I’ve done a couple of talks in Sydney recently both of which finished with the idea I’m about to relate. (The talks were the closing keynote at Web Directions South, October 2009 and a talk to the Planning Institute of Australia around the topic of ‘creative cities’, February 2010. The images below are slides from the presentation.)
It’s not a detailed, analytical, thoroughly-researched idea, as will become all too clear. Rather, it’s a way of thinking about Australia which is intended as a prompt and provocation as much as anything.
It was partly inspired by reading Jacques Attali’s patchy but intriguing book A Brief History of the Future (2006). In a thoroughly entertaining and insightful rattle through human history, Attali implicitly suggests that the story of civilisation can be punctuated by observing the dominant oceans at any one time. In very broad brushstrokes, the emergence of what would become mercantile activity starts in Mesopotamia and ends up in a fabrication lab in Shenzen. Grand narratives such as Attali's are often problematic, but that doesn’t stop them being interesting and useful to think with.
With that in mind, I decided to end Web Directions South in particular on a rallying call. It’s worth bearing in mind that no-one asked for such a rallying call, and thus its effect may be somewhat limited accordingly. Equally, that particular platform is hardly the place to ‘launch’ such broad ideas. But they didn't seem to mind.
Human history can be characterised in a series of shifts across oceans, and its first such dominant ‘organising ocean’ was the Mediterranean of the Greeks, Romans, and what are known as Moors but probably shouldn’t be, and lets pin that period from around the 8th century BC to around 1000 AD. (Arguably it started a little earlier with urbanisation around the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, but that’s a minor wrinkle. Unless you’re a Mesopotamian, of course, in which case I apologise.)
By the early middle ages, we can shift the story to the North Sea, and the emergence of the great trading centres of Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges etc. Attali’s book really picks up at this point, as he starts to detail the increasing sophistication of global markets from city to city across Europe, ending up with London.
By the 18th and 19th centuries however, and throughout the 20th century, we can broadly pin the shift eastwards around the Atlantic, as the American giant tightens its grip on an increasingly global market, whose focal point shifts ‘across the pond’ to Boston and then New York.
Now, however, we can talk of a further shift of the axis towards the Pacific, with the East Asian economies of China, Japan, South Korea, other South-East Asian Tigers, possibly combined the West Coast of North America, becoming the dominant economic centre. (India and Brazil don’t fit neatly into this, but again, fitting neatly is not really the point of this exercise.)
Spin the globe back to the North, and observe the Nordic Region, or more specifically Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland (again, let’s conveniently ignore Iceland at the moment.)
Interestingly, this region has around the same population base as Australia. The combined population of the Nordic Region countries adds up to around 24 million; Australia is around 22 million and growing rapidly. It’s the same ballpark.
And look at what the Nordic Region has produced over the last 50-100 years.
Saab, Volvo, Ericsson, Nokia, Bang+Olufsen, Iitalla, Marimekko, H+M, Fritz Hansen, Artek, Ikea, Lego, Electrolux, Tandberg, Linux, Opera, Spotify, Dopplr ...
It’s a fairly extraordinary level of output, across both services and manufacturing, and often deeply symbolic goods, imparting genuine cultural identity. There are many many more. A fairly random selection but extraordinary nonetheless.
I’d argue that it’s because of two things, essentially.
- A shared local culture that values design, innovation, craft.
- Its strategic position adjacent to what had been the primary economic powerhouse of the last few hundred years (the North Sea and Atlantic eras.)
We might wonder how that culture emerged - whether it’s derived from some deeper, earlier traditions around craft, or from particular spiritual traditions - or whether it developed in symbiotic fashion with the rise of that industrial output.
And note that that list of innovations is not just the solid ‘mid-century’ manufacturing base of cars and household goods, but also includes the new knowledge-based products such as Linux and Spotify, which also tend to be derived from a craft-based practice, as even a cursory reading of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman will make clear.
But I’d suggest that the strategic position is just as important.
And so spin the globe back to Australia.
Note Australia's strategic position just below what we can assume is the economic powerhouse of the next few hundred years. Right there, in roughly the same timezone as most of that East Asian focal point, and with reasonable connectivity to the West Coast. Not exactly handy for any of those places, as Australia isn’t exactly handy for anywhere, but in terms of timezone, in exactly the right place.
