the sheer scale of the system. Some of it is absolutely brilliant, a lot of it is filler. Some of it is downright awful, but you can get away with that if you have tight enough control over the levers of power and distribution.

If you take Hollywood as a metaphorical city, the most obvious thing is how few really significant players there are. Sure, there are a smattering of indie filmmakers and international film markets, but in reality the place is pretty much an oligopoly. The studios and distributors control so much of what gets made. Too often in our cities, too small a number of developers, stakeholders, planners, and political and civic leaders control the distribution, design and content of physical space and the processes are designed around them. Whether producing blockbusters or busting large blocks, both industries work to a financial formula – X number of residents equals Y amount of square metres of shopping space equals this particular mix of chain stores.

Oligopolies are great if you’re in them, but they’re not big on innovation. By sheer inertia they shut out the small-scale. Too often their processes are archaic and difficult to navigate and the exclusive domain of the well-lawyered. Whether it’s getting a liquor licence, trying to do a low-cost conversion, set up a food truck or simply trying to work out what permissions you need, these challenges can be transparent and expensive or complex and counterintuitive. If you’ve got passion and imagination but limited access to capital, many more resources will be spent in negotiating the petty complexities and technicalities than on the creative process.

If, like me, you believe in innovation and experimentation, the big problem is that the cost of participation is high. The cost of failure is out of reach for most. A high cost of failure is a price on innovation. In Hollywood, most projects will fail before ever starting. Many of the potentially greatest films ever never got made, while many of the best ideas for projects in your own community fell over at the first council permit.

So what would be different about a YouTube city? Well, the first and most obvious thing is how very low the barriers to entry are. Pretty much anyone can play and, as a result, a lot of people do. YouTube had four billion hours’ worth of content when I last looked. It has a very high number of entrants, which creates its own problems – but, compared to Hollywood, there is a very low or even negligible cost of failure. As a result, a lot more things get started. The percentage of people who have thought about making a YouTube video and have actually gone ahead and done so is at least a million times greater than the percentage who have been able to act on their desire to make a Hollywood movie.

As a result, the mix is really very different. There are qualities on YouTube you will never see in a Hollywood movie. Production values can range from camera phones and ageing webcams to those as slick as in a Spielberg movie. They can still matter in this context, but you don’t always need them or need to put them first. A good idea – or engagingly bad one – can triumph over a polished production. As a result, a much more diverse set of tastes is catered for.

Indeed, YouTube has several key qualities that a good city or place has that you’ll never find in Hollywood. It’s scalable – it can work for you whether you are a movie studio or a bedroom guitarist. It’s designed so that you can plug your ideas into it. It’s also an infrastructure and a delivery mechanism into which many diverse kinds of programs and projects can be plugged – something that a good city should be.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the way that YouTube – or Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Blogger, WordPress or the web itself – works is the way in which it handles risk. Hollywood demands miles of lawyers and agreements, and complexities are negotiated before you are allowed to do anything. The alternative, buried in those terms of service agreements that none of us ever read, is the idea that you take responsibility for staying within the rules. It offers an invitation, rather than demanding a permit, which is something cities too can, and should, do a lot more of.

Our cities are – for the most part – heavily pre-moderated. They are designed primarily to prevent the wrong action and to not encourage the right ones or discover the unexpected ones. Even where things are actually permitted, rarely do they actually encourage and issue the invitation to do so. Of course, there are very good reasons why cities have evolved careful protections: after all, no one wants to risk the collapse of a shoddily constructed skyscraper.

But the reality is that most people aren’t trying to build skyscrapers. There were mostly good reasons (at the time) why Hollywood evolved its complex web of the legal and financial culture on which the place operates. There are equally good reasons why this doesn’t apply to YouTube films and there should be equally good reasons why some – not all – of the rules governing restaurants don’t need to apply to food trucks and rules designed for developers shouldn’t apply to pop-up shops. Space should be cheaper and simpler to use, rather than sitting idle.

