Old Rail Tunnel at White Bay Power Station — Brett Patman

Can this old Power Station become the world’s best innovation precinct?

A Proposal for White Bay

Sydney is committed to spending $2 Billion dollars to transform the White Bay Power Station into what NSW Premier Mike Baird hopes will become the “best technology precinct in the world”.

The plan will fail, however, if innovators are not attracted to it in the first place, or cannot afford the rent. Combining the planned technology precinct with a thriving arts precinct can provide the cultural, intellectual and economic stimulus for the site to become not just an innovation success, but an international destination to rival the Opera House.

The need for innovation

In the current Transformation Plan for the precinct, the vision is articulated as follows:

“a global and regional destination within the Asia-Pacific that co-locates research, business, education, science, academia, technology and start-up incubators to drive global competitiveness and innovation.”

This is a laudable goal. It is also timely. According to Compas, Sydney is sliding down the Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking. We were 12th in 2012, now we are only 16th.

Sydney needs to do something to turn this around. It needs to differentiate itself from other start-up ecosystems and accentuate its strengths. White Bay can certainly play a role in this. An important role. But only if we get it right.

What will it actually take to create the best technology precinct in the world? What are the necessary ingredients to attract the minds, money and institutions to drive future innovation and global competitiveness?

For the precinct to achieve its aims it needs to attract the world’s most creative minds, provide an environment for them to thrive, interface them to experienced and wealthy investors and fund all this in a sustainable manner. Yes, it can be done, but it will require innovative thinking to achieve it.

Rich people and nerds

“You only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds” — Paul Graham

The first job is to identify the type of people that the precinct must attract and the conditions that they need to innovate. If we attract the best minds and create an environment where innovation thrives, then the vision has a good chance of succeeding.

Paul Graham, a founder of Y Combinator, the most commercially successful seed accelerator in the world, is someone who knows a lot about innovators. In a terrific essay on replicating the success of Silicon Valley, Paul asserted, “You only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds. They’re the limiting reagents in the reaction that produce startups because they’re the only ones present when startups get started. Everyone else will move”.

Let’s start with the rich people. According to Knight Frank, Sydney ranks 14th as a center for Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals (those with a net worth of over US$30 million). The top 20 cities in the world for UHNWI’s are:

1-London, 2-New York, 3-Hong Kong, 4-Singapore, 5-Shanghai, 6-Miami, 7-Paris, 8-Dubai, 9-Beijing, 10-Zurich, 11-Tokyo, 12-Toronto, 13-Geneva, 14-Sydney, 15-Taipei, 16-Frankfurt, 17-Moscow, 18-Madrid, 19-San Fransisco and 20-Vienna.

On the surface, it would appear that Sydney fares well in terms access to rich people. But wait, there is a qualifier. As Paul explains: “Startup investors are a distinct type of rich people. They tend to have a lot of experience themselves in the technology business. This (a) helps them pick the right startups, and (b) means they can supply advice and connections as well as money. And the fact that they have a personal stake in the outcome makes them really pay attention.”

Luckily, Sydney is not devoid of tech entrepreneurs. For example, there are the Atlassian billionaires, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar; Freelancer’s, Matt Barrie; heck, even our Prime Minister is one.

The first requirement of the vision is looking okay. Attracting and retaining nerds will be the key.

What nerds want

“What nerds like is other nerds. Smart people will go wherever other smart people are. And in particular, to great universities. So if you want to make a silicon valley, you not only need a university, but one of the top handful in the world. It has to be good enough to act as a magnet, drawing the best people from thousands of miles away.” — Paul Graham

“What attracts professors is good colleagues. So if you managed to recruit, en masse, a significant number of the best young researchers, you could create a first-rate university from nothing overnight”, says Paul.

Sydney Universities are good, but not world-leading. Researchers complain, ‘I’d like to live in Australia but there’s no funding, there’s no opportunity.’ We could attract high-quality people if we funded research infrastructure properly.

