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The Neon Grid with Michael Rodrigues

In The Neon Grid podcast, NSW’s first 24-Hour Economy Commissioner, Michael Rodrigues explores what it means to build a 24-hour economy through a series of interviews with the best and brightest across industry, local council and the NSW Government.

Episode 7: Kate Wickett

Sydney WorldPride


Kate: What's so exciting for me is that particularly after the lockdowns and COVID, whether you're a hotelier, whether you're a fish and chip shop, whether you're a performing artist, we really want everyone to get involved with WorldPride and take something from it. I often use with my team the phrase "When where all boats rise, there's something for everyone and everyone can benefit from it."

[The Neon Grid Podcast theme]

Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid Podcast. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. In the late 90s, I was wandering around Sydney Olympic Park wearing out work boots as a trainee engineer building the railway out to the site that would ultimately go on to host the best games ever in 2000. For any city, an event like the Olympics is a real catalyst, a game changer. Here in old Sydney town, the games are exactly that. They ushered in a new period of growth, optimism, of ambition. Today's guest is Kate Wickett, CEO of Sydney WorldPride, which kicks off on the 17th of February next year and runs through to the 5th of March. Billed as the largest event to be held in Sydney since the Olympics, I'm excited by the potential for this global festival to excite and engage Sydney Ciders and visitors alike. Don't be mistaken, this isn't just a slightly bigger Mardi Gras. It's a truly global event featuring opening and closing ceremonies, a pride march across our famous bridge, and a human rights conference amongst many other things. With Kylie Minogue headlighting the opening gig, the festival is going to be one hell of a party come February. I'm equally interested to understand from Kate what the legacy of WorldPride in Sydney will be, how this event will shape Sydney's DNA and its going-out culture.
[The Neon Grid Podcast theme]

Michael: It's my great pleasure to have Kate Wickett on The Neon Grid Podcast. Welcome, Kate.

Kate: Hey, Michael. How are you?

Michael: I'm very well, and I'm excited to see you. I don't just say that to all my guests. In fact, the last guest who was on wasn't that excited.


Kate: Well, I'm very pleased to meet you.

Michael: Do people often ask you whether you have the best job in the world?

Kate: They do, and my answer is I absolutely do. I came out when I was 16 in a small country town called Adelaide.


Kate: I've been volunteering in this space since I was about 17 actually. I'm a recovering corporate lawyer.

Michael: As am I.

Kate: Yeah, I know. You must have the best job in the world as well.

Michael: I [unintelligible 00:02:35] when I meet people who will argue over who's got a better job but I'm willing to respect that may not be absolute in this case, but I'm pretty chuffed with what I do.

Kate: Look, I just think the job for me is the perfect intersection of my kind of corporate and commercial career with my volunteering commitments over the last 25 years. Who wouldn't be
excited to run lots of big parties and meet lots of interesting people? The thing that I love too about my job is that we've almost got 50 people now at WorldPride and the team is just incredible. The team are bright, and enthusiastic, from very varied backgrounds. So, yeah, I'm pretty chuffed with what we're doing and get to meet with people like you.

Michael: You've been a lawyer in your past, you've worked as festival director, a volunteer and
been on boards and so forth, but probably there was no grand plan to do this, but here you are.
Do you reflect on where you started and where you’ve ended up?

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Adelaide. It wasn't back in those days-- I often reflect on how we as a society have changed over the last-- I'm 41, so how we've changed over the last 25 years from an LGBTQ space. We have come leaps and bounds in my out lifetime. I remember having a girlfriend when I was about 18 and there's no way you'd hold each other's hands walking down the street. And that's just changed significantly. I think particularly in the last 10 years, there's been a seismic change for diversity, inclusion, and people expressing themselves and feeling comfortable to express themselves. Is everything perfect? No, it's not. But it has changed fundamentally.

Growing up in Adelaide, I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I think that came from a sense of equity and equality. What I saw as injustice, whether it be gay people or people of color people or people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, I always felt that I had this sense of justice and protecting people, I think. That's why I went into the law. Weirdly though, I started my career as a banking and finance lawyer.

Michael: Tell me. What type of banking and finance? Let's really put the listeners to sleep. I too was a banking and finance lawyer.

Kate: No way.

Michael: __ Way, way, way back.

Kate: That clearly didn't last very long because I was making rich people richer. And you're pushing a lot of papers around. What I think has really been fantastic though is that I have been volunteering since I was 17 and I actually spoke on a panel a couple of days ago about this very fact. If you haven't volunteered, you don't know what you're missing. I think there's so much to-- you meet wonderful people. You have an opportunity to see different things that you would never see in your day job. And yeah, the sense of helping others is actually really fulfilling. I always find it a bit bizarre actually when people don't volunteer, and that might just be volunteering in the local canteen of your kids’ school, or coaching the soccer club. It doesn't have to be on boards. I've been on a few boards, but I've also worked in soup kitchens or gone out and handed out pamphlets or whatever it might be. I just think that it's a really good way to meet different people and to kind of get a bit of empathy for other things that are going on in the world. So, it’s kind of a long story.

Michael: It was a tangent, but I think partly it's because of the world, etc. Moving in the circles that you and I do, I sit at tables often and have this discussion and I kind of get impatient these days and I'm like, “Well, what are we doing?” Even if it isn't going to fix the whole thing, you can move along. I think that in terms of the work that we're trying to do under our strategy, and partly how you and I've connected has been at least looking at maybe different sides of the same coin for how WorldPride might fit and make a contribution far beyond the 17-day festival that it is. That very much is around those principles of inclusion, access, what opportunity does this create for engagement with the community. Not like community-- [crosstalk]

Kate: All communities, yeah, yeah.

Michael: All communities, yeah.

Kate: I think you've hit the nail on the head. To your point earlier about, I think what we're really talking about is legacy. The thing that excites me about this 17-day festival is that people often ask me, what does success look like for the festival? For me, success is anyone can come to Sydney WorldPride. Anyone, LGBTQI or otherwise, could come to Sydney WorldPride and see themselves in at least one of our programs or one of our events. Because to me, we must reflect the community we live in and that is all parts of our community. Yes, we are an LGBTQI festival, and really proud to say that I'm not aware of an LGBT festival in the world that is going to be this big. We've got our 15 major key events. Then, we're about to announce in November our 60 arts and cultural events that are anything from the theater, plays, dance performance, and then 300 open access festival.

I think the legacy is, I'm really keen for everyone to, for want of a better phrase, make some money from WorldPride. I employ artists, get people out eating at pubs, eating at restaurants, employ drag queens, employ the musicians who have been struggling for the last couple of years. Get people in hotels, get people traveling out to Blue Mountains. I really hope that people economically thrive through this, but the social connection and social interaction that people have when they come together and unite can't be underestimated. I think Australians love being outdoors, we love going to events, and I'm just really excited about bringing everyone together and celebrating.

Michael: Should we do a bit of the vital statistics on it?

Kate: Yeah, sure.

Michael: Just because, I think that it is really useful for people to understand 17 days, six events coming. Do you want to just give us the--?

Kate: Yeah, I'll give you the key datapoints.

Michael: Yeah. Can you?

Kate: Yeah, sure. Actually, when we bid to host WorldPride back in 2019, I did a piece of work with Deloitte Access Economics, who were really fantastic. That’s a good plug there.

Michael: Yeah, [crosstalk].

Kate: They're also our partner, which has been really good. To the point earlier about volunteering, we couldn't have done this without pro-bono help from a whole raft of different organizations. I think it's important to acknowledge corporates that do a lot of pro-bono work. But we did some analysis with Deloitte and the stats are that it's expected that we have 1.1 to 1.3 million people participate in Sydney WorldPride next year. That's over 17 days. It's starting on February 17th, and it goes until March 5th, that's a Sunday. What we do know is that in a typical year for Mardi Gras, and probably important to note because one of the other questions I get all the time is, what's the difference between WorldPride and Mardi Gras? So, very simply, back in 2019, I was the co-chair of Mardi Gras, which was a voluntary role. I had a day job, was at CommBank at the time.

