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Rethinking Adelaide revisited: warnings of 2003 still relevant today


Thirteen years ago, one of the state’s first Thinkers in Residence warned that, in Adelaide, “life is quite pleasant, but the young, gifted and talented are leaving”. Economics commentator Richard Blandy writes about that report’s findings, and argues they are still relevant today.

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In 2003, Premier Mike Rann welcomed South Australia’s first Thinkers in Residence, among them, city culture and futures expert Charles Landry. In December 2003, Landry published his report, Rethinking Adelaide.

Rethinking Adelaide is well worth re-reading. Although it is available at a few public libraries in Adelaide, it is not published online. Therefore, it is not easily accessible to the public.

My article today consists, essentially, of selected quotes from Landry’s report, in the interest of giving his highly-relevant views greater currency.

Landry started his report, written 13 years ago, remember, by noting that, like many cities all over Europe, Adelaide was in economic decline. He cites Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield and Newcastle in Britain, but notes that their underlying decline is disguised (see pp.20-24).

“They have brash new buildings, cultural icons, they resonate still in the imagination. Yet there are whole streets that can be bought for $30,000. The regeneration is very partial. When we look at the underlying economic and social dynamics they are falling away. Growth on a yearly basis has been half that of the South East of Britain for nearly 30 years. If there were no subsidies there would be mayhem. Shored up by welfare payments, the decline is managed gracefully. Life is quite pleasant, but the young, gifted and talented are leaving.”

“Adelaide must avoid this fate even though it has been said that ‘Adelaide is at the cutting edge of decline’. It will do so only if it recognises there is a crisis, even though it mostly does not feel like one… Adelaide’s good weather, the good food and wine, means that many are blinded. Life is comfortable and when life is too comfortable we tend to operate within our comfort zones. That is insufficient when the dynamics of the world around us are changing.”

“Too many people are still coasting. There is a danger of nostalgia about all good things past. There is a need to lift the game, move into another gear. The bridge has burnt behind us and now there is a need for leaders to paint or light up a coherent picture of a future that inspires.”

“…the history of Adelaide’s foundation has shaped its idea of itself… There’s a sense of high-mindedness, a self-conception that it is caring, ethical, reasonable, and a view that, in the end, Adelaide is really better than all those other upstart cities that have sacrificed a good quality of life in order to chase gaudy ambitions.”

“There is also a tendency to be self-satisfied, introverted and defensively positive about itself. Adelaide is a city that speaks far more passionately about the negatives rather than celebrating achievement…”

“There is a culture of constraint. Good at talking and less good at doing. Good at deflecting along the lines of ‘good idea, but wouldn’t work here’… A preference for order and perfectionism for which the Light plan of the city stands as the supreme emblem. Yet it is a place that knows it needs to contrive opportunities out of nothing in order to survive…[But] people feel more than 160 years on that they still need to ask for permission to do things, as if there was the need for the leader to say ‘go for it’.”

“Some might argue this is mere dinner table tittle-tattle without relevance to strategy… Not so – it has deep-seated, urgent implications… [People] take pride in Adelaide’s quiet settledness; they think of its sleepiness as a virtue that contributes to the city’s quality of life. This is true in part, yet this quality of life will be sustained only if there is wealth creation and entrepreneurialism at every level.”

“[Adelaide] could start by no longer promoting itself with adjectives such as ‘sensational Adelaide’ and projecting itself simply as ‘Adelaide’ and allowing that to speak for itself.”

“On the regulatory front much can be done to open up the environment from the gridlock of over-caution and excessive risk management control caused by worst case scenario thinking. For example, if incentives were given for people to be creative it would lead people and organisations to tread new pathways and establish new preferred routes.”

Later in his report, Landry says (p.58): “Adelaide needs to remind itself of its enterprising history and capacity for entrepreneurship. As a place originally with no particular purpose, there were no natural resources waiting to be exploited. The city had to be clever and opportunistic. The process of history has let it downplay this entrepreneurial drive as a culture of constraint began to dominate.”

Landry concludes (pp.76-78) by saying: “Harnessing the creative potential of local people has to be the defining core of Adelaide’s reinvigoration…Over time a culture of more calculated, measured risk might take centre stage based on core values such as imagination, improvisation, innovation and good lifestyle… Measured risk taking and a culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship needs to be reinstated and appreciated… Appoint an ‘urban animateur’ whose role is to add value and coax more out of existing initiatives and opportunities… This would be in contrast to the many roles recently established which control, regulate or adjudicate activities … Make sure world class knowledge sector industries … are supported by world class creative regulations rather than forcing them to struggle through dated legislation.”

The implication of Landry’s report is that it is madness to expect that a continuation of the government-led economic development strategy that is associated with our decline will suddenly become successful. We must radically shift strategic gears to become successful again. This will be politically difficult, and will take time. Fundamentally, we must stop believing in government so much and start believing in ourselves much more. This will require a much more pro-business economic and regulatory environment.

When Landry says “… if incentives were given for people to be creative it would lead people and organisations to tread new pathways and establish new preferred routes…”, he must implicitly be referring to greater profitability for competitive private investments – particularly start-ups.

As I have argued persistently in this column, the appropriate, general, economic development strategy for South Australia is for the state and federal governments to cut local business costs (including wage costs), state taxes and regulations so as to raise business profitability and induce investment in a spread of prospects across many sectors.

Our resulting economic development will not only be in exports, but in replacing imports of goods and services from interstate and overseas by locally-produced goods and services. South Australian businesses selling to the South Australian market will benefit from the needed economic development strategy, as well as exporters.

Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of South Australia, an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Flinders University, and a contributor to InDaily.

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