Why Canberra is the nation’s clever capital

Posted 15 Aug 2017

Story by Her Canberra

A new assessment of Australia’s 25 largest cities has found Canberra really is the clever capital.

Academics from the University of Canberra have recently developed the first Knowledge City Index for Australia, discovering in the process that the nation’s capital is also “fundamentally and exceptionally” Australia’s knowledge city.

The researchers assessed each city against six indicators: knowledge capacity (or educational qualifications); knowledge mobility (the ability to attract talent from outside the regular pool of resources); digital access; knowledge industries; income and smart work.

On a per capita basis, Canberra leads in five of the six indices. We have the highest proportion of ‘professionals’ (28.7%) in the nation and 31.8 per cent of us attended a tertiary or technical institution, also the highest level of all Australian cities. We have thriving knowledge industries, high incomes, and a city which is attractive to global and local talent.

The only area where we fall behind is ‘smart work’ – or people working from home – and the report’s authors attribute this to the ’30-minute city’ phenomenon, where the commute is so easy we don’t need to telework.

While the report acknowledges Canberra’s role as the seat of government inevitably attracts a high number of knowledge workers, the authors were surprised by just how far Canberra stands out from the crowd.

“As a proportion of its overall activity, [Canberra] has both the underlying knowledge capital and the activated knowledge economy that sets it apart from all other cities in Australia.”

In a world where technology is dramatically changing the way we work – and where as much as 40 per cent of jobs will be lost to automation by 2050 – Canberra is not our political capital, but our knowledge capital.

This is exciting, but it also begs the question: what is it about Canberra that fosters a knowledge economy?

Jane MacMaster is a classic knowledge worker. She’s been a systems design engineer in the aerospace sector, a management consultant and in public policy with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Now, as the founder of Ponder, Jane helps people think critically about complex problems and come up with clever solutions.

“As an engineer, I learnt how to design things that work. At PM&C I learnt about true complexity and where our highest priority challenges lie. Ponder is the culmination of those seemingly quite different, but in some ways similar, parts of my career coming together,” she says.

I asked Jane to contemplate why Canberra is our knowledge capital.

It may sound a bit abstract or theoretical but I think the nature of knowledge and how we use it is changing,” she says.

“It used to be important to know ‘facts’ and ‘subjects’, but these days it’s not enough. A flourishing knowledge economy has people who know how to use ‘facts’ or apply them in new ways to solve complex problems that we haven’t encountered before.

“So, I think any knowledge economy is built on smart, inquisitive, driven people pushing the boundaries of what we know and what we can do.”

So, what should we be doing to build on our strengths?

Jane says as our world becomes increasingly “complex and dynamic”, few things exist in silos anymore.

“I think success in business, public policy, research and other fields will depend on taking an interdisciplinary approach and working hard to understand the interrelationships.”

Interdisciplinary thinking is not new. In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard, argues that ideas have spread across crowded city streets for millennia.

“An explosion of artistic genius during the Florentine Renaissance began when Brunelleschi figured out the geometry of linear perspective. He passed his knowledge to his friend Donatello, who imported linear perspective in low-relief sculpture. Their friend Masaccio then brought the innovation into painting. The artistic innovations of Florence were glorious side effects of urban concentration; that city’s wealth came from more prosaic pursuits: banking and cloth making.”

Today, however, prosperous cities are largely dependent on their ability to innovate – and the spread of knowledge is central to this process.

In Canberra, our “prosaic pursuit” of public administration may be our greatest opportunity to become a world-leading knowledge economy. This is important, as 19.3 per cent of our workforce is employed by the federal public service.

Jane MacMaster agrees that Canberra could become a “world leader in public strategy and policy”, but only with the right skills, and a willingness to innovate and collaborate.

“It’s much more difficult to design a public policy than an aerospace system, in my experience, so we need people with design skills and with deep and broad knowledge and experience,” she says.

But the opportunities are within our grasp, and Jane, like so many of us in Canberra today, is filled with optimism.

“Canberra is lucky – we have a beautiful city, full of people working towards new and exciting things,” she says.

“It takes time and perseverance, determination, creativity, and a will to take-on difficult challenges and to see what’s possible. It also requires a financial, political and social context that is conducive to trying new things. We seem to have all that coming together here in Canberra.”

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