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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