If the vision of White Bay is to succeed, the involvement of universities (and possibly the CSIRO) plus research funding is part the equation. It is encouraging that research, education, science and academia is included in the guiding vision. It is a key component. However, an innovation hub is not just a university extension. After all, many innovators are drop-outs or never even go to university.

As Professor Marcus Foth says, “Highly specialised, secure, white lab coat innovation centres are important. But they don’t help everyday Australians to stand up. This requires sandboxes, tinkering spaces, experimental and messy studios, garages and workshops where people from all walks of life come together to create and innovate. Australia needs a ‘skunkworks’


The creative class

“Beneath the surface, unnoticed by many, an even deeper force was at work — the rise of creativity as a fundamental economic driver, and the rise of a new social class, the Creative Class.”
Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class

To create the best technology precinct in the world, it is not sufficient to merely fund research in the proximity of rich people. To compete for the best talent in the world, White Bay must become the most attractive place in the world for young, smart, creative nerds to live and work.

So, what exactly do nerds look for in a place to live and work? Paul Graham:

There has been a lot written lately about the “creative class.” The thesis seems to be that as wealth derives increasingly from ideas, cities will prosper only if they attract those who have them. That is certainly true; in fact it was the basis of Amsterdam’s prosperity 400 years ago.
A lot of nerd tastes they share with the creative class in general. For example, they like well-preserved old neighborhoods instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, and locally-owned shops and restaurants instead of national chains. Like the rest of the creative class, they want to live somewhere with personality.
What exactly is personality? I think it’s the feeling that each building is the work of a distinct group of people. A town with personality is one that doesn’t feel mass-produced. So if you want to make a startup hub — or any town to attract the “creative class” — you probably have to ban large development projects. When a large tract has been developed by a single organization, you can always tell. Any plan in which multiple independent buildings are gutted or demolished to be “redeveloped” as a single project is a net loss of personality for the city, with the exception of the conversion of buildings not previously public, like warehouses.

For White Bay to succeed, it should become a bohemian village — the exact opposite of a corporate park. It must avoid sterile corporate development like that which has been approved for the Australian Technology Park (ATP), and which repulses the very people it could have attracted. As Atlassian’s Scott Farquhar bluntly puts it, “startups aren’t flocking to sit next to the Commonwealth Bank”.

798 Art District-32 by La Priz

Rather than build boring corporate edifices, the developers of White Bay Power Station should look towards places like Beijing’s Factory 798 for inspiration, where “swooping arcs and soaring chimneys have an uplifting effect on modern eyes, a sort of post-industrial chic”.

Factory #798 has attracted a thriving artistic community.

Thriving is the operative word.


A cluster of ‘garages’

Where did really successful startups first establish themselves?

Reactor Room at White Bay Power Station— Brett Patman

Apple: “In 1975, the 20-year-old Jobs and Wozniak set up shop in Jobs’ parents’ garage, dubbed the venture Apple, and began working on the prototype of the Apple I”

Amazon: “in 1994 after making a cross-country drive from New York to Seattle, writing up the Amazon business plan on the way, Jeff Bezos initially set up the company in his garage.”

Google: “In 1998, Google sets up workspace in Susan Wojcicki’s garage on Santa Margarita Ave., Menlo Park, Calif.”

Of course, not all successful startups commenced in garages. eBay was founded in Pierre Omidyar’s San Jose living room. Facebook was born in Mark Zuckerberg’s university dormitory. The point is, these innovators didn’t have the resources to rent offices.

If the precinct is going to be successful, it is absolutely critical that it is affordable for the bright minds who will live and work there. If they cannot afford to pay their bills, they can not innovate. If low-cost (or free) accommodation and workspaces are not part of the plan, the concept will fail. Simple as that. The nerds will not come.

The Den co-working community

Co-living and co-working spaces, geared towards the needs of Millenials, like those being pioneered by The Collective, are a great model. At The Collective Old Oak residents have a private space to sleep, storage, and a bathroom. A kitchenette may or may not be shared. But they’ll have access to shared living spaces, including full kitchens, a library, a spa, a “secret garden,” and a theater.