Kate: Couldn't be more different. That's a voluntary role. We bid-- a small group of us volunteers wrote the bid to host WorldPride in Sydney. It's like the Olympics, you have to bid for it. We're really fortunate that the New South Wales government gave us some small seed funding and so we, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, bid to host. We ran a whole process. We ran a bid document and then we presented it-- effectively in the Olympics you have the IOC. In the Pride world, we have Interpret, which is the International Organization of Prides. We went to Athens and where the annual general meeting was, and we competed against Montreal and Houston. And we're very fortunate that we won.

We were very much the underdog to Montreal, in fact, because they'd been working on the bid for so much longer than we had. Geez, their bid budget was about four times the size of ours. Interesting fun fact, Justin Trudeau's electorate is Montreal. So, he was very keen to win. I think what won it for us was-- well, when I say ordinary, I mean for us, we looked at what our differentiators were to Montreal, and we stuck to those differentiators. We stuck to our key messaging. I think it's a really positive thing to say about the team who worked on it because we were quite disciplined in saying, “Well, what are our key messages? Why Sydney?”

The first key message was that WorldPride is a global event and it had never, ever been held in the Southern Hemisphere. So for us, our key message was if you want to be a world event, a global event, you need to be a global event. The other thing was Mardi Gras has been around for 45 years. We’ve run an incredible nighttime curated parade. In fact, a lot of people don't know this, but Mardi Gras is the only nighttime curated Pride parade in the world. We have more spectators than participants. That's a pretty strong value proposition. Anyone who's been to that parade, it's fantastic.

There are pretty good reasons why we won. The other real reason I think we won was that we really wanted to shine a light on our First Nations history here in Australia. Having traveled the world for six months in the lobbying phase prior to the vote in August 2019, what had become really clear is that still lots of people don't know a lot about Australia, and they certainly don't know about our First Nations culture. So, I think that was a really good thing to highlight. To my point about Montreal being pretty ordinary, they focused on the fact that they do have a brilliant pride, but that's what they focused on. They focused on the party elements, and we focused on them all kinds of systemic cultural and social elements. I think, for us, we can run a great party, and we'll run lots of great parties next year. But the Human Rights Conference, the First Nations components, the Asia Pacific components, I think, really moved the needle for us.

Michael: It's interesting because I kind of sidetracked, but in asking what won it, it kind of teases out what sits at the heart of what we’ll make.

Kate: Yeah.

Michael: What to expect, and what we can hopefully contribute to make it a success. Do you think we've covered off enough? You've covered off--

Kate: I can give you some more stats.

Michael: You were talking about the difference between Mardi Gras and WorldPride. Maybe just top-- [crosstalk].

Kate: So, Mardi Gras bid to host WorldPride. We had always said that if we do win WorldPride, what we'll do is we'll create a new organization. So, Sydney WorldPride Limited, because it will be a special-purpose vehicle for the sole design and delivery of 2023. Mardi Gras has been around for 45 years, and back then, it still had seasons 21 and 22 to deliver. We said let Mardi Gras continue and do its main thing, but also compartmentalizing risk, I suppose. So, set up a new organization. We have a very strong MoU with Mardi Gras, and after WorldPride next year, we will dissolve. So, probably cease to exist towards the back end of next year, and any of the assets that we have or anything left over will just be folded back into Mardi Gras.

For the year 2023, the average punter will be attending Sydney WorldPride 2023. All of the amazing Mardi Gras events that currently occur, and that people have come to know and love will still occur next year but they'll effectively subsume up into WorldPride. For the average punter coming from overseas, they'll know that they're at a Mardi Gras or a traditional Mardi Gras event because it will be co-branded.
Michael: That makes sense. In terms of some of the other components of WorldPride, then parties, Human Rights Conference, what are the--?

Kate: Under the license with InterPride, we have to deliver four key events. They are the opening ceremony, closing ceremony, a human rights conference, and a pride march. Now, under that, our fantastic Oxford Street March on Saturday night, which is really a parade, it qualified for that category. However, we thought we'd do one more. So, in addition to the Saturday night Mardi Gras Parade, we have also managed to close the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Michael: What?

Kate: [laughs] Yeah, I know. On the last day of the event-- and I'll run through the days quickly in a moment, but the last day of the event, we're closing the bridge and 50,000 people will march over Sydney Harbor Bridge in what will be just an incredible visual display of solidarity. Can you imagine the iconic photos that will be boomed around the world, which is just so great for Sydney. It's such a beautiful, wonderful city.

But to your point, what we do know, and going back to statistics, every year, we know that Mardi Gras has between 600,000 and 800,000 participants. Of that group, 16% generally are from internationals or overseas. Of that 16%, 25% are from North America. The next closest after North America is the UK at about 18%. So, our key target market’s North America and the UK. We also get quite a few people from Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore. Interestingly, in the last couple of years, the other spot that has really popped up and we've been getting a lot of tourism from is Brazil. Some of you may know that there's actually quite a burgeoning gay Brazilian population here in Sydney. The boys from Brazil love their parties. So, great.

What we do know is, because those internationals can only take generally two weeks' leave a year, we have bookended or kind of smashed together all the big events in a nine-day period. So, the whole festival goes for 17 days, but the key dates or the major events are in nine days, bookended by the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony, of course, both of which will be held at the Domain. During that week, we have opening ceremony. The next day, we got the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Oxford Street, and the afterparty. We've got another party in the Domain on a Sunday. Monday, we have the opening of the InterPride reception. We're hosting a big reception at Town Hall. We've got the First Nations Gathering Space, which is a full takeover of the carriage works for six days, highlighting our First Nations culture here in Australia, but also First Nations cultures from other countries. We have a First Nations gala at the Sydney Opera House. Interestingly, our First Nations creative director is referring to that as the Black Met Gala. So, I think that'll be-- speaking of black tie earlier--

Michael: You're right.

Kate: --I think that'll be great. The key and actually, this is perhaps surprising to some people, but again, why we won, we knew that we could put on lots of parties, but what we really wanted to do was shine a light on all of the work that we've done to date, but all of the work that we've got to do for our LGBT community. So, the Human Rights Conference is a three full-day conference at the ICC here in Darling Harbor. 1500 people a day. We wanted this to be more than just an academic human rights conference because there's a lot of complex and difficult conversations that are going to occur. But by virtue of that, some of those are really esoteric and not accessible to a lot of people.

I went South by Southwest earlier this year. I've been saying for a couple of years, we really want to make this immersive and interactive and accessible, not just in terms of whether it be price point or physical accessibility, but intellectual accessibility as well so that we can break down some of these difficult conversations and make them easier for people to participate in. We will have performers at that conference, we'll have politicians, we'll have government, we'll have corporate, we'll have community activists, civil society. I went to the Human Rights Conference at Copenhagen WorldPride, and what was fascinating to me was while their conference really set the bar and they went for three days, they segmented all of those groups. One day was corporate, one day was government, and one day was community, and never did the twain meet. And that just to me, I think-- If you wanted [crosstalk]

Michael: You just create silos, don’t you?

Kate: Yeah, silos. If you want to change the law, you’ve got to have the lawmakers in the room.

Michael: Yeah. Not that I'm tired of listening to you, but there's more though, because I believe that Oxford Street is getting shut [Kate laughs] and that there's some villages happening. Tell us about those.

Kate: Yeah. We've got all these events, and in fact, two years ago, when we were looking at these events, I thought to myself, "God, there's going to be so many people coming here. I'm not sure we've got enough spaces." Particularly because in Sydney, they always talk about the lockouts and the lockdowns. I thought, “Well, where are all these people going to go if they're not at these events?” So, in fact, it was one of the people on my team who came up with this concept about pride villages, and ironically, he's from Montreal. In Montreal, they closed down their streets. So, we came up with this concept of pride villages where if you're not at an event or you can't afford to go to an event, we'll put on a free event and create this sense of kind of community Hub, where we'll close down Crown Street and Riley Street from Oxford to Campbell and have people put on some free performances, have food trucks, have all the different pubs and bars and restaurants open so people can congregate and have music. It's family friendly and most importantly, it's all free. Pride villages is for the full nine days of that open to closing.

