21 February 2013
(Private Members Statement, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The digital revolution is changing the way we do business and creating a new economy based on ideas, intelligence and innovation. We need to foster innovation to help this economy grow and become an information communication technology leader. Earlier this month I toured 66 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, where co-worker spaces are emerging under the City of Sydney creative and cultural spaces program. Today I visited and spoke at Cowork in Wynyard Park, which was full of local freelancers and entrepreneurs.
To help rejuvenate Oxford Street the council leases its empty office and retail spaces below market rates for creative activity. Oxford Street now supports a range of creative organisations, including object design, web design, architecture, transmedia, film, visual arts, contemporary performance, contemporary music, social enterprise, literature and animation.
The first space I visited, Fishburners, focuses on tech start-ups like web development, including online ticketing, video transmission and social media. Start-ups are new companies in the development and market research phase. Fishburners provides basic necessities such as internet, desk space, printing, a boardroom, and a breakout room. Start-ups pay rent and get access to the thriving community. Fishburners has occupied 66 Oxford Street since 2011 and has a space in Ultimo. It is the largest tech co-working space in Australia, representing over 100 tech start-ups. I visited Homework, which, unlike Fishburners, is a curated working space. It has an organic approach to finding start-ups and entrepreneurs. I met someone with a design business, someone starting a new magazine, and a book writer who assists organisations in global movements. An entrepreneur from San Francisco and another from Melbourne moved there to join the community.
I visited the Sydney Writers' Room, where a group of young writers made two-minute short news comedy films for ABC2 called The Roast. They made films on practically no budget but success got them funding for a 10-minute daily program and they are moving to a more appropriate studio. They will keep the space and bring in other writers. Platform72 is an artist run space and the shopfront where local artists sell their work in a permanent retail space. They do not take commission and provide space for exhibitions. Like other creative retail spaces on Oxford Street, Platform72 had a successful Christmas season, with shoppers taking advantage of the diverse range of products. Co-worker spaces drive innovation with new companies feeding off each other and sharing ideas, which is invaluable at the early business phase. Communities and mini consortia develop and help build confidence and investment. One of the start-up business entrepreneurs I met referred to what is happening on Oxford Street as "a renaissance for the tech world."
The biggest barrier to advancing start-ups is affordable rental space. Getting a business started requires keeping the cash-flow low. All entrepreneurs to whom I spoke expressed the importance of low rent to their business. Angel investors are investors who take risks and are strong drivers in Silicon Valley in the United States but who are less common in Australia. With Sydney's property market so high it is difficult for entrepreneurs to make their business sustainable in the early phase when there is no financial investor. But, even with financial investment, co-working spaces provide community support to help get businesses off the ground. Co-working spaces also help the local economy. Instead of working from home, Oxford Street creates a hub for innovators who activate the street and businesses. I understand wholefoods eatery Iku reported a 400 per cent increase in its business as a result. There are more people on the street in the day in contrast with Oxford Street's night-time activity. This is encouraging new businesses at a time when traditional high street shopping is struggling, particularly on Oxford Street.
While the City of Sydney is providing space on Oxford Street, and soon William Street, for creative initiatives, private property owners also need to get on board. The extra business created improves the local commercial and retail rental market. Innovation brings business opportunity, employment and investment. Government also has an important role to play. Silicon Valley has links to government support in research and development: Oracle began with work for the Central Intelligence Agency, Intel sold output to the Pentagon, and Sergey Brin developed Google while working on a government-university grant. We do not want government interference but government can directly and indirectly support research and development.
The Victorian Government understands the value of start-ups and has developed the technology development voucher program to help emerging businesses develop, establish commercial feasibility and design and test products. I call on the State Government to embrace the changing economy and to work to support start-ups so that Sydney and New South Wales can become an international hub for innovation and compete on a global scale. Supporting my proposed select committee into the digital economy would help to facilitate this.