Of course, cities need sensible rules and protections, but rarely do they use the simplest and most obvious one: that what you have done can be undone and can disappear. There are many things in the real world too that could be easily undone, but rarely are we invited to try them. We need to create places that aren’t simply about the implementation of master plans, but where people can learn by doing: failing, learning, iterating and trying again.

For a lot of cities, there is a single compelling reason why they should be at least a little bit more like YouTube. They simply don’t have the luxury of being Hollywood. They don’t have Hollywood style budgets, or settings or scale. As we’ve learned through the hundreds of people who have taken the opportunities offered by Renew, what they do have is a swarm of motivated creatives who are cutting their own paths online, but being cut down when it comes to transitioning out of it. Cities need to lower the barriers and give these people every opportunity possible to start, to scale, to survive and, ultimately, thrive if for no other reason than there is no excuse not to.

It is, of course, an imperfect metaphor. A place probably doesn’t need to make it a million times easier for people to act on their ideas. But as the culture of citizen initiative, creativity and entrepreneurialism moves offline and into the real world, we’ve learned with Renew that if you can lower the barrier enough so that two or five or 10 times the number of people can play, very interesting things start to happen.

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Can arcades fire? (or are old arcades the new laneways?)

May 18th, 2013 by marcus
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Arcades Fire

A strange obsession of mine of late is the fate of old suburban shopping arcades. I am, as far as i can tell, pretty much alone in believing they’re a rich vein of untapped urban and suburban gold. Or, to put it in language that hipsters, planners and local politicians can reflexively and instinctively respond to they’re kind of like lane-ways. (You know the kind that made Melbourne interesting and everyone wants to artificially reproduce while missing the point about them entirely).

Arcades are cheap, small scale, low barrier to entry, slightly off the grid spaces capable of sustaining the rich ecology of niche uses that every city and suburban centre needs but struggles to make economic. Or at least they have the potential to be. Unfortunately in most cases they aren’t and no one is thinking about how to get them there.

Shopping arcades are, for the most part, a dead form. Typically they are a design that creates small tenancies on a larger block. In larger cities the best and most successful ones that are still around are thoroughfares leading between streets or along high traffic areas such as the entrance to railway stations. But across Australia there are literally hundreds of suburban ones — often they go nowhere, or once connected a mainstreet through to a car park that is no longer there, or a destination that has become a dead end point.

They were once buzzing hubs when shiny and new. Recently though that form and functions that supported it have mostly been dying since the 70s and 80s. While you can still find grand ones that are more than 100 year old, there are still some amazing ones around from the 50s and some horribly renovated ones from the 80s, but you are going to struggle to find any that have been built in the last decade or two.

The short version of the history, as far as i can tell, is that the rise of the suburban shopping centre and consolidation of national retail chains gradually made the arcade model redundant. They lacked the anchor tenants, the scale, the parking, the variety or the “destination” pull to compete with the big shopping centres. They weren’t suitable in scale or footfall to chain stores. As people started to drive straight into car parks their role as foot traffic thoroughfares dwindled. Some in the inner cities survived as connectors but in the suburbs and smaller regional centres they were either demolished, made over and converted into large scale shopping centres, or have been spiralling into disuse and disrepair.

In my travels around the country I’ve seen seen dozens of these places. They almost always seem to be half empty. In some cases they are closed off — literally shuttered up at one end or other. Often they are full of spaces that seem to be being used for storage and offices rather than retail. Often they are peppered with tenancies who seem to do everything but activate the place: local clubs and societies that meet once a month, an accountant (the only one in the town without a computer) who never seems to be there, a travel agent with fading signs for defunct airlines in the window, and often mixed in with the single quirky shop (they seem to be the last bastion of vinyl record shops in a lot of towns) that you need to persevere past half a dozen dusty “closing down” signs to find.

Frankston

 

The return of the arcade? 