But the real kicker is on the last weekend. You will have just come on the Saturday you'll have gone to the Bondi Beach Party on the Saturday night. Everyone might be a bit dusty on the Sunday morning, but the only time you can close the Sydney Harbor Bridge is on a Sunday morning early. The first marches start marching across the bridge at 07:00 AM, and then they march across the bridge in Oxford Street will be their thoroughfare, because on the last two days, we are closing Oxford Street as well as the two perpendicular streets from Hyde Park all the way up to Taylor Square. So, a real hub and a real place for people to come and eat, drink, celebrate, unite, watch some music, have something to eat.

Michael: That's a wonderful overview and I think I wanted to put myself in the position of a businessowner or someone who might be thinking, "Oh, this is amazing. How do I get involved? I may not be proximate, for example, to Oxford Street or Crown O'Reilly, but is there things that I could do?” What would you say to that question?

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. A couple of things on that. We have run a program called Pride Amplified, which is the open access part of the festival. We've had lots of, whether it be restaurants or bars or community groups from all around New South Wales-- not just Sydney, but New South Wales come to us and say, “We want to be a part of WorldPride. We're running this event. Can you promote us through your website?” Our selection criteria is pretty basic. As long as you kind of sign up to our values-- It could be Drag Bingo at a new town, or it could be Drag Bingo out in Parramatta, it could be a long lunch up in Dubbo or somewhere. Lots of community groups are doing community activations, so there's a role and a place for everyone at WorldPride. So, I'd say look at Pride Amplified. It's on our website.

The other thing I would say is that what we do know is that not everyone wants to go to lots of parties or drink on Oxford Street. What we do know is that there are other parts of Sydney that people want to explore. Over in Manly, out in the west, whether it be go hiking in the Blue Mountains or go down the coast for a day, or up to Newcastle. So, I think there is absolutely a way for people to be involved. As I mentioned earlier, what's so exciting for me is that particularly after the lockdowns and COVID, whether you're a hotelier, whether you're a fish and chip shop, whether you're a performing artist, we really want everyone to get involved with WorldPride and take something from it. I often use with my team the phrase, "When all boats rise,” there's something for everyone and everyone can benefit from it.

Michael: I'm going to just try and address this issue head on. I hope I don’t screw it up.


Michael: What I'm trying to say to people is that it's a major event, but another way to think about it is visitors coming to Sydney and they will want to explore Sydney. Think about yourself when you're going to a festival overseas, you don't just go to see the festival, you’ll will wander the streets and so forth. So, I kind of encourage the going-out economy, all our stakeholders to think about how to elevate their offerings, think about what people might be wanting to do. Fine dining restaurants will be full, I imagine. There's venues across Newtown, Erskineville, etc., I feel that area naturally become a pride village. Whether it's a pride village today, it will be a pride village during pride [crosstalk]--

Kate: 100%.

Michael: It's just such a great opportunity for Sydney to really showcase itself to the world post pandemic. I feel like we will-- let's make the most of the opportunity is what I encourage, what
we're trying to encourage our stakeholders to think about. Because it's a bit like-- in the same way that Sydney benefits from having New Year's first, we're having Pride first, in a way, is how I think about it coming out of the pandemic. Just a big sort of shoutout. I'm sure that we will totally link to websites and Pride Amplified and all that information, but there's just a really good opportunity, as I say, to think about how to get involved in the broader sense. For yourself, what event are you most looking for? That's probably a bit hard, which is your favorite child, I suppose, but which bits of it are kind of--?

Kate: Look, there's two events that I'm pretty proud of. One is the Human Rights Conference. I mentioned that earlier, we are taking a very keen eye on how we curate. That’s why we’ve partnered with some community partners. Ultimately, WorldPride is an arts and cultural festival. We're not a human rights organization, but we've partnered with some human rights experts. So, the content and the credibility of the conference is really important to us. But bringing together that multiplicity of voices, so corporates government, politicians, community activists, civil society, that's really important to me because not often are they in the same room and not often for the same kind of purpose or kind of light on the hill. I really do hope that we can make some systemic change out of that conference, whether that be simple things like-- or shouldn't say simple, but some law reform, for example. We've got federalism, the benefits of federalism is that we need some laws harmonised across the different states. There are different laws for different people. Do you know what I mean?

Michael: Yeah.

Kate: Simple things like that. I mean, everyone thought we got marriage equality. What else is there to do? Actually, there's a lot to do. So, the Human Rights Conference. Also, there's going to be a couple of celebrities pop up at that conference. I'm pretty keen to hear-- we're about to lock in quite a famous musician to give their view on a particular issue. I think it's important to hear from, as I said, a multiplicity of voices, not just the academics, not just the police, but a whole group of people.
The second one I haven't spoken about, actually, I love to go out.

Michael: I've observed that about you.

Kate: Yes.

Michael: So, that's why we get on so well.

Kate: Well, I've loved to go out for some time.


Kate: To your point earlier, if you'd have said to me, going to traveling the world, going to different prides, that's my dream job. I've been to lots of prides and lots of parties around the world. There's one thing that's quite common to all of those, and that as a lesbian, women and lesbians have always been an afterthought, if there's something for us at all. I'm just sick of going to shit women's parties.


Kate: The event that I'm really proud of is called Ultra Violet and it has, unashamedly, catered for women now. Now, it's an event for everyone. So, men are more than welcome. It is at Sydney Town Hall for 2500 people. It's curated by Sydney's own amazing Sveta, a DJ and performer. She's been in the fabric of Sydney's queer culture for 25 years. Sveta and Jess Hill also, her production name is Estée Lauder. The two of them, there isn't any musician in Australia, really, that those two don't know. So, they're curating it for us. Every performer is a woman. And can I tell you, as of about this afternoon, there was about 80 tickets left, so it was one of our biggest sellers.

I'm just so proud of that event because we're actually tipping in some good money and we're curating, it properly, we're giving it time. I know lots of my boyfriends are going because they can't wait to see it, and it's going to be a world first. I do not know another pride in the world that is going to have a dedicated women's event like this. So, I'm pretty proud of that. I think Jess and Sveta have done an outstanding job in curating it. My view is if we can hire or pay an extra artist, we will. Everything we make gets invested back into the community. So, yeah, I think Ultra Violet is going to be, well, the first of its kind that I'm aware of in the world.

Michael: Sounds amazing. I've got at least one or two quick follow-ups. One is a bit of a tangent. Is there anything that's really keeping you awake at night with worry or like tension points?

Kate: Yeah, there's two things that keep me awake and the two things have been pretty much the same for the last year. The first one that always comes to mind is meeting community expectations. When we wrote this bid back in 2019, we scraped together the bid funding and we ran it on the smell of an oily rag. When we won in Athens, I remember this vividly because we had a little text message ready to go, “Yes, we won,” or, “No, we didn't.” There were about 15 people on the end of that list here in Sydney who were waiting to find out, a couple of senior government people and a couple of senior corporate people. Basically no one knew, no one heard about it. I always remember watching the soccer when we won FIFA, and watching them when they were socially distancing. At least you could see them kind of jump up. There's some great imagery actually, that I have to send on to you about-- someone filmed. We literally only had 12 people in Athens [Michael laughs] sitting around a table and jumping up when we won.

