Tech should fight for Powerhouse

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James Riley

With the fate of the Australian Technology Park now largely decided, the local innovation sector should be getting itself organised now for a campaign to keep the Powerhouse Museum site out of the hands of residential property developers.

In fact, the industry would do well to join with the Museum for Applied and Arts Sciences to ensure the institution retains a strong (and physical) connection into the site and to the digital creative precinct that has grown around it.

The Powerhouse site is at the epicentre of the digital creative industry in Australia, and whatever disappointments felt for those involved in the tech campaign to secure a larger share of the ATP, should be put aside.

Powerhouse: Sits at the cultural and geographic heart of the thriving digital creative precinct*

Some 40 per cent of the digital creative industry employment is in this Pyrmont-Ultimo strip, including the large technical operations of companies like Google and IBM at the Pyrmont end, and the University of Technology at the other. It is home to multinational digital agencies, film production houses and game developers.

It hosts the largest population of startup companies in the country, including co-working spaces like Fishburners and the Hatchery.

Geographically, the Powerhouse Museum sits at this centre of this activity, and culturally it is at the heart. It is a much-loved institution.

The NSW Premier Mike Baird has recommitted – over and over – to his government’s plan to give western Sydney a cultural institution of national significance, and the Powerhouse is it.

If that decision is already made (it is), the various parts of tech ecosystem should be getting organised now, and joining with the MAAS to retain an important cultural connection to the site. Because this is how we build our stories.

As an industry, the sector has been terrible at collective action. Divided fiefdoms have for decades got in the way of even simple political action campaigns. The same is true today. There is no representative body that carries credibility or weight.

Maybe the Powerhouse is a campaign that can galvanise an effort. Because there is no-one who wants to see the site covered in residential apartments.

Every person contacted by in the past week, on the ATP and Powerhouse issue, agrees putting a residential property development right in the middle of the growing digital creative and startup precinct will put the whole ecosystem at risk.

“This area has the densest concentration of startup and entrepreneurial activity across the entire economy,” Professor Roy Green, dean of the UTS Business School told “This is the developing critical mass [that it so important to the developing eco-system.]

“It would be devastating to the prospect of adding value to the NSW economy if it were to be simply covered in high-rises,” he said.

Atlassian’s global head of real estate and experience Brent Harman, said the Powerhouse was an interesting site, but the company had not had any detailed look at its form, or how its existing spaces might be used.

Atlassian confirmed this week that it has entered talks with Mirvac (which led the consortium that won the ATP tender) about the possibility of becoming a tenant. But Mr Harman said it was in no hurry to make a decision and was considering its options.

At a cursory consideration, Mr Harman said the Powerhouse was interesting, but was probably not big enough for what Atlassian had in mind. The company needs 20,000 sqm+ for itself, but was pushing an industry development agenda vision that would have seen a cluster of companies occupying a much, much larger area.

The UTS position is pretty straight-forward. Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs doesn’t argue against the NSW Government ambition for Western Sydney to get cultural institutions. But if the Powerhouse Musuem is to be moved, he is pressing hard to retain a physical connection for the museum among the growing community of innovative companies.

The co-working space Fishburners is an important member of that community, and which is busting at the seams. General Manager Murray Hurps had been a public supporter of the Atlassian bid for ATP, and had hoped to at least double its floorspace by moving there.

Mr Hurps says there is nothing available that suits its purposes in the area. Fishburners had tried to negotiate some space from the Powerhouse Museum (it had its eyes on getting a corner in the substantial Powerhouse warehouse on the site, but had been told there was no room.)

*Photo Credit: Cambodia4kidsorg via Flickr 

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