So, why on earth am I fascinated by them then? Well, in the immortal words of Bob Roberts the times are changing back.  Some of the very factors that once counted against them: the scale of their spaces, their relatively low foot-traffic (and hence low cost), and the fact that they require some effort to discover are actually features not bugs in the brave new world where mass markets are shattering into hundreds of niches. Indeed among the fastest growing segments of business and creativity is small, home based, mixed online and offline businesses and arcades are logical places for these rapidly growing businesses to grow into. I could probably go off into a segue about the changing dynamics of suburban and decentralised creativity but if you want to follow that logic through think i’ve got that reasonably well covered elsewhere.

The form is actually a good one. So many of my favourite spaces share the basic configuration of a shopping arcade. At one point early in the process of Renew Newcastle, I described the approach I wanted to seed in Newcastle as  like a long horizontal Nicholas Building. The Nicholas building is probably Melbourne’s best living small scale cultural and creative enterprise laboratory — it’s bottom few floors are a literal arcade while it’s upper floors follow the same basic eclectic-mix-of-small-tenants pattern. So many of the city’s artists, small creative enterprises and artisans have had studios in there that has become almost impossible to keep track of them. So many successful makers and retailers got their start there.

It’s not an inner city Melbourne thing though, both the raw ABS statistics and my own experience with Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia demonstrate that there is a massive amount of pent up demand for entry level space for niche, creative, distinctive businesses and enterprises. Many of them don’t actually need or want high foot traffic. Many cant afford it because they are makers or specialising in a niche where at least part of their business online. Many don’t want or particularly need to pay the premium that goes with being a major shopping centre of having a thousand people an hour (only a tiny fraction of whom are likely to be interested in their niche product) walking by. What they do have is interesting ideas, creative approaches to business and the capacity to make a place interesting by their presence.

Marketing too has changed and it is changing the viability of spaces and places. Social and online media means small retailers, makers, and enterprises can build successful businesses with a dedicated following who will go out of their way to seek them out either physically or virtually. Etsy stores are spilling over into design markets and design market stalls want to morph into shops.

This is where the arcade form really starts to make sense. Successful places in other communities have taught me  that the while a small jeweller, a talented photographer, a purveyor of specialist records or hand made toys, or kids clothes might be capable of sustaining a small niche business in a variety of locations, something really interesting starts to happen if you bring them into proximity with each other. The clustering effect takes what would otherwise be a bunch of individual businesses and turns them into a destination. The downside of the low-profile location becomes the excitement of discovery and all the little niches start to cross pollinate. As Renew Newcastle has been rolling out more than a hundred such projects in and around the centre of Newcastle, i’ve looked enviously at empty arcades in various cities and suburbs and wondered just how much easier it would be to do something similar there.

arcade II

The problem of curation

So why isn’t it happening more? The more I’ve looked into the decline and fall of old arcades (and why there seems to be so few successful attempts at rebooting them) one factor more than any other has jumped out at me: with very few exceptions no one is curating them. No one is thinking about them as destinations or trying to work with them as a whole.

Big monolithic shopping centres for all their faults invariably have an entire team of people whose job it is to make sure they don’t look crap, to ensure that empty shops don’t look empty, to hunt down the brands or “offers” that they need and to invest in marketing and keeping them interesting. By contrast you’re average half-empty arcade seems to have almost no thought going into the mix, is willing to accept uses that actually deter other tenants and drive people away (storage anyone?) and have almost given up on the idea that property in its current form is anything more than a development play.

For arcades to fire again they need to become eclectic, engaging, active destinational places. Activity will generate activity while decay begets decay. There are no lack of small businesses, online enterprises, hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar proprietors and others for whom the actual configuration of space is potentially tempting and it’s not that hard to find them. In some cases a straight up Renew-type empty space activation model could be the simple catalyst to get to that critical mass quickly  but  more generally owners and agents need to start from the premise that an arcade must be made interesting before it can be made economic. For as long as half the shops sit, partially decaying, with the public facing spaces being left empty or used for storage owners need to realise that they are deterring not growing future value.

In that alternate universe — the one where i’m well capitalised enough to indulge my pet theories  – i’d set up an investment fund and start swooping in and livening up any old half empty shopping arcades with a decent location and ideally a bit of character. I can think of few areas where so much value could be unlocked so cheaply and quickly. In this universe i’ll content myself simply float the idea out there and remind anyone who is sitting on a half empty shopping that they’re welcome to drop me a line.