So, meeting community expectations because in the last year, particularly after COVID, it was Minister Ayres who quoted that "Sydney WorldPride is the event to reopen Sydney to the world." To go from a little event that no one knew where even kind of put on or bid for to winning it to being that event, we've come a very long way in the last two and a half years. I guess for me, the community expectation is everyone is so desperate to get out and interact and have a festival together and celebrate together. I really want to meet those expectations from an enjoyment perspective, but I also really want to meet their expectations around to my point earlier. "Is everyone seen? Is everyone heard? Is there a voice for everyone? Have we brought everyone with us?" I think about that a lot. Obviously, I don't want to disappoint anyone and of course then we have our government stakeholders and our corporate stakeholders, but for me it's around, “Have we left a legacy, and have we done this for the community?”

Michael: You're probably setting the highest standard, to be honest, in your own mind, in terms. If you do that, you almost don't need to worry.

Kate: Let's hope so. I mean, we've obviously made some talent announcements and that's been taken really well. We've made talent announcements around our Human Rights Conference, and we've been very specific about curating that. The second thing that worries me is around-- and I'll be really honest about this, is around event delivery. People haven't been delivering big events for a couple of years. Staffing, resourcing. My biggest issue for the last six months has been recruitment and resourcing and that's across the board for everyone. This is not unique to Sydney WorldPride. Finding event producers, finding staff who have got the experience, that's really been quite stressful in that you want to find the right people for the job, and it's been really difficult. We see that across the board.

Michael: Is there any opportunities to volunteer as well? I don't know.

Kate: That's a great question. We spoke earlier about volunteering. Mardi Gras, in its 45 years, has always been able to run based on volunteers. Every year-- and these stats are quite phenomenal, every year Mardi Gras gets about 1600 volunteers that help it through its festival. There's a saying, “Once a Mardi Gras volunteer, always a Mardi Gras volunteer.” Some of those volunteers have been working with Mardi Gras for 20 years.

Michael: Wow.

Kate: Lots of people return. What we know for WorldPride is that we need about 3500 volunteers and so we are working very closely with Mardi Gras. So, yes, please, we'd love you to volunteer. In fact, the take-up already has been phenomenal. We've been really lucky. This is volunteering from simply handing out pamphlets or wayfinding with people, or people who have got specific skills in whether it be health, medical, traffic management, whatever--

Michael: Lawyers.

Kate: Lawyers.


Kate: Recovering lawyers. We're working really closely with Mardi Gras on that volunteering. Absolutely, you can do that through our website as well. But yeah, I think as I said, it's not unique to Sydney WorldPride that recruitment and resourcing have been an issue, but it is a real factor because there's obviously a lag and a flow-on effect to everything. Even agencies, we work very closely with big event agencies on these different events and I know they've found it hard to find staff I had a meeting with the police a couple of days ago. We obviously work with the whole of government, security firms and hotels and pubs, not being able to get the right security or all the staff to open up the bar upstairs.

Michael: All of these are real challenges. What we learned, and maybe we can finish with this, is that as-- I think people have heard me say this before, I think I was all of 20 years old and I was working on the Olympics. It's amazing what happens in Sydney when people actually get together and collaborate. I think there's such a good spirit of willing around you and the team. I think it's incumbent on anyone listening to this who has any influence or resources, if you want to see that vision of Sydney come back, don't sit on the sidelines, get involved.

Kate Wickett, it's been wonderful spending some time with you, and I look forward to the debrief at a bar close to us right now.


Kate: Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate your support. You're right, it's all about goodwill. I can't wait to see Sydney come alive again. I've lived all around the world in many different big cities and Sydney is absolutely my favorite. It is just such a sensational city and as a queer person, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Michael: Thank you.

Kate: Thanks, Michael.

Michael: Thanks for listening to The Neon Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get involved in our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid Newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website which is at investment.nsw.gov.au or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues, on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.

[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]

Episode 6: Shaun Christie-David

The social change behind an authentic dish.


Michael: The Neon Grid Podcast is recorded on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. We pay our respects to the elders past, present, and emerging.

Shaun: I've got 100% staff retention rate in Colombo Social, which in hospitality over the last two and a half years is unheard of. The retention rate at the charity, which we'll probably touch on later on is still pretty much the same. We've had 101 people from marginalised communities come through our program. And I think right now, our workforce is 75% people from communities that are  opportunity lacking.

[The Neon Green Podcast theme]

Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid Podcast. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Pick a language, any language, Farsi, desi, English, money, love, whatever your choice, the verdict is the same. Kabul  Social has captured the hearts, minds, and wallets of the city. Today's guest, social entrepreneur, Shaun Christie-David has taken his learnings from his Sri Lankan restaurant, Colombo Social in  Enmore, and his not-for-profit Plate It Forward to create a platform for Afghani refugees to share their culture with a Sydney audience that is hungry for both spiritual and physical nourishment right in the  heart of the Harbour City.

The whole female Afghan team and Muhammed lead the operation delivering traditional Afghan fare with Shaun and his executive chef, John in support. Our newest Sydneysiders are supported by language lessons, swim classes, and other support services. But more importantly, Kabul Social provides the opportunity for meaningful work as the team looks to a brighter future here in Eora. That could be to remain in hospitality or to return to their existing profession. That's just one example. Roya, who is university qualified in the Afghan equivalent of human resources, she arrived five months  ago and now looks after Shaun's 100 plus workforce. 

Shoutout to Mirvac for supporting the endeavor by donating the restaurant site. It's way better than having it sit there empty. And as a consequence, when you buy a meal for yourself at lunch, you will feed someone else in Sydney as well as someone in Afghanistan. For those sectors crying out for  staff, including in hospitality events, there may be insights here as well. Shaun is fully staffed launching  his own hospitality school to aid employees where opportunity hasn't been equal. I hope you are as inspired by this story as I have been. 

It's my pleasure to be joined today by Shaun Christie-David. Welcome, Shaun to The Neon Grid Podcast.

Shaun: Thanks, Mike. Pleasure to be here. 

Michael: It's been about a week since I saw you. In that time, you've been turning tables relatively quickly at the new restaurant gracing us here at new Wynyard. Is that correct?

Shaun: Yeah, it's been wild. I have never seen lines like that for a new restaurant, it's like grab and go. I  see 20-minute lines. So, I think my mum always says, "Oh, close your eyes and visualise it." I closed my eyes and visualised it. But it's been big. It's been really, really well received, which is nice. 

Michael: That's great. Well, we'll come on to talk about Kabul Social very shortly, but I thought let's hit some context for listeners today. I've invited you on to, I think tell your story really, because it's one of those that I think is an inspirational one for me, at least in my role as 24-Hour Economy  Commissioner.

Shaun: Thanks, mate.

Michael: I hope that maybe others might be inspired by it as well. We've known each other a little while now. Like me, you turned your back on the corporate world at some stage. We've connected most recently when I found you at Colombo Social. But do you want to just give us a bit about your
background and how Colombo Social came to be?

Shaun: Yeah, so, the long short story is, I did probably 10 maybe years in finance. So, I've worked through the Royal Bank of Canada, Perpetual, Macquarie Bank, did that when I was at the UK and did a large project with the National Health Service there, and automated their systems, and did the  largest outsourced project that the NHS had done from automatization perspective. 

Then came back to Sydney and loved being home, but realised that there was something that my  mum had always said is doing something that had social purpose behind it. At that stage, the social enterprise space hadn't really kicked off. I worked with Norman Swan for a while for about five  years.

And during that process, we set up what is now called the Aboriginal Health Television Network and that was something that we worked with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health organisation, and Minister Wyatt at that time. We set up the Aboriginal Health Television Network and that was to give people from indigenous communities a platform and a voice to talk about their health journey in a positive way and kind of keeping languages alive in rural communities as well. So, a platform out-of-home media agency that sat in all the Aboriginal Medical Services and it was that really cool engagement to say, instead of, "You're 16 times more likely to die from," it was  changing the conversation to, "You're more likely to live because of these things." 

And the day that it was announced by the Minister I actually resigned, handed my notification in and realised that it had to be black owned at that point. So, five years of work and five years of setting  up that channel, it was time to go.

