Community cool at Young Henry's Brewery

The Libs have taken a battering in the City of Sydney elections, with allegations of misbehaviour in lord mayoral candidate Christine Forster’s campaign team, and plots to shrink the city to the size of the CBD, presumably so business interests can control it.

It comes as the voting structure in Sydney has been altered precisely to give business a bigger chance to influence the results. A full two votes to everyone else’s one vote.

That’s not the model for success of a global city. Those that win on the global stage are thriving, complex places with big budgets and far more control over transport and myriad services than many in our major cities can bear to imagine. It doesn’t matter what party is in power – it’s the intent that counts.

Think Conservative Boris Johnson in London with his strong green agenda and bike culture. Think New York with former green Michael Bloomberg, a Republican.

These cities are not monocultures ruled solely by business interests.

That’s an idea that’s decades old, something from the dark days of the ’80s or before, when we had a white shoe brigade “owning” the city and worker people/ants moving in from dawn and out at dusk. On weekends, the hollowed windy city canyons were dreaded places no one wanted to visit.

That’s what business can do to a place when it’s ruling the roost on its own. Today’s Australian cities – Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide – are lively vital places that buzz, in certain quarters anyway, at many times of the day or night.

That’s because the cities have been heading towards diversity ever since the thinkers in business circles realised that they needed residents, cafes, retail and general buzz to attract the young clever things they needed to stay ahead of the competition. Creativity these days equals success.

In Perth, the story goes (and it was confirmed by several people), in the early days of the mining boom, one big mining company funded a night life program because it could not get its young executives to move to Perth because there was nothing for them to do out of hours. Policies were developed, pressures brought to bear, and the place started hopping. Okay, Perth is suffering its own “Big T” (transition) now that mining is waning and it still has a lot of work to do to grow its diversity of economy, but when we visited for events there a couple of years ago for the Greening the West series, the vibe was fun and attractive, with plenty of funky bars and cafes.

In Sydney the move to concentrate power in the office towers seems very wrong footed.

You have to ask to what ends? Is it to force through greater sustainability, stronger community, public engagement in governance, collaborative business and start up hubs? Perhaps the fostering of new digital-technology models to create disruption?

The move by the premier and his whisperers to knock back all 13 proposals for the Bays precincts recently because they did not address his stated requirement for a high tech hub, and offered instead a monoculture of apartment towers, was a strong signal that someone knows what they are doing in Macquarie Street. But is everyone else listening?

Plans to knock down the Sirius Building, a beautiful almost eccentric building at the foot of the Harbour Bridge, shows the whisperers need to do their homework and force a double take. This is a powerful icon in the city. It lies like an anchor alongside the bridge. The whole world can go past and see that here is a very high quality building, almost quirky, with great views, that has been bestowed on low income people.

What a brilliant opportunity to demonstrate this city has a heart, that it cares about people. If it can’t possibly be used for low income people, we’ll bet that the high tech people the Premier wants to attract to Bays precinct would love such a unique and funky place in which to live or work. There’s no doubt these buildings will soon fetch a premium too. Everywhere we hear that new economy businesses are desperate for old warehouses and authentic unique spaces.

The beancounters don’t get it. They don’t tend to do strategic thinking and they don’t know how to value ephemeral things like city branding and caring for people, so they ignore these things.

Creatives don’t. High tech companies that value creatives don’t either. They look for humanity and community. That’s actually what buzz is.

So why does business so desperately want to run the city council, so much so that it’s demanded two votes to everyone else’s one?

We’re not making any calls yet on the sustainability agenda of the two dominant candidates for the mayoralty, Clover Moore, the incumbent, and Christine Forster, the challenger; we’re working on that for coverage soon.

But we will make a call now that business never demands ambitious sustainability standards. It’s always a softly softly approach that doesn’t upset the apple cart and threaten Business as Usual. We’re not sure any mayor can be all that radical either, if they’re in fear of that old business agenda breathing down their neck.

This is no time for BAU and avoiding disruption. We need radical sustainability because we have radical climate change, here now.

See the video that we’ve just published on Ian Dunlop’s address at UTS in front of 350 people a few weeks ago on why we need an emergency governance response.

So what does it matter in choosing a city council?

Back in the dim dark ’90s this writer interviewed two other candidates for mayor of the city, Frank Sartor, the incumbent, and Kathryn Greiner, the challenger.

During extensive interviews with both it became searingly clear that there was a quality that rose above the rhetoric of their policy agendas. Politics is politics and a scant understanding of Machiavelli will show that whether or not politicians can deliver on promises depends on myriad things that can happen after votes are counted, some if not many outside their control.

What emerged as more important during the interviews was passion, because passion will often pay no attention to parameters and restraints but will push through with determination to deliver, no matter what.

Sartor had passion in spades. Sydney was about to host the Olympics. He wanted so much to make Sydney a magical global city that everyone would love.

Say what you like about this man with the colourful personality but he was most definitely passionate about Sydney. His reasons for wanting to be mayor – perhaps ego, glory, the ermine robes or the handshakes with dignitaries – seemed irrelevant in the face of what the passion might deliver.

Kathryn Greiner on the other hand, was cool, calm and collected, a keen listener of business and what it wanted. Her personal driver seemed tied to this goal.

But business goals are not generally associated with passion. Passion is generally stuff of dreams and ephemeral things such as love or glory, hard to put metrics on, and as we know from the world of business if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. So using that line of thinking, business might reason that if you can’t measure it and manage it, don’t go there.

In terms of place, maybe it’s visitor numbers. But we might love the Barrier Reef even though we’ve been there just once; we might passionately want the Franklin River to exist even though we may never raft it again. What would business metrics say about those goals and impossible metrics?

The same question arises on sustainability. What’s the measurement? What’s the payback period?

The answer to that is, wrong question. Take another lens. Does the property industry ask what the payback period is for luxury furniture in the foyer or a marble clad reception area, replete with great art work?

Usually the answer is no, only the environmental elements get that treatment.

The misguided greenies among us have even asked that the earth’s clean water and forests be measured and costed. Quite possibly that’s the biggest mistake of all because the logic of pricing is that if the price is high enough we might consider selling these items or losing them.

Some things need to be valued beyond any possible metrics and measurable outputs. The love of our children, spouses, friends, favourite places, our cities, this vast beautiful land, happiness, health.

These things make us wealthy but we can’t sell them.

Business is starting to get this because it’s realising that the ephemeral things are what drives its own success and will attract the best talent. It wants funky and cool and vibrant and strong community, but is it really capable of delivering these things?

That’s really the job of community, working with government, working with business.

So what of that pre-Sydney Olympics council election?

While Sartor oozed passion until it pretty much boiled over, Kathryn Greiner’s response to the question of what she would do if she lost was sanguine and almost incidental, “Oh, go back to radio.”

She lost.

Sydney won.

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