This shift to the Pacific Economy is debatable too, of course (see Economist note below), but we can at least agree that most of the indicators seem to point to Australia being very well-placed at this point - if it were to take advantage of such a strategic position.
So with a similar population base, and a similarly useful strategic position, could Australia become the ‘Nordic Region’ of the Pacific Economy?
If we assume that this is a broadly attractive proposition - big assumption, but I’d be happy with it - what would we have to do to achieve this? Clearly that missing component is cultural, partly. Can we re-shape the local culture to value design, craft and innovation? Easier said than done, but entirely possible. After all, much of Australia’s culture is engineered to value resources and agriculture, the so-called ‘primary industries’ (a telling phrase, that). Yet an industrial policy - and associated cultural policies, education policies and so on - could instead value the New Primary Industries.
(Two interesting issues here, both predicated on a new synthesis of manufacturing and design. Firstly, how China intends to retain manufacturing whilst increasingly 'owning' design too; secondly, how this might shape urban form, as part of a move to what I'd call 're-industrial cities'. Watch for forthcoming entries on both.)
(Steal a quick covetous glance at Denmark, and the example of one particular small agency MindLab, a design facility created by three ministries - Employment, Taxation, Economic & Business Affairs. Here, as Bryan Boyer notes, “design capability is explicitly integrated into government activities … working to help government bodies improve the services they offer to the citizens of Denmark with a mix of design, social science, and public policy expertise.” I’d be surprised if there was a single Australian who could imagine Australia’s equivalent ministries doing such a thing at this point. And by the way, I don't mean Australia should simply try to 'become Danish' or 'Nordic'. Nor do I mean to portray the region as some kind of Nordic version of nirvana - friends who live there can often end up more than a little irritated by it at times. More that Australia could find its own response to this possibility, developing similar or even enhanced values.)
The other re-shaping would be to ensure that Australia sees its future is Asian, broadly speaking. While this might seem obvious, and manifest in the increasingly Asian urban population, this isn’t necessarily a widely-held view, or a popular one, sadly.
But the relationship between, for example, Australia and China has always been complex. John Birmingham’s book Leviathan explores this in detail with reference to Sydney, relating the tale of the Australian Steamship Navigation Company's attempts to employ cheap skilled Chinese seamen on three of their ships in April 1878, and how anti-Chinese movement swept across the nation as a result.
“The new (colonial) ministry, led by Henry Parkes, quickly announced that it would introduce laws restricting Chinese immigration. Parkes, who thought of the Chinese as a ‘degraded race’ which would ‘always pull down the superior British race morally, intellectually even physically,’ had to fight big-business representatives who clung to the dream of importing cheap Asian labour. But with another surge in Chinese migrant numbers in 1881 being blamed for a smallpox epidemic, and with extra-parliamentary agitation continuing, conservative resistance was overcome. It was the end of this interest in the Chinese as a cheap, superexploitable labour source which laid the basis ‘for the emergence of a nationally supported White Australia Policy.’” [From Leviathan, by John Birmingham, p.105]
Scroll forward 130 years, and the sniff of a mild recession (which Australia hasn't even had, yet) brings out anti-immigrant sentiment in newspapers, and official policy. The cover of the Daily Telegraph (the most widely-read newspaper in New South Wales, sadly) proclaimed ‘NSW jobs going to China!’, and immigration policy slams the door just in case:
This, despite China being Australia’s major trading partner (albeit largely predicated on the resource trade, something which has little useful symbolic value.) So shifting sentiment around Australia and Asia will not be straightforward. But it is absolutely essential, not just because it would be the Right Thing To Do, but also because of this strategic positioning. Fortunately, many Australians do realise this, on both counts.
While we’re in this line of thinking, we can handily puncture a couple of other myths around Australia while we’re here.
Firstly, that it’s a long way away from anywhere, and so suffers from “the tyranny of distance”. This is no longer an excuse, as in fact it turns out that Australia is rather well-located after all. Contemporary telecoms effortlessly facilitates working across geography - recall this new geography - but working across timezones is far more difficult. Once Australia frets less about the Mother Country - and becoming a republic might be key in this process - it will become clear that its temporal and proximal relationships are not half bad.