The photos above are from arcades i’ve visited in Ringwood (Vic), Frankston (Vic) and Wollongong (NSW) in my recent travels. 

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Speaking of (or on or about) the #NBN … Yep, i’m available.

May 16th, 2013 by marcus
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Picuture via NBNCo

Since i posted my life-on-the-NBN review a few days ago I’ve been a little inundated with responses. It was a bit of an afterthought post written while i was on holidays but it has easily smashed the record for the most views, incoming links, and general buzzitude of anything I’ve posted around here in quite some time. It’s even smashed my heroic efforts at failure a few weeks back.

I’ve gotten back from holidays to a small backlog of email requests from companies, communities and academics asking me to write for, be interviewed for, or speak at events about the NBN. They are variously asking whether i’d be interested to talk about it from a consumer, business or community perspective or elaborating on how some of the experiences i’ve identified might relate to what they’re doing or what their communities might expect as the NBN gets turned on. Obviously, my work involves more than a bit of public speaking so it’s not something i’m at all daunted by. In my home-town spirit of never-letting-a-chance-go-by I thought I should quickly post a follow up to offer up my services.

My current work is flexible enough that i have some potential availability (i.e. it can’t pay me full time so i am scrapping around for other bits and pieces of work). After several years of directly and indirectly subsidising Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia suffice to say it wouldn’t hurt financially to get the odd other gig. (Is that subtle enough? This stuff is driving me broke!)

So… NBN coming to your community and want a perspective from someone other than NBN Co PR hack to talk about it? Sure. Want to know how it is changing working from home or small business? Yep, doing that. Interested in what the NBN means for cloud-based products and services from actual experience? Yep, got some stories for you. Want someone to talk about the impact of the NBN on your business from a consumer perspective? Sure… well, maybe… depends what your business does actually.

Anyhow, in most cases I’ve been there done that and can whack together a good preso about it. In another life (when digital watches were a pretty neat idea) I used to write, work with and talk about technology for a living, and of late i’ve written a lot — and even made a TV series a few years back — about how technology is changing culture  so i mostly know what i’m talking about on the tech front.

So if you’re interested and would like me to speak at an event, write a piece for a publication, or otherwise engage in something longer than a phone interview for something you are doing that is NBN related then drop me a line. But, without trying to sound like a total bastard, it’d need to pay me — happy to calibrate the cost to client but every spare minute of volunteer time i have to spare is already taken up with talking, spruiking and promoting my Renew work.

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How the #NBN has (actually) changed my life

May 13th, 2013 by marcus
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NBN Fibre

It’s a quirk of fate and geography that our family home and my work at the Renew Australia office in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick are both smack bang in the middle of one of the first mainland rollout zones for the Australia’s fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network. We’ve now been on it for more than a year.

Recently, our family was asked by a PR company (long story!) whether we would be be happy to feature in a media event to showcase how the NBN was changing our life. It is and I was happy to talk about it. Apparently a prominent celebrity was going to come to our house with a gaggle of press types in tow and show us doing “typical” NBN-type things. Of course, because it was to be a staged media event the “typical” things they wanted us to do bore little if any relation to what we actually do with the network, and (as it transpired) the whole thing got cancelled at the last minute anyway.

Now i’m free of any obligation to say the right things about the NBN (having had a big insight into what the PR people thought the “right” things were) it did inspire me to reflect on how access to a 100 megabit NBN connection at home and work has actually changed the way we live and work and how it might continue to do so as the network evolves. I’d been meaning to post this for a while, but as i’m on holidays with time on my hands (and ironically on a dodgy wifi connection) I thought it might be timely to sit down and do it…

It has greatly improved my efficiency and my ability to move seamlessly between home and office

This is probably the biggest thing that has changed. I work from home a couple of days a week and from an NBN connected office in the same street. A lot of my life involves talking to people about Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia. I only realised this recently but my typical photo and animation heavy Renew presentation is currently in the order of just under a gigabyte (a random example of me delivering one is here). I customise it virtually every time I do it. Through the combination of a 100 megabit NBN connection at both home and at work and dropbox, I literally don’t even have to think about where I am, which device i’m editing it on or whether it’s up to date.

