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Transforming Australian cities with innovation

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Innovation steadily replacing tradition

Vibrant innovation ecosystems that bring together new, high-value businesses, researchers and related service providers are emerging across Australia and around the world.

These places are attracting investors and workers, and generating much-needed economic growth which is driving the next wave of jobs in Australia, as traditional sectors such as manufacturing and mining contract to a smaller share of the economy.

A spread of activities but with a common thread - geography

The range of activity within these innovation ecosystems is vast. It might include the creation of slow-release medicines in nano-sized capsules or the development of technologies to wirelessly connect vehicles and improve road safety.

Artist impression of a street scene, various coloured cars and trucks on roads with people crossing the roads at pedestrian crossings, all with a WIFI symbol above.

A common thread is that the organisations driving the activity are all located in a single geographic area, whether it’s a campus, suburb or wider city region. This encourages collaboration, healthy competition and the formulation of ‘game changing’ ideas, products and services.

Examples of innovation hotspots exist across the globe

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking, as many cities in the world have already made a head start in encouraging the innovation economy. From Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area to the city of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (UK), innovation ecosystems are hotspots for jobs and growth. Macquarie Park in Sydney, for example, has a concentration of innovation-driven business and academic institutions employing 45,000 people and contributes 10% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year.

Yellow image with an circular image of buildings with the wording 'Key ingreditents for successful innovation ecosystems' in the centre. At the left hand side numbered 1-5. 01 Government makes the first move. 02 Strategic anchor tenants are fostered. 03 Infrastructure plans are integrated. 04 Nurture the local community.
Figure 1: Four key strategies that developers, governments and urban planners have used – and should focus on in the future – to create successful innovation ecosystems.

Key strategies required to create successful innovation ecosystems

At stake is the future of our cities. As Australia’s population ages, our cities will increasingly need to compete with these foreign and local innovation hotspots for talent and funds.

So how should Australia go about accelerating our Innovation Economy? Building on a recent city exchange to the United States (US) by a group of city shapers from all of over Australia, including AECOM, we have created a piece of applied research which learns from this exchange and reveals key strategies required to create successful innovation ecosystems.

The group studied innovation ecosystems in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle also drew on observations from interviews with stakeholders in the urban planning, start-up and infrastructure sectors in Australia.

Artist image of a man standing on a pile of books looking over a wall through a telescope at a giant lightbulb.

We need more than infrastructure

So what did we learn? Our applied research reveals that simply building infrastructure, a new university or a business campus won’t in itself attract innovators. Instead, key stakeholders must agree on a clear long-term vision, which encourages them to take responsibility in the place-making process.

This vision should take into account a range of complex factors including local strengths, tenant mix, support networks, transport and data infrastructure, housing diversity and culture.

We need to reassess traditional assumptions

We also believe there is a need to reassess traditional assumptions about cities, such as the idea they should have single main business centres.

If Australia can grow new areas of innovative business activity, then our cities will become more polycentric. Polycentric cities have multiple business centres with schools, parks and other facilities close by, making it more feasible for residents to live closer to their workplace. This can have dramatic benefits, including less time spent commuting and a greater sense of local community.

Artist image of an urban park with a wheelbarrow, spade and watering can in the foreground, new trees have been planted. Backdrop of high rise buildings.

Imagine Australia without these ecosystems

To appreciate the importance of innovation ecosystems to Australia’s future, try to imagine our cities without them. What if there were no concentrations of people and businesses working together to create globally competitive new products and services? What if we didn’t have easy linkages between entrepreneurs with energy and researchers with new ideas? What if those people spent more time in traffic than working productively? What if Australia wasn’t known for leadership in complex fields such as science, medicine or IT?

And how dull would our cities be without places that bring together our best and brightest to work and play?

Some tips for cities

How can cities avoid this fate? Our report outlines some of the key steps that governments, developers, educational institutions and others can take. These include the strategic application of planning controls, getting the right anchor tenants in place, considering the infrastructure that’s needed today, making informed decisions about what will be valuable in the future, and not overlooking critical soft elements such as culture and social interaction.

For all the steps needed to achieve innovative cities read the report now.

Outline map of Australia split into 76 segments shown in various shades of green with the word AUSTRALIA underneath.


  • James Rosenxwax, Executive Director, Brilliant Cities
  • Twitter@jamesrosenwax
  • Email:

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