“I think if you look at our generation, there’s a shift toward wanting to be part of a community and share experience with their peers,” says 26-year-old CEO, Reza Merchant. “The whole concept of sharing is much more acceptable today than it was previously. So on the one hand, people actually prefer to share. On the other hand, there are simply no options.”

Pop-Brixton mini-city — The Collective. Could the precinct kickstart with something similar?
Co-living concept — The Collective
The Entertainment Room at the White Bay Power Station — Brett Patman

The future of innovation

“Not only are the new technologies exponential, digital, and combinatorial, but most of the gains are still ahead of us. In the next 24 months, the planet will add more computer power than it did in all previous history. Over the next 24 years, the increase will likely be over a thousand-fold.” — Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age

Today’s technology is like science fiction: deep learning algorithms can detect diseased cells better than pathologists, autonomous racing cars will outdrive humans, liquid 3-D printers can produce complex objects in minutes, artificial photosynthesis promises ubiquitous renewable energy, genetic engineering now enables precise DNA editing, virtual reality devices will soon be in Christmas Stockings …

The startups of the future will be using these and yet unimagined technologies as inputs in the same way that today’s software companies use code libraries and cloud computing.

A good way to attract innovators will be to provide shared workshops with specialised equipment. For example, a 3D printing shop with different varieties of printers. Machine rooms where robot limbs or circuit boards can be assembled. Safe zones where autonomous drones are permitted to fly. Virtual Reality simulation rooms. Roof surfaces where experimental solar arrays can be tested. Supercomputers to crunch new algorithms. It would be interesting to see what list of tools and resources the current crop of cutting-edge innovators would like to get their hands on. Such shared resources could provide the nuclei for skunkworks.

One thing is certain: tomorrow’s innovations can’t be predicted. Something unexpected will crop up that nerds will want to flock to. So whatever is built on the site, it should be built with adaptivity in mind. Perhaps 3-D print the precinct structures: the accommodation, work and commercial buildings. (It is not just the Power Station, but a 10-hectare parcel of land to be developed). With something like mortarless PolyBricks, structures could be disassembled and reconfigured as building requirements evolve. If we are going to have an innovation precinct, why not make the architecture innovative too?


What drives innovation?

Drivers of innovation have been studied by scholars for a long time. Innovation increases when a dense diversity of creative people rub shoulders and allow ideas to ‘spillover’ to each other.

Innovation is stimulated by spillovers … when one individual’s creativity is transfered to another. Creative spillovers arrise from frequent interactions, and increase with density as scientists, engineers, artists, writers and people from all walks of life are forced together and rub shoulders. The general creative milieu of a place with a prominent presence of artists, musicians, and other creative people increases overall creativity and innovation by providing stimulus and inspiration for those who actually innovate. All creative people, artists, writers, scientists, engineers etc., work best in an environment that promotes and rewards creativity. (Knudsen, et al)

To set White Bay apart from any other tech precinct in the world, it could become a technology and arts precinct, a true innovation hub, a creative zone. A home not just to nerds but to artists as well. A place where spillover effects are multiplied and amplified by the sheer diversity of creative minds. Where an artificial intelligence scientist might share ideas over a single origin coffee with a poet. Where a 3D printing engineer discusses possibilities with a sculptor over a craft beer. Where a dance troupe collaborates with a virtual reality start-up to broadcast a sensually immersive performance …

Shogyo Mujo by Joshua Harker & BARTKRESA design

Let’s not forget the important effect that calligraphy had upon the young Steve Jobs: “Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating …If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do”


Artists have the same needs as nerds: cheap accommodation and workspaces. And they share the same tastes in small bars and coffee shops. They also need access to shared equipment, like kilns for example. In addition, they need spaces to put on exhibitions and performances.

Their presence would imbue the precinct with a wonderful bohemianism. Also, when the rich people pop in to see how their start-up investments are going, they might take a side trip to see a performance, or purchase a piece of art — that new 3D sculpture perhaps — and in this way help support the arts community as well.

Entertainment Room — Brett Patman

Unlike a mere tech hub, a technology and art zone would draw the public like a magnet.

