City Talk: Sir Tim Berners-Lee

(6.30pm, Tuesday 5 February 2013, Centennial Hall)

Thank you, Adam [MC].

Hello! And welcome to this sold out City Talk.

First, I'd like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of our land, and pay my respects to their elders.

I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who live in our city, people of all ages and backgrounds.

It's a great pleasure to welcome Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, to Sydney.

For many of you, the web is now just a normal part of daily life.

As I speak, some of you will be tweeting or posting to Facebook or maybe Google Plus. You might have checked in on Yelp or Foursquare.

I'd like to think that it was not that long ago when I was first elected to local government in the 80's, that we hand delivered our press releases to people called commissioners at the major newspaper offices.

And we thought it was a breakthrough when we got the afterhours use of a fax machine owned by a designer in Cleveland Street.

And indeed when I was elected to the NSW Parliament in 1998 I inherited an Electorate Office which had one computer and one typewriter while MP's got their speeches typed by a typing pool when the House was sitting.

However I'm pleased to say that by 1999, I had started a weekly e-newsletter - the first by a Member of the NSW Parliament - and it's still running.

We didn't realise at the time, but each one of those tech developments changed, and continues to change, the shape of our city.

If you've seen a bus full of people perusing their phones, you know that the web's changed the experience of travelling.

We're now seeing a rise in the numbers of people choosing public transport because it equates to free time to use the mobile web.

This digital layer is radically reshaping our physical experience of living in Sydney - as much as new roads or infrastructure or the many small bars that now occupy our laneways.

It's also had a huge impact on a number of industries.

The media and retail are trying to balance the possibilities the internet brings with the traditional way they do business, while the music industry seems to be emerging from a tumultuous few years.

Travel and hospitality are facing more gradual change, though no less significant.

A Deloitte study released late last year said a third of our national economy faced major disruptions in the near future - with another third facing longer term digital impacts.

Education, manufacturing, health, even government - in some ways, especially government are being impacted.

The Arab Spring showed that people 'online' have the power to bring governments down 'offline'.

The web is changing the way we think, and it's changing the way we connect with friends, family and people we don't even know.

I wonder if Sir Tim would have guessed 20 or 30 years ago that his invention would be so profound?

Who would have thought that a network of inter-connected computers could become, not just a new platform, but a new place?

In just our small local government area, almost 25,000 people now work in the information, communications and telecommunications industry - half work in computer system design and related services.

After that, in terms of numbers employed, come internet publishing and broadcasting, internet service providers and web-search portals, data processing and web hosting, and software publishing.

The 2011 Census shows that, across the board, digital jobs are highly concentrated in inner-city Sydney, with the City's share increasing a massive 23 per cent in five years.

We've also seen a 20 per cent jump in people working in universities and research institutions.

That's to say nothing of advertising, film production, TV, creative artists, musicians, writers and performers.

Since 2006, employment has surged in these three important areas - the creative industries, Information Communication Technology, and in higher education and research.

In each case, increasing at double the growth rate of the workforce as a whole.

These clusters appear to attract similar businesses, which suggests they benefit from proximity to each other. And in turn, our economy benefits as a whole.

This digital revolution is changing just about every aspect of our society.

Some of the most promising developments on the web are those that allow us to connect with each other. Facebook, Twitter and the huge number of micro events happening every week organised on sites like Meet Up or Event Brite.

That's what cities have traditionally done - they're places where people meet, share knowledge, find like-minded people, and start new projects.

Here in Sydney, the web could super-power that urban connectivity, inspiring new creative and business opportunities, stronger community networks and engaging a far broader range of voices in debates, discussion and ultimately decision making.

We're already seeing the benefits.

So how do we, as a city government respond? What does this mean for how we plan, design and run our city?

At the City, we are building a responsive digital presence - you can pay your bills and report issues online, we're as likely to be canvassing opinions on new projects online as well as off, and our mobile apps - for example, for food trucks - have been very successful.

We're also rethinking the way we use our properties.

Our libraries are no longer just for quiet reading - they host late night shows. Free wi-fi has made them a destination for tablet and laptop wielding backpackers and students. And we're looking at partnerships to give geeks, 'makers' and start-ups access to tools like 3D printers for rapid prototyping of ideas.

On Oxford Street, we turned a commercial property over for creative projects, with studio and office space for tech startups, video production houses, co-working spaces, artists and architects, among others.

AroundYou.com.au - one of the tenants - grew spectacularly last year, going from three to 11 sales representatives in just eight months. It's now employing 30 more, thanks to affordable rent that allowed the company to focus on its website, products and personnel.

As our Oxford Street project has been phenomenally successful and now expanding it to property on William Street.

We're taking a similar approach with our community centres - asking how we can make them more useful to local communities. One option is to open up currently under-used kitchens to local food producers. Reducing their costs is not just a leg-up, it would flow through to a cheaper price on the end product, and affordable locally produced food.

Part of the challenge is knowing when to collaborate, when go it alone, and when to just get out of the way.

Many of the kinds of projects we tackle at the City are increasingly being picked up by startups.

Sites like Spacehive, Brickstarter, Citizinvestor are "crowdfunding" public projects.

By calling for micro-philanthropic grants from the local people who will benefit most, they're funding large and micro scale projects, from free wi-fi and dog parks to bike pump stations and public art.

Sydney's making a significant contribution - a recent study said we lead the world for data driven startups, from the global impact of Google Maps to finding out about a development application on your street via Planning Alerts.

And even though retail faces serious challenges online, we're seeing encouraging partnerships.

For example, Sydney start up "Shoes of Prey" is collaborating with the David Jones Department Store on a new kind of retail outlet - where you can make your own shoes online, while trying out different materials in the shop.

The digital world needs flexibility and a willingness to experiment; adaptability and responsiveness to new demands; as well as innovation and a willingness to move beyond the tried and true.

We're doing some of this. We need to do more. But we recognise this is the way forward.

One of the things we do well at the City is developing strategies and then delivering on them - and I've asked our CEO to start that process for our digital strategy.

This digital revolution is turning entire industries upside-down and creating whole new industries. It's changing the way our communities - and even we - work.

Major disruptions are a chance to rework our systems - a chance to waste less and use what we have more sustainably, to engage people in the decisions that affect them, and to create a society where powerful vested interests have less sway.

We need to grab hold of this opportunity.

And we are excited to have with us tonight the man who started this revolution – the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners Lee.