Michael: Were you working full time on that or were you still at Macquarie at the time?

Shaun: No, I was working full time. So, it was Tonic Health Media and I started to talk to Aboriginal Medical Services. We need this to be our own channel. So, I segued off, set up the Aboriginal Health Television Network to be a charity, and a not for profit, and worked on that. That was about three years. Yeah, that was the start of things that meant something to not only I suppose myself, but the  wider community and how do you use your day-to-day skills or privilege to make a positive impact on  people around you.

Michael: And so, this is about two or three years ago and you then looked around and thought, "Hey, there's a sector that needs me and it's hospitality. I'm going to go and change Sydney and  opened up on Enmore Road. Well, how did that come to be that story, that part of that? 

Shaun: That part, I suppose it happened many years ago in a way. My mum's an amazing cook. And the way that she would express her love to us was cooking really, really good food. We didn't grow up with a lot of money and stuff like that, but she would make miracles every day. I realised how powerful that  was, but I also realised how it united everybody and how it brought us all together. I'd have mates from all over - I went to a boarding school actually.

Michael: Whereabouts? 

Shaun: Went to Hurlstone, so, Glenfield.

Michael: I can see this now.

Shaun: [laughs] I was a day student. But we had the boarding school, but the boarders would eat my food or they come over and they realised, "Hey, this is really cool." We've got country boys  from wherever they were. We're talking like rural or nowhere.

Michael: Rural New South Wales.

Shaun: [laughs] Exactly. They'd come in and they'd realise that a lot of barriers were broken down because of that. At my best mate's wedding, we finished up and I took everybody home. There were about 20 lads. We went to mum's house and I kind of caught her and I said, "Can you cook something, because we're very intoxicated and we want some food?" So, we all got in a bus or something, went to mum's house, and she started cooking. And in 25 minutes, she pulled this dish off and everyone's like, "What is this? This is insane." We realised how powerful food can be. So, when it came down to it, you can't be racist while having a kebab or you can't be racist while eating something really, really delicious. So, we thought that that's a really good way to break down that. 

Being a first generation in Sydney, we didn't have many cool places to be - a migrant when we're  grown up. We're talking 20 years ago now. And you could go out to the western suburbs and have really, really authentic food and delicious, and I still do it regularly. My partner and I will always venture out to different areas trying to get really authentic food. But there was nothing that crossed both and cool fitout, really nice vibes and funky areas, but still homestyle food. So, we kind of went, let's do  something around that and the recipes are still mum's. So, we still get mum coming and teaching people, but we realised that to bring Sydney together, we could do it through something that was special and unique and a venue that celebrated not just me being Sri Lankan-Australian, but I think a lot of people from different cultures still come in there and say, "Hey, man, I might be Lebanese, or I might be Greek, or I might be somebody from Asia," or wherever it is. But they come in there and go, "Hey, man, I just want to be here, because it's cool." And that was really special.

Michael: I think one of the parts of the story that we may have skipped over, but looking into your
background, your own migration story or your family's migration story to Australia. 

Shaun: Yeah.

Michael: Yeah.

Shaun: Dad was what I think at the time was a skilled migrant. He was sponsored by his sister, but the skilled part changed when he got out here and had to requalify, actually. So, none of his  qualifications were recognised.

Michael: Yeah.

Shaun: But we were lucky enough to come out here. But my mum was Tamil. Tamil from Batticaloa, the east coast of Sri Lanka. And though they lived in Colombo, it was a pretty dangerous place. When they got the opportunity to come out here, I remember my aunt moved out here before that. I was actually born in Sydney, but my parents will tell me this a lot. She came out here and described this country. And my parents, they spent a bit of time in the Middle East, and they went back to Sri Lanka, and they looked at the opportunities that are in Sri Lanka, and they heard about this land, this land where you could get jobs, and you could have beautiful weather, and you could have these kinds of things that you'd never heard of and dream of. And escalators, my parents had never seen an escalator and things like that. And just what they described, my parents like, "This can't be true" and they took a chance and moved out here and realised what this country had to offer and they just never looked back at that point on.

Michael: And so, in terms of, so this Colombo Social we're talking about specifically at the moment, Sri Lankan restaurant, Enmore Road and in terms of its welcoming nature and having dined there, I think at Colombo Social, you, I guess, partly had the insight of creating opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees. Has that potentially helped with its inclusive, welcoming vibe, would to say and always had a stretch?

Shaun: No, it's not. It's not at all. The highlighting of the community and workforce in Australia right now is it's a very, very hot topic. To say that I've had five hospitality staff for two years, staff retention of 100% for that venue, well five have been consistent and then we've just had a lot of people train up and move on to different jobs that have never ever worked before. I've got 100% staff retention rate in Columbo Social, which in hospitality over the last two-and-a-bit years is unheard of. The retention rate at the charity, which we'll probably touch on later on is still pretty much the same.

We've had 101 people from marginalised communities come through our program. I think right now, our workforce is 75% people from communities that are opportunity-lacking and I think 50 of them are  till with us across the group right now. It is an unbelievable case study in the power of, sometimes unrepresented or unheard voices that can actually derive social inclusion, a sense of belonging, not only to them as individuals, them and their families and their communities, but also other people that come in there and see what is happening and seeing an 18-year-old shy person who doesn't speak English very well, blossom into the restaurant manager in the space of two years. Unheard of, kind of growth.

Michael: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? Because I guess, my background, I was running Time Out quite critical review. And I guess that you don't necessarily always focus on the experience beyond the meal in a way. And I guess, with restaurants like Colombo Social and now Kabul Social, which we’ll come and talk about, that is I think an indelible part of the experience of eating there. Before you were on to Kabul Social, I want to break down Plate It Forward, which is a not for profit that you're over-- Have I got that correct? You have to say that.

Shaun: Yeah.

Michael: But I think it might be helpful to-- You're running Colombo Social, things are going along well enough so to speak, but then the pandemic hits and what happens then? How did you manage to retain staff? How did you navigate that period? Where did you end up?

Shaun: Yeah. We shut down the restaurant on Sunday as part of the government mandate. We had a beautiful team of people who had taken chances on a start-up restaurant that was crazy, in terms of what it was representing, unqualified staff and things like that. We started to get to know their families, them as people, and them being really, really, really incredible. When we shut down, I remember walking on the Sunday, no one prepared you for this. No one knew--, you didn't know what was coming, so when staff asked you questions, we were all the blind leading the blind, and I walked in there and it was a Sunday night and I remember walking in, trying to be strong, get in there as I burst out in tears. I just stood there and everyone did not say, but you're crying. I remember I set this up. We're the most talked about restaurant for three months in a row and then suddenly, it's taken away from you. You didn't know what to do.

We sat there and went through that. And then I got phone calls from people and why I reference the Aboriginal Health Television Network is because the First Nations community in Redfern were doing a lot of work with Mission Australia trying to set up a different project with Mission Australia that represented Colombo Social, but with a different workforce and there were a few other organisations, they all called and they asked for help. And everyone's like, "Well, what can you do"? Because they knew that we've had long-term relationships and I said, "Man, I've got food. That's all I can do." So, we gave everyone Monday off and on Tuesday, we just went through our cool room and just went, "Well, this is also good food."

Michael: Yeah.

Shaun: Put it into boxes and I'll just take it out there. We got it out there and then that started something that we'd never ever dreamed off, which is where Plate It Forward kicked in. And about four weeks in, we had 27 charity partners donating about 3,500 meals a week across Sydney, just wild. We're getting exemptions because we're doing all this paperwork or just trying to get these meals going. We had all our team retained, besides some people who were living out in areas with little kids and I wasn't sure where the medical world would help and where it wouldn't help for people from-- people seeking asylum and who might not.