I can open it at home in the morning for half an hour, add or hide a few videos, tweak a few slides, hit save, take a few minute walk to the office and grab a coffee, faff about for a bit with my colleagues then sit down at the office and be 100% confident that the 700mb file is there on the desk for me to continue to work on it. Of course the same is true for word files, spreadsheets, or anything else but the seamlessness is much more noticeable for media heavy presentations. As a result of the NBN I communicate in words, pictures and videos much more than I ever did before because it is very easy to.

Outside of NBN land it’s a different story. It’s common that i’m asked after a conference presentation whether the hosts can have a copy of the presentation  – almost without exception once they realise that it’s 700mb they don’t bother. While I can move it between home and office while getting a coffee, most of the country lacks the infrastructure to simply download it and share it with their networks.

Which leads me to my second work-related observation…

It’s about connection quality not download speed

I spend an inordinate amount of time on the road visiting cities and communities across regional Australia. To be perfectly honest I actually hate it a lot of the time — I don’t much like flying, i’m no great fan of hotels, and I have young family i’d rather not be away from. A lot of what I do is training people up and talking about the Renew Newcastle/ Renew Australia model. To give you a simple example the last few weeks alone there have been stories in local papers from Ballarat, the Illawarra, Launceston, and Dubbo and that’s pretty typical of the interest from month to month. Most of these communities want or need me to go there but they often lack the resources to pay for it or I lack the time to do it or a bit of both.

Being on the NBN has allowed me and Renew Australia to dip our toe in the water of supporting these communities remotely. I’ve done presentations to Champions of the Bush from Broken Hill to Kalgoolie/Boulder and Geraldton in WA all online. Unfortunately, right now, the reality is that for most communities the bandwidth isn’t there at the other end … yet. As an organisation Renew Australia needs to invest in using the internet as the primary means of communicating and supporting these communities. To the extent that we’ve dabbled in it it has become obvious that somewhere between the live-in-HD world of the NBN and the sketchy satellite, DSL and dialup that are lot of these communities are on the technological advantage breaks down. I need to be able to connect with these communities at high speed and not simply get “fast downloads.” We’re not there yet.

Ironically communities with NBN connections may well be the best candidates for the kind of creative-industries-seeding local economic revitalisation strategies that Renew Australia promotes and pursue (see my Makers and Places argument here for a hint as to why). The real efficiencies to our organisation, the chance to spend more time with my family and even the potential to transform regional Australia through our work (and dozens of other strategies and models in other fields) are entirely dependent on it becoming a network and not a series of places that have access to great bandwidth trying to do business with places that don’t.

On a more personal note… 

Our media consumption habits have changed pretty dramatically — and no Australian company is catering to them yet

The DVD player was one of the first casualties — I think it’s in a cupboard somewhere but we have literally not watched a DVD in our house for more than a year. It’s a dead medium to us. Early in the piece we invested in an Set top box to go with our hi-def flat screen TV and prepared to take advantage of the bandwidth to watch HD streaming movies, video rentals on demand and the vast library of infinite entertainment that was suddenly available to watch.

Then we came to a stunning conclusion rather quickly… no one is actually even selling us anything useful in Australia. It may have changed in the last 12 months but when we last looked into it it became very obvious that all of the Australian streaming video services are, to put it bluntly, a complete and total joke. They either have a poor range of content, are overpriced, or come bundled with a whole bunch of junk we simply have no need for.

So, one of the perhaps more unlikely consequences of the NBN is that, for media consumption purposes, I live in America now. Through the wonders of Unblock.us and various VPN type technologies I also live in Canada, the UK and wherever else there are companies offering a respectable range of reasonably priced HD video download services, free broadcasts and other services. Technically, i’m sure i’m breaching some rules and regulations by bypassing geo-blocking but the reality is that it is becoming the norm not just for us but anyone trying to access high bandwidth video on demand.

