I am writing this on the train from Sydney to Newcastle on my phone as my laptop is dead and in need of charging…
Returning from Newcastle after a very successful launch weekend for the renew Newcastle project, I’ve started to reflect on some of the larger policy questions. In part this is inspired by a larger series of thoughts that have been bubbling around in my head for a while now. In part it is the result of being part of the Creative Australia deliberation process that is going on at the moment.
Increasingly I am convinced that the major challenge of cultural policy and of city planning is how to cope with activity at a variety of scales. A key legacy of the era of globalization and neo-liberalism is that we have fostered a culture of scale. We’ve allowed capital to flow, construction to take place and initiative to be generated on massive scales that were never possible before. Indeed, until we manage to invent a means to travel off the globe cheaply and reliably globalization is a big a scale to facilitate as we are likely to get.
One of the unintended consequences of this is that the systems that we have designed to work at the large scale often fail at the small one.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask a lot of people and companies whose actions will have great consequences, who have access to vast amounts of capital and who stand to and expect to gain a great deal.
We have designed a whole series of systems with this in mind. As anyone who has ever hit the compliance costs involved in doing anything with limited capital can attest, the result is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.
In part we are stuck in a bad feedback loop. Take any one of a number of examples from liquor licensing through to development controls through to the regulation of space and activity. As communities have become often justly concerned by inappropriate activity at a large scale, or regulators have attempted to establish guidelines to ensure that safety, equity and accessibility are enforced at the large scale, the result is often the death community initiative and grass roots enterprise.
The paradox is that the effect is the worst outcome for communities. Only those with capital and the ability and expertise are able to operate in such an environment. Those with limited capital – from my experiences recently this included artists, community groups and modest enterprises – are those who are excluded while the multinationals of the world receive an even greater relative advantage from their access to capital and expertise.
So what is the solution? Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that regulation must be proportionate to risk and scale. A five hundred dollar project should never have to pay a five thousand dollar compliance cost designed for a five hundred thousand dollar development. Strategies should allow for the short term and the flexible, the small scale and temporary.
The alternative is a world where bland multinationals will always triumph over imagination, innovation, and experimentation.
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