Michael: Yeah, that's an important point to mention because I think the story you're describing in context of hospitality, people understand in that everyone had to shut, and this wasn't universally applicable. Not everybody was given a government right to stay. But in your case, you had a staff comprising asylum seekers. I guess the safety net of-- Well, I don't know whether there was a safety net, but it wouldn't have felt there was one, it was happening so quickly. There you were with a team, all of whose livelihoods depended on you and you had to find a way to shoulder that. And then a week later, you're crunching out 27,000 meals a day or something. 

Shaun: Yeah. The one thing that we don't really talk about, I tell a lot of people, but I'll tell a podcaster -...

Michael: Sure.

Shaun: - is that for the people that we didn't think would qualify for benefits because people seeking asylum were ineligible and those who failed, I think that was happening. But we weren't sure about medical help. We just ask them for their bills, how much does it cost them to stay at home, how much they need to look after their families. We just put that in their money. We were lucky enough at the start to have a little bit of surplus funds. The restaurant was doing really well. We made a business  decision at that time to just make sure that we kept everybody safe and we went through our books and started to pay for everybody. We're not the only ones to do that, but we're dealing with a cohort of people that hadn't had the same family or you talk about the safety net. They didn't have that safety net that you could lean on. We became their quasi network to help out. So, we did that. And then we employed whoever we could. There were a couple of mates that were working in restaurants that couldn't get benefits. We just started to employ them. We burned through all our savings in the space  of, I think, two months and everything that we stored and then we asked the people to help out.

Michael: Yeah. And in terms of those corporate partners, because obviously, I think just observing your way of operating and the things you've been able to achieve, how have you gone about those corporate partners and what have they provided? I know I met a team from Mirvac and maybe Lendlease. I don't know, was it Lendlease, I'm not sure who it was, but there was kitchens, there was corporates. Tangibly, what have partners provided?

Shaun: Yeah, we've tried to make sure that our partnerships aren't financial and we asked for a lot of in-kind support. Commonwealth Bank, for example, very early on, we were put in touch with the South Eveleigh team. So, Mirvac from South Eveleigh and Commonwealth Bank from South Eveleigh just  said, "What do you need?" We said, "We're at capacity. We're an 80-seater restaurant. There's no way the equipment that we have can deal with this. We don't have it." They're like, "Cool. Well, we've got a brand new multi, multi, multimillion-dollar kitchen that staff aren’t in. It's yours." So, they opened their doors, let us in, gave some of their staff that was still on, and that's how we could actually meet  the demand at that point. And using the technology of one of the biggest kitchens in Sydney, yeah, it was that.

Mirvac have come to the party and donated spaces. When Commonwealth Bank had their staff returning, we couldn't both be in there. It's quite dangerous. We have a training school, which we'll talk about later on. But our students were in there. They're not trained chefs and stuff like that. Mirvac, they're like, "What do you need?" I said, "I need a space to be able to meet this new demand because that was during the next lockdown." They gave us a 450-square metre space in Darling  Harbour, they've donated a huge new space in Wynyard. Uber, when we were dealing with a lot of stuff with that recent lockdown and the newly arrived Afghan refugees came through. We were told that there were no clothes and they're just left with the clothes on the back and they're trying to get to  medical appointments. We're trying to move food everywhere through the Western suburbs and you had to get - Anyway, it was logistically a nightmare. So, I'll call it the biggest logistics company in the world. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Shaun: I spoke to their GM, Dom, who's an incredible man. And he just said, "Hey, man," I said like, "What are we doing?" I can't get my chef to be out for a day because I need to do 5,000 meals. I  can't actually do this. So, they then gave us a $50,000 Uber account and we moved every single newly arrived Afghan refugee to all their medical centres, we passed it on to another charity partner,  the Settlement Services International, and they started to move everybody to their medical appointments, vaccination clinics, temporary housing. So, that was Uber deputy kicked in with a huge amount of resources and funds. That was a big donor. AMP have donated a fair bit as well. 

A lot of the big banks and organisations have stepped in with some cash to help out. We've won a few grants from City of Sydney, which has been really, really, really nice to keep it ticking over, because  the more that we had been able to keep that way, we can keep more people on and employ more  people and run our training school. We've looked at a combination of in-kind and how does  organisations use their skill sets on their people and their true assets to actually make social change  that they might not be able to do on a day-to-day basis, but working collaboratively with other  organisations and not-for-profits, and the ecosystem, this is how we grew up in communities forever.  Everyone was doing their part. 

Michael: Part of what has brought us together today is a bit of a discussion really around, well, all of this is happening, of course, with the pandemic, you have the Afghanistan situation and you mentioned an influx of Afghani refugees. You've just launched Kabul Social, which is a restaurant in the MetCenter here in Wynyard. I think it's a 20-seater. No?

Shaun: 25.

Michael: 25-seater?

Shaun: 25. Yeah, it's right. 

Michael: 25-seater. It's open Mondays to Fridays, 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. I want you to tell us a little bit about this project. How long you've worked on it, and the process you've gone in terms of the idea, and who leads in a very practical way delivery of it? 

Shaun: Yeah, I suppose it happened all very quickly. We got asked by a couple of people to help out with the food for the newly arrived Afghan refugees that might not have been culturally appropriate food or food they could eat while they're in quarantine, where they first moved in. And migrant communities sometimes have never had an individual meal, I think it's very British-- [crosstalk]

Michael: Right. Yeah. It's shared as opposed to individual--

Shaun: Exactly. Yeah. My mum's never said, "There's your curry."

Michael: [laughs] Yeah.

Shaun: [crosstalk] curry and you get it. What we did, we recreated that with the fancy Providoor kits or those meal kits and we started donating large kits of like-- and it also make-your-own stuff. A mum who might have been used to cooking the whole time could actually recreate and do some dishes with that, but are still donating free.

Michael: Right.

Shaun: Then we started to do that to the newly arrived Afghan refugees. We started to meet them through various ways. That was at the same time that Mirvac had donated the space to us and said, "We want you to do something with it." I don't believe in chance. I don't believe in coincidence. That all happened at the same time. I remember walking down the stairs with my partner and she was just like, "What? What are you thinking?" I'm like, "Give me a sec." I said, "This has got to be Kabul Social." And she's like, “Nailed it,” started talking about it. And then we started to talk to some of the newly arrived Afghan refugees about this concept. We started to evolve it, and started to discuss it, and then started to get them on-board in an advisory capacity on how the restaurant could work. And we're talking about people that have never worked a day in their lives, people that have never ever stepped foot in a kitchen, let alone a workplace.

We took them on the ride and started to build this concept. It took about, I'd say six to eight months of months of planning, probably six months of planning and two months of just pure training. Getting people in, doing soft launches, giving them the skills. They've got financial literacy courses, they've got a whole heap of other support, they've got female mentors to help them out and a lot of things. But yeah, it was about eight months of planning before we opened the doors.

Michael: Yeah. The restaurant as it currently stands is now, your headcount may have changed in the meantime, but I think eight Afghani women, one Afghani man--

Shaun: [crosstalk] [laughs]

Michael: Muhammad. Yeah, shout-out to you, Muhammad. I know you are listening. And I think the thing to tease out here is who's telling the story. I think that's the key thing. It takes me back to the introduction around the television service.

Shaun: The Aboriginal Health Television.

Michael: Yes. And so, in terms of the menu design, the communications strategy, how has that process gone and are you learning the language?


Shaun: I can swear in Dari actually, which gives everyone a bit of a giggle. We've actually started to learn, everything gets translated into Dari, all our signage, everything's in Dari. But we actually got an English policy in the restaurant, so that they can start to learn as well. I think it's really important that they start to talk to customers and things like that. But they speak back-of-house in Dari that's completely fine. But there are certain areas when where we say, "Look, we want you to start to learn the language and talk to each other in English." I've never had a website built so slow in a beautiful way, and a social media strategy, and a communications strategy because everything has to get signed off by the women we talk about. There's no post that we do that doesn't include them and does get their sign off. Media releases, everything like that. We had an embargo because we weren't sure about the story and we wanted to make sure that the way that we're conveying that was done by them. So, it's a lot of talking to them.