On one level, through my own work and that of other businesses in my neighbourhood i’m aware that the NBN is seeding all sorts of start up enterprises, opening up all sorts of sunrise industries and possibilities. Yet  in terms of the goliaths of Australian media meeting my family’s practical media habits it seems like we have opened the floodgates to Amazon, Netflix, the BBC, CBC, PBS and dozens of other media providers and the Australian media industry has responded by a retreat into technological protectionism. Australian media is thinking small and local when the rest of the world and the nation itself is thinking and moving big. Real big. Real fast.

It’s about the network

The more I think about the NBN and how it’s working for us the more obvious it becomes that the value is in the network. I’m not going to weigh in here about the coalitions plans v the NBN Co plans but I am keen to observe that the value of the NBN grows with the number of people, places and communities that are connected to it. This is obvious in my work right now.

The difference in how I seamlessly move files between home and work and how hard I find it to just send them to anyone outside the local NBN bubble and back onto the regular internet is a microcosm for me of the efficiencies the NBN generates. I want and am starting to expect that frictionlessness in all manner of communications and connections to all different communities. With every connection the value of the network increases, with every community that comes online the costs of me working with them drops, the efficiencies of what we can do increases and the days I have to spend away from my family start to diminish. Indeed, a critical mass of customers will also go some way towards solving the lack of NBN specific content and services in Australia.

There are probably dozens of tangents I could go off on here: is the NBN better than wireless? (Yes, obviously – wifi is the bottleneck in our house now), Is it expensive? (No, i’m not paying much more than I was before and the service is infinitely better), What about the low take up rates? (Our house was in the “opt-in” phase where every property owner had to explicitly sign up to get it connected — we spend three f***ing months chasing our landlord to get him to sign the piece of paper so I can see why a lot of others didn’t bother) and chances are there are a few dozen obvious questions i’ve missed.

Anyhow, free of any PR obligation to talk up how we are supposed to use the NBN, that’s the reality so far of how we are actually using it (slightly dubious international geoblock busting and all). Should anyone does actually need, as the NBN publicists proposed, a photo-op of the kid watching a streaming HD video, dad uploading a home video and mum talking on skype — we do actually do all that stuff and yep, you can do it all at the same time — we’d still be happy to oblige. Thus far the reality is a lot more complex and interesting.

[Yep, I'm available to speak at events about life on the NBN for more info see here]

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Renewing the new? Early reflections from Docklands Spaces

April 27th, 2013 by marcus
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Batch and Musk

Renew Australia has been working on a pilot project Docklands Spaces in Melbourne with partners including Places Victoria, The City of Melbourne, and MAB corporation. Docklands, unlike Newcastle or Adelaide, or some of the other places the Renew model has been obviously useful to date is not an old area that has fallen on hard times but instead a relatively new precinct where, for a variety of reasons, the activities that are needed to give it ongoing life have not yet taken hold.

Docklands, typical of many waterfront redevelopments in cities around the world, has been master-planned and opened over the last decade or so — bits of it are working (actually more so than Melbourne mythology would have you believe when I actually started looking around down there) but other places are clearly struggling for a variety of reasons. There was a prominent story about our program in The Age this morning.

Our work has only really become visible in the last few weeks. The first Dockland Spaces projects include a 3D Printing studio Studio Batch who are sharing a space with some young architects from Musk. Across the plaza in a kiosk under a no longer functioning and soon to be demolished large video screen is a space called Bird and Plane that provides organic, bio-degradable, locally produced picnic hampers for events of various kinds. On the waiting list we have artists, jewellers, craftspeople, artisans who wants shops and game developers, literary journals and makers of various kinds that want offices and studios. We have had about 80 submissions and most (if not quite all of them — there’s a few duds in any pile) would bring a lot to the area.

So, at this very early stage it’s probably worth floating aloud some of my thinking — particularly for the development community — about what i think we are trying to do here and how it my be applicable to similar new communities. It’s probably also worth noting is what some of the specific challenges are and what we might learn along the way.

