Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?

 

 

 

 

 

 

* For the breakdown see here.

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

Richmond 3121

What makes a great suburb? Location? Infrastructure? Public transport? Affordable housing? Great coffee? Schools, shops, restaurants and amenities? Probably all these and more…. Although housing costs are comparatively high, Melbourne is frequently rated as one of the world’s most livable cities. I would argue that part of its success lies in the distinct personalities of many of its key suburbs, such as Richmond (postcode 3121).

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I have lived in this inner city suburb for the past 14 years, which is by far the longest time I lived in one place. I love the convenience (within walking distance to the CBD, close to the river and parks, and well served by trains and trams) and the diversity (it’s comfortable yet retains a somewhat grungy character). I must admit to feeling spoiled at times, because I don’t need a car, and often take for granted the proximity to Melbourne’s cultural and sporting precincts.

Although there have been some enormous changes in the past 10 years, mainly thanks to more apartment developments that have brought in high-end restaurants, hipster bars and cafes, and artisan food outlets, even I was surprised when a new branch of Avenue Bookstore opened on Swan Street a few months ago. Maybe this was the missing ingredient? It turns out that the most popular categories are cooking titles (inspired by all the new eateries?) and children’s books (a result of the recent influx of younger couples starting families?). In any event, this probably plays up Richmond’s aspirations to being a bit intellectual – after all, it is within the administrative boundaries of the People’s Republic of Yarra…

A while back, in a Saturday newspaper article on Melbourne’s trendier suburbs, Richmond was described as being like Switzerland: neutral territory between the hipster-filled Bo-Bo* land of Fitzroy and Collingwood to the north, and the fashionista playground of South Yarra and Toorak to the south. And although in the Corner Hotel, Richmond has one of the best live music venues in Australia, it no longer has any record stores (which are now clustered in Collingwood’s Johnson Street, and Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street).

In recent times, Richmond (along with the adjacent suburb of Cremorne) has also become an epicentre for Melbourne’s thriving startup community and co-working culture. Co-working spaces such as Inspire9, Lennox Street Exchange and Launchpad, along with a multitude of shared creative spaces, have helped to host, incubate or entice local and global startups like LIFX, Stripe, Culture Amp, Uber, Tablo, CareMonkey, RomeToRio, etaskr and CoinJar to set up in Melbourne. Much of this activity has grown to occupy the factories, warehouses and light-industrial spaces once home to the local textile industry – and along with the increased apartment living has been a spur to the area’s urban renewal. So, for an increasing number of people, Richmond is both home and workplace.

Finally, while Richmond’s median property prices have maintained pace with recent growth rates for Melbourne’s established suburbs, they are still more favourable than some of the leafier neighbouring suburbs. True, plots and properties here are generally smaller, and you would be hard placed to find any McMansions – but I think this just adds to the area’s appeal.

*Bo-Bo = Bourgeois-Bohemian

Next week: Summing up the FinTech summit