Nobody wants to look at a nerd coding away on a keyboard. However, people will fly halfway around the world to see emerging artists, large exhibitions and cutting-edge performances — all of which could be magnificently staged in the grand halls, rooms and courtyards of the Power Station.

Have a look through Brett Patman’s beautiful photographs of the spaces and just imagine the possibilities. It really could become one of the best creative venues in the world, a draw card rivalling the Opera House.

images by Brett Patman

Art and technology together

Perhaps the best example of combining art and technology is South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, film and interactive festival held in Austin, Texas.

The interactive track of the festival has gained the reputation as a “breeding ground for new ideas and creative technologies”. It is a ‘must-do’ for the tech industry — a nerd mecca. Each year SXSW attracts tens of thousands of visitors and generates 100's of millions in revenue. SXSW is the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy.

798 Art Zone by Johndhackensacker3d

It is not beyond the realms of imagination to turn White Bay Power Station into an arts and technology precinct where nerds and artists work and live together, where the settlement is a dense organic village with tiny streets, buzzing restaurants, ultra-local cycling, coffee roasteries, artisan galleries, printeries, studios, beer breweries, where universities and the CSIRO co-locate research labs, and where large-scale international arts and technology festivals and exhibitions are regularly held. A vibrant crucible where amazing music permeates the laser-irradiated ether and multi-billionaires share whiskies with 20-year-old whiz kids and emerging artists.

The arts-tech-fusion center of the world.

Funding the precinct

Reactor Room Tiles — Brett Patman

The success of the precinct depends on attracting talented young people. Therefore, it must provide research funds and heavily subsidised living and work spaces. This will cost money, which is why a combined art zone makes so much sense.

As a tech-only precinct, income is restricted to office rent. A $2 billion project is going to demand a lot of rent to recover costs, and this will simply price start-ups out of the market. Young innovators are poor, remember.

A combined art zone provides a completely different economic proposition. Creating the ‘SXSW of Asia-Pacific’ has the potential, like Austin, to earn 100’s of millions revenue for the state. It will draw people from around the region and from across the globe. They will need places to stay and places to eat. And while they are here, they’ll explore more of the country, benefiting all of NSW and Australia.

As an arts venue, the site will also allow ever-expanding events such as Vivid, Tropfest, Biennale and Sydney Festival to cope with more people, further increasing revenues.

Between major events the site it could easily host a constant stream of visitors for standing exhibitions, small performances and conferences. It could become the Mona of Sydney.

As a vibrant global icon, it will provide massive property value uplift for the neighbouring precincts. People will pay a premium to live near it, increasing municipal and state revenues proportionally. Its very presence will attract rich people to live near it. A positive feedback loop, cybernetically speaking.

The well-thought-out vision of the Sydney Art Zone— to make Sydney the world’s most liveable global city by accelerating its cultural production and recycling all profits in support of creative and innovative processes — is equally suited to a Technology and Arts Zone. It is the ideal starting point for planning.

Vision of Sydney Art Zone which can serve perfectly as a template for a Technology & Arts Zone

Making it happen

For The White Bay Power Station to become the best innovation precinct in the world, it needs:

  1. Rich People: tick
  2. Experienced tech entrepreneurs: tick
  3. World-class research: easily achievable
  4. Low-cost accommodation and workspaces: achievable with funding
  5. Culture to attract and stimulate the best creative minds: achievable with vibrant arts zone and village

By turning White Bay Power Station into a vibrant, cutting-edge, Technology and Arts precinct, we might even disrupt other start-up ecosystems. Where else would a young creative person prefer to live, work and innovate?

Get it right and we could create an Apple-Store-like-queue of young creative minds that stretches around the globe.


Huge thanks to Brett Patman who has kindly allowed the use of his photographs from The Lost Collective, royalty free, for this article.

John Dobbin is a digital transformation consultant based in Sydney. This essay was subsequently used as the basis of a strategic consulting assignment for UrbanGrowth NSW, the development agency in charge of White Bay Power Station.