James Riley
October 10, 2018

Tech Precinct’s audacious plan

StartupLand

Tech Precinct’s audacious plan

Gladys Berejiklian: Big decisions on audacious tech plans by the end of the year

The industry’s thinking behind the development of the Central to Eveleigh Technology and Innovation Precinct is taking shape ahead on an expected formal unveiling by Premier Gladys Berejiklian next month.

The TechSydney industry group released the findings of its public consultation that reveals a scale of ambition for the project that might surprise some Sydneysiders.

For the tech and innovation sector it’s all upside, as long the government can avoid accidently killing the startup ecosystem with kindness. Sometimes too much government attention is exactly that: Too much.

But if these startup leaders can succeed in getting the precinct built and designated for technology and innovation, they will have pulled off the most audacious property and power grab this city has seen in decades.

And Sydney will have snaffled a global scale and nationally focused technology hub, and potentially built an economic engine for growth in a sector where Australia has substantially underperformed.

Certainly the precinct, if it is built on a scale at the outer-end of ambitions would create a seismic shift in Sydney’s geographic and business centre of gravity. It would also mark a shift in political power in this country, effectively announcing the arrival of the local tech sector as a substantial player, something that has eluded this industry in Australia.

A specific understanding of what the tech precinct would look like has been hard to pin down beyond a vagueness that would somehow draw together Ultimo, Surry Hills, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the University of Sydney and the Australian Technology Park.

At its grandest scale, it would include the substantial reclamation of land by building over tracks in the redevelopment of Central station and the corridor through to Eveleigh and Redfern, an idea that is still active and has been kicking around for the past couple of years. It is quite stunning.

All of this might disappear in a puff of air, of course. We will get a better idea of how much the sector thinks it can bite off when the David Thodey-led tech and innovation advisory body presents its thinking to the Premiers office.

Ms Berejiklian is expected to formalise an announcement in November. All eyes will be on whether the state has managed to get the Commonwealth on board as a designated national project.

The TechSydney report on the findings of its public consultation was handed to the state government two week ago. There are four primary themes, some straight-forward and some extremely complex, involving multiple policy jurisdictions across multiple governments.

  • The precinct must be a reflection of ecosystem diversity, accessible to companies from pre-revenue to multinational. Not too much residential in the multi-use mix, and a clamp-down on “fake tech companies” like banks and telcos.
  • An independent governing authority should be established to design, build and manage the precinct. This governing body should be drawn predominantly from – no surprise here – the industry
  • The precinct must look beyond software to support a range of businesses, including facilities for deep-tech startups. An independent team to define and manage communal infrastructure
  • The precinct must be a magnet for global talent. To attract these people, government must look beyond simply building physical infrastructure and include other policy levers – from establishing a Special Economic Zone to tax breaks and new visa settings.

TechSydney chief executive office Bede Moore says the most interesting findings in the consultation was the alignment of interests across the industry, the consistency of the thinking of what would make the precinct a success.

The notion of a Special Economic Zone as a means to coordinate policy across jurisdictions is either magnificently ambitious or magnificently naive against the backdrop of the currently hideous tone of political debate in this country.

But regardless, the SEZ theme was raised a number of times across the industry roundtables, Mr Moore said.

While we may not end up with a People’s Republic of Startup in central Sydney - ruled by the iron hand of the tech Commissars - the fact people are talking in terms of an SEZ at least demonstrates the coordinated policy thinking required to underpin success at a scale that would shift the needle on tech and innovation in this country.

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