The City of Sydney is about to release a new digital strategy – but even before release, it has been dismissed as lip service to genuine innovation.
Councillor Jess Scully, who has stewardship of the strategy, said Sydney’s innovation agenda aimed first to support the city as the startup capital of Australia, and second to drive innovation across Council.
She said that the draft digital strategy would shortly be released for public comment. While there is scant detail about its contents, Ms Scully noted that a City-wide free WiFi network was being considered and that new-business facing services could be in the wings that would allow companies to, for example, apply for extensions to their footway dining licences or trading hours.
What remains absent from the strategy is any plan to appoint a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) to lead Sydney’s innovation efforts.
According to Ms Scully, “Particularly to people like me who are net natives, the idea of a CDO or chief innovation officer seems a little bit redundant.”
Instead the Council had made innovation one of its core principles, and she hoped that one of the outcomes of the digital strategy would be a checklist for all council officers to ensure that innovation was baked into all activities, which she maintained was more valuable than having digital or innovation “in a silo on its own.”
That is in stark contrast to the approach taken by other cities. Melbourne for example appointed Michelle Fitzgerald, a former PwC partner as CDO in November 2015. Digital Brisbane appointed startup founder Cat Matson as its CDO a year earlier. And Canberra has a CDO, Jon Cumming through the ACT Government.
Adelaide lacks a CDO, but Steve Mathewson, a former IT director joined the city last year as director of services. Adelaide is also pushing ahead with its plan to be Australia’s first 10 gigabit city, with the release in January of a call for international Expressions of Interest to build and operate a 10 gigabit per second network to spur innovation across the city.
In Sydney, Councillor Christine Forster, said that unless the new digital strategy included the appointment of a CDO “there is no-one at director level who is driving transformation.”
Ms Forster, who failed in her bid last year to unseat Clover Moore as Sydney Lord Mayor, had made digital innovation a central plank of her election platform.
Her policy called for Sydney to modernise systems and processes to make it easier to do business with council, to identify locations for electric car charge points, and had planned a cCbinet style approach with councillors taking on a portfolio responsibility.
She told InnovationAus.com Sydney currently is “seriously lagging other cities in Australia, not to mention comparable cities overseas.”
She said ratepayers had only begun to be able to pay bills online over the last year, and were otherwise largely unable to transact online. Ms Forster also lamented the lack of an online Council dashboard for transparency’s sake.
As to the looming digital strategy Ms Forster remains unconvinced.
“I think this is lip service from the Lord Mayor who heard the representations I made and has started to make noises.
“There have been no practical steps to find a top notch digital officer…Sydney is still shuffling paper, staples and paperclips.
“Sadly council is great at talking about innovation – but it’s not doing anything. This is a very reactive move and Council will move as it always does, very, very slowly.”
Given the importance of the innovation economy to Sydney, which is host to 64 per cent of the nation’s startups according to Ms Scully, InnovationAus.com had sought an interview with Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
She instead deputed Councillor Scully as having the clearest vision on the Council’s digital and innovation agenda.
Ms Scully was appointed to Council last year, and has strong credentials in digital arts and curation of digital events, including as founding curator of Vivid Ideas.
“I am one of ten elected Councillors we each have our own expertise. My career has been in the creative industries.
“We are shifting Australia from an extraction economy to a knowledge economy,” said Ms Scully. Councilors, akin to company directors, were obliged to suggest directions and realign policies to support that, she said.
She is now prosecuting the City’s Tech Startups Action plan, its visiting entrepreneur program, and exploring how the city can support what she described as ‘digital citizenship’ including enhancing the digital literacy of the City’s older residents.
As to the City’s own adoption of technology she said it was seeking solutions that delivered transparency, promoted collaboration, made use of open source and cloud solutions. Citizen facing websites such as Sydney Your Say also acted as a key consultation tool for Council she said.
Ms Scully also pointed to an Open Data pilot that was being planned to encourage startups to make use of the data that the Council collects.
One potential application she said was to develop an app that allowed people to monitor the City’s progress in its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent by 2030.
Whatever innovations may lie ahead however, aspirant CDOs need not apply.