What we don't talk about it, we don't talk about their past per se. It's not a sob story or it's not “this is what's happened” in a bad way. It's like this is where the future is, this is what we're doing, and this is the story of Roya, a female gender specialist, that's the technical term, but a female-- Oh, this is a tough one to pronounce, a female freedom fighter advocating for women's rights in Afghanistan and who couldn't stay there because of what happened. A woman who has braved everything to get out here. Other ladies who are in their 50s, who have never given work, whose family has been separated, but that's where their backstory is. But now, it's like, hold on, what they do every day is turn up and work and give them-- trying to pry a recipe out of most people is pretty difficult. They've just opened up their recipe books and be like, "No, no, this is what we think, this is how to do it, this is what we do, this is it." And they've shared it with us.

It's not easy to translate it from Dari into English to get exact measurements. But they've done it and they're there every day doing it. I think that story of eight women in a kitchen is unprecedented. I've never seen it anywhere. And of eight women who have never ever stepped foot into a commercial kitchen before, to have that it's powerful. There's a seven-month pregnant woman who's on-- like scrubbing. I'm like, "Can you not?" And they are like, "No, we do this." And I remember talking to Muhammad who you referenced and I said mate like-- I think he's got an MBA or something, highly qualified dude. And I'm like, "I know. I'm sorry. This is the job. This is it." And he said, "No, we are family. We do. We do." I'm like, "Far out, man." That kind of hits you. They treat that place not only as their own, but something that they're super proud of which is beautiful.

Michael: I wanted to just get a sense from you of another aspect of Kabul Social, which is as a
customer, you turn up, you buy a meal, enjoy the meal, but what else happens as part of that? 

Shaun: Look, you donate two meals. Everybody that comes in there, donates two meals as part of their transaction. They don't pay anything extra. It's just inbuilt into the way that it works. One meal will go to someone in Sydney, and then one meal will go to a family in Afghanistan, and we're doing that. In the first week, it was 1,156 meals that were donated from the venue. As of the seventh day, I think we're up to 1,800 meals that have been donated already from that venue. The reason that we've chosen to do this is, consumers want to do good. I think in Australia, we've actually got such a generous nature. The concept of mate helping mate has always been very true. The underdog story, however you want to say it, but we're a very generous nation and we're trying to make giving easy so that you don't feel you have to go and donate to charity. You can go, "Well, I'm going to pay $16 for a wrap or a burger here or I'll pay $16 for a wrap or a burger here."

Michael: Yeah.

Shaun: The price point hasn't changed, or the quality hasn't changed, or the level of service hasn't changed. We hope it's better. But there is also a giving on the backend of that, which allows people to walk away from the transaction and go-- It's the 'and' method. "And there was that. And there was that. And there was that. Oh, cool. They employed women who might not get a job. They employed asylum seekers, they employed people that are pregnant," whatever the case is. And then they also  donated meals and also the food was this. It's just that kind of thought process behind it.

Michael: It just does my head in the sense that I still don't understand how you do it in that-- I don't make light of the situation, because it's remarkable what you're doing. But it's a bit magic beans or something. I'm buying a meal, but somehow I'm imagining through corporate partnerships or some model that-- No, how does it work? What's--?

Shaun: Being rent free, thanks to Mirvac, has helped. Losing that big expense has just made that possible. But besides that, it just runs as a commercial business. We're well over our target labor cost, but that's okay because we're still doing something good with it. At this point, we actually, touch wood, it kind of continues, but it actually turned to profit first week, if we were just taking it on pure numbers, which is remarkable. I thought we’d never hit that. So, we've been able to do that. But it's just about being really smart around our costs, really smart around things and being as diligent as possible and factoring in at the start that huge cost. The biggest cost that we have is the donation actually and then labor.

Michael: Yeah, right.

Shaun: Factoring that in and then going with this and telling the team be very-- The reason why we are doing this is because of the donation, and the employment, and the training. So, just always when we're doing them, let's be smart about it, so that we can make sure that the longevity of the program stays that people get fed continually and we're all driving for that same mission. Sometimes, you get charities where you get a big funding hit, cool, you can go do something, but then you got to go out again like what we want to do is give charities that we partner with in Afghanistan and charities that we partner with Australia like consistent revenue, so they can say, "Look, I can bank on this coming through and I know that we can therefore feed 500 people a day" or whatever it is because people don't choose when they're hungry. They are hungry all the time. So, being able to do that with predictive and measurable stability allows programs to continue on in perpetuity with the impact that it deserves and needs.

Michael: It is a remarkable story. I think for listeners, probably it's $17 to $20 for a meal, it's good quality food, made with love right in the middle of the city in a market where-- unique stories. And as you say, I think Sydneysiders, visitors to the city seeking out and finding something unique is all the more better as a citizen of the city. No wonder you've been awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community Award in 2021 and congratulations on that.

Shaun: Thanks. Yeah.

Michael: No doubt it's not why you've done any of this, but it's nice to be acknowledged. I want to understand a couple more things while we have our time together. One is about there'll be people listening to this in the hospitality sector who are facing staffing challenges. And I think trying to be constructive about it, like it isn't necessarily where the conversations go about how to replace the labor force in context with so many people left. But you're working with asylum seekers and you were mentioning just in the pregame about another effort that you're engaging on, do you just want to talk about that?

Shaun: Yeah. So, what we've got is probably our flagship programme, actually, we call it Ability Social. It is a training school. While it sounds romantic to hire people from seeking asylum, there're a lot of things that we have to do in the background. A lot of soft stuff. We have HR managers, we have support workers, a whole heap of things. It is challenging and there's a lot more training and dedication, especially in a fast-paced restaurant.

Michael: Can I just want to make it clear here. Beyond the involvement of the staff in the restaurant, you're providing them with support services beyond that, which include language skills, which include social service depending on their needs.

Shaun: Yeah. There're a few things that we just going to have to do and sometimes that's partner organisations, Commonwealth Bank might do the financial literacy or there might be a caseworker that we check in with to make sure that they're fully supported. But the meal, I'll probably tell you the story of how it all started. It was when we're sitting around it, I got nine elders from Redfern to come through to Colombo Social once the lockdown was lifted. I said, "Hey, are we doing the right thing?" With the restaurant, you get Google reviews, you know if you screw up or not. But in a charity, you don't have the one-on-one conversations with the person.

We've got nine of them around, they looked uncomfortable. And Colombo Social is not fancy, but it's a restaurant. And I'm like, "Is everyone okay?" They're like, "Well, no." I'm like, "Have you guys been to a restaurant like this?" Seven of them had never been to a restaurant in their life. These are very, very renowned and community leaders. I'm like, "Shit, that's not right." And I asked Auntie Linda and she said, "Oh, look while people are bored they do dumb things, can you give them a job?" That made me think, "Well, if I've got to employ people to cook, why don't we employ people from the communities that we're feeding to cook?"

Hopefully, they do a bit of a better job because they're cooking for their families. But also, we're looking at building long-term skills and looking at labor, like where is their labor shortages and where do they need people and that was the hospitality sector, especially in the kitchens. So, we started what we call Ability Social, which is a six-month paid program for people from indigenous communities. We've got 50% indigenous and then this cohort is actually 75% indigenous. And then people either living with a disability, recovered from addiction, previously incarcerated, or wherever their background is where they weren't able to get a job, and getting them to come in there and can pay them.

The whole concept is, it doesn't matter what you're doing, you can hang out with celebrity chefs, you can do whatever it is, but you're getting paid for it. We teach them the soft skills, we teach them life skills, we teach them cooking skills. We actually start this on Monday. And it's a guy who can't get custody of his kids even though his wife has addiction issues, because he's indigenous and doesn't have a job and a man. So, we're like, "Well, this isn't right." We're doing that now. That's something that really grounds us and gives us the focus and allows our chefs to pass on knowledge.

