'Willing to try new things': Why Canberra's a magnet for new technology
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'Willing to try new things': Why Canberra's a magnet for new technology

"This is why we can't have nice things".

The part joke, part lamentation became the tagline to the many and varied examples of share bikes being abandoned and damaged not long after operators flooded Australian cities with their brightly coloured vehicles in 2017.

Bikes were left on footpaths. Bikes in trees. Bikes in lakes. Bikes on top of bikes, on top of bikes.

An abandoned ofo share bike in Sydney

An abandoned ofo share bike in Sydney Credit:Peter Braig

The widespread, wanton neglect infuriated residents in Melbourne and Sydney particularly, forcing authorities to clamp down on operators.

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"This is why we can't have nice things," went the collective sigh.

Operators ofo and oBike pulled out of Australian markets.

The dockless bike share experiment, spruiked as a game changer for inner-city transportation here and overseas, had hit a significant bump in the road. New operators have since sprung up, but Australian cities are seemingly reluctant to wholly embrace the new technology.

Canberra, it would appear, is the exception.

Save a single white bike dunked into Australian National University's lake and six vehicles being seriously damaged, Canberrans have largely refrained from sabotaging their share bike scheme in the way their interstate counterparts have.

They've ridden the bikes, too.

More than 8230 trips have been recorded since the start of the six-month trial, and Airbike says it has about 3050 "active users". The numbers are a fraction of those recorded interstate, but Airbike's 200-bike fleet is comparatively small, and the trial is limited to ANU, the city and the parliamentary triangle (though their dockless nature means they are prone to wander).

Charlotte England, pictured above, is one of thousands of Canberrans using Airbike to travel around the city.

Charlotte England, pictured above, is one of thousands of Canberrans using Airbike to travel around the city. Credit:Jamila Toderas

The trip tally indicates most users have ridden the bikes only once, and anecdotal evidence suggests they're used mostly by tourists and university students.

Nevertheless, the ACT government is pleased with what it has deemed a popular and largely trouble-free trial. It is allowing the operator to continue beyond the trial's January 31 end date, and has signalled its desire to have a permanent dockless share bike service in the nation's capital.

Airbike is keen to roll out electric scooters on Canberra's street, following the technology's successful, albeit controversial, arrival in Queensland.

When asked by The Canberra Times why dockless bike sharing appeared to have succeeded in Canberra where it had failed elsewhere, Airbike chief executive Terry Collins pointed to the people.

"Canberrans are sophisticated," Mr Collins said last month.

The explanation was brief, unscientific and laced with stereotype. But was it untrue?

The median income in the ACT is the highest in Australia, and the city is blessed with world-class educational and research institutions. Per capita, there are more patents and trademarks registered in the ACT than any other jurisdiction in the nation, according to the government.

For Petr Adamek, the chief executive of the Canberra Innovation Network, the apparent success of the dockless share bike can be explained with the same reasons all innovation and new technology should be able to thrive in the nation's capital.

Canberra Innovation Network chief executive Petr Adamek, pictured above, said Canberra is the ideal environment for entrepreneurs

Canberra Innovation Network chief executive Petr Adamek, pictured above, said Canberra is the ideal environment for entrepreneursCredit:Jamila Toderas

"There are smart people here and they are happy to think and give feedback to the innovations," Mr Adamek says.

"Canberrans are progressive and willing to try new things, which is really important for the innovation process. For the early stage of that process, it's really important that it's done with people who are open to new things. Failure is normal for them, and if something needs to be broken, it can be broken here [in Canberra] and fixed."

Aside from a generally well-off, educated and open-minded population, Mr Adamek says Canberra has a number of characteristics which set it apart from other Australian cities as a breeding ground for startups. These attributes need to be leveraged, he argues, to help Canberra grow into as much a magnet for entrepreneurs as it is for public servants.

For one, there's the many diplomatic embassies located in Canberra, which give companies a direct channel to international markets. The innovation network has strong ties with the US, Singapore and New Zealand.

The ACT has no local councils, meaning operators do not have to undertake the oftentimes cumbersome task of negotiating with, and being bounced between, multiple levels of government.

Then there's the city's size and geography - small, but not tiny, and on the doorstep of rural and regional land - which make it the perfect testing ground for service-based technology.

Wing's chief executive James Ryan Burgess said Canberra's reputation for welcoming new technology was behind its decision to invest in the nation's capital.

Wing's chief executive James Ryan Burgess said Canberra's reputation for welcoming new technology was behind its decision to invest in the nation's capital. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

Such as household delivery drones.

Far from its California base, tech company Wing has used the Canberra region as the launching pad for its drone service, conducting trials in Googong, Royalla and now in Tuggeranong.

Undeterred by furious and highly-organised community opposition to its Bonython trial, the company has announced plans to start a permanent operation in Mitchell, which is set to offer deliveries to Gungahlin, Franklin, Palmerston and Crace by the middle of the year.

Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess says Canberrans' reputation for being early adopters of new technology is among the reasons it chose to launch its "world-first ongoing delivery operation" in the ACT.

The drones - which are marking their final deliveries of burritos, coffee and medical supplies to Bonython residents before the trial ends on Saturday - has attracted headlines across the globe, including in the Wall Street Journal, helping to draw the eyes of the tech world to the Australian capital.

Local companies are making their mark, too.

More than 650 companies and entrepreneurs are each year passing through programs at the Canberra Innovation Network, which the government launched in 2014 to help accelerate the capital's startup sector.

Mr Adamek says the capital's capacity to nurture new enterprise is evident in the success of Seeing Machines, a tech company which develops systems to identify and prevent fatigue among equipment operators.

Founded in 1997 at the Australian National University, and now listed on the London Stock Exchange, the Canberra-based company last month announced it would expand its remit to deliver eye-tracking capabilities to a flight simulator at a major national airline.

Mr Adamek predicts companies in the defence and cyber-security sector will thrive in the near future, along with startups related to health and well-being in cities.

He says the sector did face some headwinds, particularly with the challenge of luring talent away from high-paying jobs in the public service.

But the future is bright, he stresses.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr agrees.

Mr Barr says Canberra has long been a leader in embracing new ideas, noting the ACT was the first Australian city to work with Uber to regulate ride sharing.

"The size and geography of the Territory, combined with tech-savvy Canberrans huge appetite for adopting technology means we are the perfect testbed for new technology and pilot programs," Mr Barr says.

Dan Jervis-Bardy is a Canberra Times reporter.

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