Sydney as the southern hemisphere's Silicon Valley
Australia not doing enough to support innovation ... Google Australia MD Nick Leeder. Photo: James Brickwood
Have you overheard the words "New York" spoken excitedly somewhere near you lately? Maybe at the next table in a restaurant, on your flight to Melbourne or at the office coffee machine?
Australians - especially the younger ones - seem to be obsessed with the Big Apple and its promise. Beyond arts, culture, and of course shopping, the city seems to lie on the border of the new and interesting. You go to New York and other "hot cities" like San Francisco, Paris and Berlin to find the future.
That's not good for Sydney's future. We've had a run of headlines on Aussie flight to Silicon Valley. Over 17,000 Australians are said to be spread across the San Francisco Bay area, and at least 65 start-ups in and around Silicon Valley were either created in Australia or have an Aussie founder.
Aussies are always going to travel, and that's part of what makes this such a vibrant country. The trick is to get them back faster, and with their talented international mates in tow.
We need to get Sydney on the “hot list” of cities that are building the future by making Sydney a world capital of digital innovation. Sydney is full of creativity and technology but we need to connect the two better.
We already have the key ingredients: top talent, world-class educational institutions, ambitious people and potent investors. We're investing in the high speed broadband infrastructure that powers global reach. We're big enough to accomplish big things on the world stage, but we're also small enough that even a couple of people with a great idea can have a big impact.
But we need to work on a couple of things to become that world capital and to be able to proudly promote it to the world. One is creating the “Silicon Beach” - where not only are technology entrepreneurs building new global businesses, but our talented creative community is leveraging new technology platforms to reach the world.
The other area is investing in our people - not just in education and training, but in a new cultural mindset that's built for the new reality of a globally connected, fast-moving economy.
Over the last two years, Sydney's seen its tech start-up scene booming in parallel with Silicon Valley, and that's encouraging. We need to keep this going. We need to create the right infrastructure for start-ups to thrive and develop. We need more local venture capitalists and business angels who are willing to take a risk and better mentorship for young innovators.
At Google this week we're kicking off the first event in our SUDO (“Start Up DO”) event series which will connect young Aussie entrepreneurs with experts, investors and business angels.
But Silicon Beach isn't just about building tech start-ups. We want the outstanding Aussie creative talents on the beach as well. Australian creative agencies always punch above their weight at the international advertising festivals. Bringing that creativity together with what's possible in technology - whether that is video, apps, interactive websites or something that hasn't been invented yet - can put us on the map as the place where the rest of the visionaries and creative souls on the planet want to be.
With the internet as a platform, Aussies are already reaching the world and international audiences love it. We need more artists like Perth's Pogo, who pieces sounds from video games and movies together to create completely new music; he's had his work commissioned by Disney, exhibited in the Guggenheim, and collected over 50 million views on YouTube.
The Sydney Opera House is also setting a great example of what's possible. For example, Vivid, the city's annual festival of light, music and ideas which is on right now, has a dedicated YouTube channel with performances streaming live.
It will premiere a custom camera app which will allow an online audience to use zoom features to change their view, take photos during the live stream and immediately share with their friends via social networks. Fun - and a great marriage of art and tech.
Ironically, some of the cultural tendencies that have helped Australia to thrive despite the tyranny of distance could hold us back as the world lurches forward into the truly globalised internet era.
We are a very pragmatic people - our geography requires that. This is a rich country, but its nature punishes those who fail to respect it and understand it. This makes us not only pragmatic but also humble, practical, cautious. But there's a downside to that. We don't like people who overreach and we kick those who fail.
Australia's mindset is built for an old reality. The internet has fundamentally changed our world. Distance is much less of an issue than it was. Technology platforms can scale ideas globally in a millisecond. Our miners and farmers have understood their new world and they are doing things on a truly global scale.
Tall poppy syndrome used to be about cutting others down to size, but it ends up making all of us shorter. No one should be embarrassed to have global ambitions any more. The internet's ease of distribution means that the world should be the default market for any Australian business plan.
Those who are succeeding now are those who are prepared to fail but smart enough to learn. It is fundamental that Australian society as a whole learns that failing is fine as long as you learn from it and adjust quickly. At Google, we have a saying: “fail fast and iterate”. It might sound counter-intuitive, but big innovation and failure are intimately intertwined.
Any innovation is essentially a market experiment and as with any experiment, it carries considerable risk and high failure rates. Innovators in America, and particularly Silicon Valley, understand this very well. It's time we do too.
There are already a good number of people on this “Silicon Beach” down under but we need a lot more to join us. It's going to be a beautiful day - let's tell people about it and encourage more to jump in.
Nick Leeder is the managing director, Google Australia & New Zealand.
He discussed the question “How do we create an environment for inspiration and innovation?” with Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Mark Scott, head of the ABC, Ann Mossop, head of public programs at the Sydney Opera House, and other guests at last night's Smart Sydney City Talks event at the State Theatre.