What is similar to other Renew projects

At it’s core the symptoms and to a lesser extent the causes of the problems in both Docklands and Newcastle are actually similar. In both cases you have a surplus of space relative to market demand. You have (relatively) high barriers to entry that make it very hard for anyone to take a risk — particularly a creative risk — and then you have the self perpetuating feedback loops that go with that. Nothing is there so no one goes there. No one goes there so no one wants to open anything there.

In both cases you have the precedents of recently failed businesses that deter short term action. There are visible signs of places recently closed or never opened. You also have the promise of much larger changes over the horizon. Docklands is still only half way through a masterplan that will see places that are now on the edges become the centre and Newcastle has long had development and infrastructure plans that promise revival but not-quite-yet.  It’s rarely observed but the promise of future change for the better often inadvertently incentivises doing nothing now. In both cases the masterplans and the investment say the area will get better soon (and it may well) but if you believe it the short term incentive can be to sit and wait.

On the upside, and a good place for us to start, is that in both communities there are actually quite a few people around. Neither is a ghost town in the sense that they have lost their entire population or no one can get there. Both places have an adjacent community of residents, shoppers and workers that are within a short travelling distance — many within a walk. Beyond that they have a substantial inner urban and suburban hinterland and they have the capacity (sometimes evident sometimes not) to attract tourists and visitors but they are geographically at the end rather than in the middle of their respective catchments (at least of the time being in the case of where we are working in Docklands). However, at the moment there is no incentive for any of those people to explore, discover or take practical or philosophical ownership of the area because, you know, there’s little worth going out of their way for.

So this is where we start. Renew Australia with Docklands Spaces is following the Renew Newcastle model of iterative, low cost, creative led experimentation and activation. We are “borrowing” buildings that would otherwise be empty from their commercial owners and attempting to fill them with interesting things that will attract life and people to the area on a rolling short term basis. It is a platform for low-cost experimentation by a gently curated collection of people doing a mix of interesting things.

Our aim is not, as someone suggested on twitter this morning to “manufacture” authenticity but to create fertile ground for experiments and see what happens. We don’t actually set out to make the area “cool” or “hip” or whatever but to unpack the process and lower the barriers to entry so more people can try more things. We aim to make the place maleable and responsive to the initiative and experimentation of individuals or small groups who have imagination but have no capital. They may not have much money but they are people who can afford to take a risk in this context because they are taking a different kind of risk than someone deciding where to build a fast food franchise or a chain store.

In most part the tools and arguments we are using to allow that — the license agreements and to a lesser extent the our role as an intermediary between users, governing authorities and private property owners in the governance structures — are pretty similar.

The theory, somewhat proved in Newcastle, is that if we can get enough people to try enough interesting ideas we should be able to accelerate the process of discovering what works. If each of those experiments are sufficiently interesting in and of themselves then we can also expect that they will attract people and that regardless of their individual success (some may evolve into permanent tenants and projects but many for whatever reason will not) they will gradually raise the background level of activity, curiosity and interestingness in a way that will ultimately spin off on the place as a whole.

The new and unique challenges

Working in Docklands has posed some interesting questions and challenges that are worth noting for those who are interested in the replicability of this work. I don’t think the full consequences will become obvious until we are a little further along in the process but suffice to say we are aware of and I am gently evolving my thinking around a range of new and different factors.

On a most obvious level, the scale and state of the property is actually very different. Initially i had thought this might not be too big an issue (indeed i had initially naively assumed that while larger in most other respects the building stock in a new area would be better for our purposes) but on closer inspection it has created some challenges that we are still adapting to.

Vacant properties in new areas tend to be an odd combination of either over-designed or unfinished. On one end of the spectrum in Docklands there are many empty former restaurants with half million dollar (i’m completely guesstimating that figure in case you’re inclined to reference it) fit-outs that we need to somehow work around. Fixed fittings are very prescriptive about what can happen with them and while they may be of no use to our short term projects the sheer cost of them needs to be respected in the event that a future tenant may wish to use them. At the other you have a disproportionately large proportion of properties where the power has never been connected or a certificate of occupancy has not actually been issued.