The second myth is that it’s a small market, and that this can be trotted out as an excuse for poor products and services, or lack of innovation. I’ve never actually accepted this ‘excuse’, but in any case, the small population is irrelevant in this case - not only does the example of the Nordic Region negate it but we can also argue that a small nation ought to be far more fleet of foot, if anything.
The size of the nation is a key debate in a growing country like Australia, with current predictions forecasting a population of around 35 million by the middle of the century. This is linked to another debate around an increasingly ageing population.
In both cases, however, there is little actual emphasis on imagining what that population might be doing. (This is akin to so-called ‘sustainable city strategies’ that essentially focus on the surface layers without addressing what the city might actually be for.)
So in positing this thought - could Australia be the Nordic Region of the Pacific Economy? - I’m actually more interested in opening up a debate that imagines what Australia might be for.
Increasingly, Australia has everything going for it. It might well be The Lucky Country after all. Yet in recalling the title of Donald Horne’s 1964 book, and in particular his biting phrase, "Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck", we need to critically assess whether we’ve moved on from almost half a century ago. (We might assess Robin Boyd’s contemporaneous book, The Australian Ugliness, in the same light.)
“I had in mind in particular the lack of innovation in Australian manufacturing and some other forms of Australian business, banking for example. In these, as a colonial carry over, Australia showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.” [Donald Horne]
As long as we don’t ask questions about the trajectories we wish to take as a nation, or even as an archipelago of city states for that matter, Australia remains half-trapped in that Old World rather than the New. So the purpose of my question, as implied by these overly-simple maps and observations, is really to encourage us to think about how well-placed Australia might be, and how to start framing the questions that move us forward.
What if it were to genuinely value design, innovation and craft? How would that goal shape our education policies, our industries, our cities, our culture?
What if Australia genuinely pursued its links with Asia at a deeper level than simply belching coal northwards? How should we re-imagine our national identity, values and culture, such that this enhances social mobility, well-being, ecology, economy, and ultimately civilisation?
We can shape our future, after all.
(NB: Regarding the oceans. There are inconsistencies with this grand narrative, as usual. Not least in the potential return of the Mediterranean as major economic player once again, stretching from Morocco to Turkey, and whose growth since the turn of the century is second only to China. Read more in Adrian Lahoud’s fascinating post on an infrastructure for a Mediterranean Union. As for Asia only now being the economic powerhouse, even The Economist can’t decide whether that’s the case. This recent article explores that in more detail, going both ways, but also points out a flaw in my interpretation of Attali’s argument about the shift towards the East. Asia has in fact accounted for over half of world output for 18 out of the last 20 centuries. A further ‘wrinkle’ perhaps. The progression from empire to nation state to city state is interesting, though also debatable. And we just don’t know yet whether Attali’s broad organising principle of rapidly-increasing tendencies towards individualism will continue to career into the abyss, before we re-emerge in a broadly optimistic vision of a very different society. Like I say, it’s worth a read, whether you agree with him or not.)
(NB: I’d been meaning to post something about oceans for a while, not least since Marcus Trimble’s note on Australia’s undersea land grab a couple of years ago. The new map of Australia - including its new undersea territory, though not its territories on Antarctica - is interesting partly due to the way it plays with figure:ground. I started to wonder, with the ocean-centric position above, how to draw a map of the world in which the oceans appear ‘more important’ than the land, given that the land masses are what the eye is naturally drawn to, understandably enough. Not as easy as it sounds.)
(NB. Not wishing to succumb to more Scandiphilia, it’s worth noting that several of those countries are also resource-rich, just like Australia, and have benefited from that. It’s not all Marimekko blinds and streaming music services. It’s also worth noting that they too might have a declining manufacturing base (see the latest Monocle RE Sweden and Saab), though to a lesser extent than in Australia. It’s telling, however, how such countries react to resource bounty. Compare what Norway, for instance, has done with its sovereign wealth fund - around US$390bn and growing - and which is largely constructed of deposits from its resource wealth, as opposed to Australia’s Future Fund which was kicked off by the proceeds from the privatisation of the state telco; it’s around US$58bn and probably not growing, thanks to those Telstra shares. Australia, far larger than Norway and the largest coal exporter in the world, has a lot less in the bank. Has the boom of the last 15 years or so simply been frittered away on a few million home extensions?)