In Newcastle we have mostly been talking about and working with properties that while presenting challenges (they are physically more deteriorated in most cases) have already adapted many times over many years and ours is simply the latest in a line of reuse. At a practical level the adaptability of of a new community is actually lower compared to other more established places — which to a certain extent is counterintuitive. Indeed newness should and could theoretically equal an openness to possibility but the master-planning and development processes tend to shut that out early. There’s an issue to explore in the context and that i will note below.

It is worth noting that the governance structures are very different. Our clients are Places Victoria (the initial development authority), the City of Melbourne (the local government) and MAB (a developer with a stake in the future of the precinct). Difference in governance models isn’t a particularly new factor for Renew organisations. Renew Newcastle and Renew Adelaide have very different relative relationships to the various levels of government. Renew Adelaide was taking place in the centre of a capital city with a great deal more oversight and investment — for better and for worse — from state and local government. Renew Newcastle took place quite a long way from a comparatively disinterested state capital and was not particularly close to local government. It was interesting to see the consequences of this both ways but suffice to say that Docklands is a lot more like Adelaide than Newcastle.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in both locations the expectations are very different. They are for the most part, reasonably low in the short term but in the case of Docklands i think they are a lot higher in the medium term because there has been a trajectory of progress — albeit slightly hiccupy at times. This has interesting consequences for our individual projects because it likely means the price gap between their capacity to pay and the owners long term expectation of the value of the properties may be a lot higher. In short that could play out in a number of ways: longer interim periods of activation because the “real” value may come along later, or it may simply take some time before the expectations of value between the properties and owners converge.

Some conclusions and observations about new communities in general

Some of our/my work recently has been in thinking about new and master-planned communities. Another client has asked Renew Australia to do a thought piece about the application of our thinking to new communities and some of the lessons of observing Docklands and other similar waterfront redevelopments (like Newcastle’s Honeysuckle) as well as some new master-planned greenfield communities has informed that thinking — although the comments that follow are not about anywhere in particular. For commercial and practical reasons I don’t want to share too much of that thinking here beyond acknowledging a few key points.

Master-planning is, in many respects (at least as currently practiced) the enemy of adaptability and iteration. It shouldn’t be and doesn’t need to be — indeed adaptability can actually be designed in to both the broad precinct plans and the designs of individual buildings — but it rarely if ever happens. For projects that will roll-out over 5, 10 or 20 years given the rapidly evolving economic and social climate in which we live it is actually particularly stupid that we don’t design adaptability more. For long term investors in property assets there is a huge potential and actual opportunity cost here and the industry needs to reconsider some key strategies.

Practical things we can do, by way of simple example, is design buildings that can rescale cheaply (where large spaces can be converted easily to smaller ones for example), and precincts that are less predictable (Docklands has a surplus of restaurants as noted above and they format makes them hard to undo), and use the evolution of precincts as a whole in greenfield and infill sites to test ideas that inform longer term planning and development. Currently we tend to have a binary flip between empty and finished with a whole bunch of construction in between. If you get it right it ends in “permanent tenant” but too often it ends in “For Lease” or “Business went bust.”

In building communities this process needs to become more iterative.  Empty land > iterative use > construction of buildings> occupation and adaptation > “permanence” (at least to the extent that anything can be “permanent”). If we can make those iteration and adaptation phases and processes both practical and, frankly, cheap then we will get to functioning, healthy, cohesive and successful communities and places much quicker.

In general, i am very positive about Docklands Spaces as an initiative. We are already starting to see signs of activity and interest in the precincts we are working and expect it to accumulate over time. The level of interest in the project and the experiment is good and the challenges for all the frustrations that they cause are actually pretty minor and very informative. It is a very satisfying thing to see the vacant windows we have been staring at all these months start to fill up and i look forward discovering, experimenting and exploring the paths where this activity might lead.

But communities, places and people are always in flux and experimentation and Renew’s approach and thinking at this point is no different.

 Image at the top via Studio Batch

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