I've got guys that have been in hatted restaurants and been all over the world. They've come back and went, "Well, we want to give back to our city as well," and they're doing this. Everyone gets paid. For them, it's just a job where they can fulfill their social purpose while doing something and pass on the baton. And yeah, it's a beautiful program. First time that we did it was 100% graduation rate and 100% employment round the backend of that. We had to stop because of COVID and now we're restarting it.

Michael: What I liked about Kabul Social in particular, because I felt it more acutely there. Maybe it's because I've got an Indian background and haven't dined that often at Colombo Social. But it's taking what would otherwise potentially be a negative image of a place far away and presenting not in an illegitimate way, but in a genuine way, an experience of Afghani culture here in Sydney in a way that celebrates Afghani culture.

Shaun: 100%, 100%.

Michael: I think that that's just something really important to reflect on. But are there other things that you think could be being done by industry, by government? And yeah, it's a very complicated matter, this. So, I guess, I'm not-- try and maybe give me a couple of things to think about if you can.

Shaun: Yeah. We've naively got a goal for our catering company. We do high-end catering and that's cooked by the students or a lot of the people from our communities that go out there. A lot of it's not drop-off catering, a lot of it is deep catering. So, we're doing stuff where we actually have the community members speaking about the dishes. They come up with the dishes with us, we then recreate it, it might be a recipe that they've had and then we take it out there to people. We've done that with C-suite boards. We've done that with high, the powerful people, the decision makers for our communities and why we do that is because you could potentially get to chat to somebody over food, hear a story and then think about them when you're making a decision at a board level or think about them when you make a decision at a government level or when you're making decisions. Having someone that you've met and known and been able to talk to or connect with and realise your similarities versus your differences, that's really important. I've had lawyers from very, very successful law firms that are partners. 

Then there was one of our indigenous chefs talking about watching wrestling or supporting Parramatta Eels or whatever it is. You could take this man who's probably making, I don't even know, squillions of dollars, and a guy who had brain damage and never worked a day in his life before he started with us and never even thought about cooking. And you say, you're going to be able to talk for two and a half hours. If I'm going to have to go in there physically say, "Can you guys stop because I need you to start working" and you've never even dreamt of that. But then for them to come together and be talking all night and getting along and having jokes and stuff like that, that's where we go, that can change decisions forever, and that's where we want to do it.

I think where we come to with a lot of these programs and why we do it over food in particular, but what we think about is if we're all the same, some people's opportunities might not have been equal, but when we start to see that, when we start to have those kind of deep conversations with someone that you might never have dreamed of. And again, I'll reference mum, but she said Oprah-- One day, she was watching Oprah and she said, "Everyone has a story. You look at everybody-- how many people there are in the city, but there's millions in Sydney, but you walk past everybody and they've all got the same deep desires to be loved, to be cared for, to be fed, to be looked after and have fun." 

Everybody's got the same desires in life and you go past everybody, you look at them, and you go, "Hold on, they've got a backstory? That's probably similar to mine. They've got yearnings and cravings, and thoughts and desires, and hopes and dreams that are exactly to me? They might differ in certain ways, but that doesn't mean that they're very different at all." We start to build that empathy towards each  other. I think you start to think about things a little bit differently, and you start to see people differently, and yourself reflected in them versus yourself being like, "I'm 6'3". I'm a big dude. I'm not very light."


Shaun: But yeah, I've got stuff in common with people. I think the workforce does that. When you work with people, then you go away. But when you're sitting on the train or you're walking down the street, you realise that, "Far out, man. We're all the same." And that thought process is where we want the world to be.

Michael: Hmm. Quite a bit there to reflect on. I think it's well just to make it clear as and correct me if I'm wrong, but if I can call it a program that you're running as you have asylum seekers, refugees, acclimatized into their new environment, the ambition isn't necessarily to keep them behind the counter at Kabul Social. But if someone was studying law and that is to get them back on their pathway - maybe that person needs career advice as a recovering lawyer myself, but [Shaun laughs] maybe they can go off and spread their wings here in Australia and contribute in other ways in the community?

Shaun: Exactly. And that's the beauty of having the corporate partnerships. We've got some of the law firms that are mentoring women that were studying law in Afghanistan and couldn't anymore. So, we're building career pathways and mentorship for them from a very, very senior women lawyers. There's hospitality people, some people will want to stay in hospitality. So, we've got them with really good restaurant managers or chefs from across Sydney to mentor them and to look at where they want to go. There's a two-way conversation. One conversation is what do we do in the immediate and what skills do you need to get out there and then where you want to be in the future and what can we do and who can we introduce you to and have those kinds of conversations, so that they can get there? Hopefully, not too soon, because we really like them and they're great. But where they want to be in their life is something that we're quite interested in as well.

Michael: Shaun, it's been a great afternoon chatting. It's located in the MetCenter shop number-

Shaun: J15.

Michael: -J15.

Shaun: [laughs] It's a big blue

Michael: You can't miss it. If you are somewhere near the McDonald's in Wynyard, hang a left and it's
royal blue-

Shaun: Royal blue.

Michael: -which I learned is quite distinctively Afghani isn’t it, and used in celebrations and things like that. So, make sure you do get down and check it out. You've been doing good for yourself and for the community and for the people serving you. But the one question I will ask you to wrap up is, I like to think of The Neon Grid, which is a metaphor in the 24-hour economy, how Sydney lights up at different times of day and night. What's one experience of your area or your community that you'd most like to share with others?

Shaun: Ooh, good question. The one area that I'd love to share is that Enmore Road I think it was the coolest street in in Australia, is it?

Michael: Well, in Sydney.

Shaun: In Sydney? Yes.

Michael: I think I made the list of the world's coolest streets via a leading publication [laughter] that I no longer have any connection to.

Shaun: I think that's something that's quite powerful is that spirit of community. Enmore Road has a community that I've never seen anywhere in the world. It's an eclectic mix of all nationalities, all different kind of operators that have been there for 20 years from suburbia to the new inner west hip place that it is. But we all coincide and we all get along. And to me that's the pure ecosystem of a community. All different, but all united. We go down the street and you-- I remember going to the street with one of my mates, he was like, "Are you a celebrity? Is the ?" I'm like, "No, that every business owner just gets along with each, or every staff, or every regular--" We see our regulars go through like we go to every single bar and they’re there after they join us. I think that that represents what we love about Sydney is that collectiveness and that kind of universal nature of it, which is beautiful.


Michael: Well, what a great way to finish the podcast. Shaun Christie-David, thanks very much for your
contribution to Sydney and for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Shaun: Thanks. Thanks, Mike. Thanks, everyone.

Michael: Thanks for listening to The Neon Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get
involved with our efforts to reimagine Sydney’s 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid Newsletter.

You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website which is at investment.nsw.gov.au  or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues on LinkedIn. And as
always, Carpe noctem.

Episode 5. Alison Page

Honouring Story Telling and The Eora Nation In Sydney’s Built Environment


Alison: When I talk about all Australians engaging with Aboriginal culture, it's not just that's because it's the right thing to do, and it's righting the wrongs. I've never approached it like that. Aboriginal culture is an incredibly beautiful culture.

[Neon Grid Podcast theme]

Michael Rodrigues: Welcome to the Neon Grid Podcast. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Stories of people and place is my response when asked what's at the heart of Sydney's 24-hour Economy Strategy. From Brookvale to Balmain, from Harris Park to Hurstville, Sydney is blessed with a diverse and temperate environment. We've got beaches, mountains, waterways, urban landscapes, and everything in between. We're also the second most multicultural city on the planet, as waves of migration have brought cultural practice and traditions from all four corners. These colours, these ingredients are a storyteller's dream. But undoubtedly, the most unique part of Sydney's identity is Eora. The 29 clans whose land on which many of us live, work and play, bounded by those three mighty rivers, the Hawkesbury to the north, the Nepean to the west, and the Georges to the south. 

As we go about our work delivering on the strategy, I'm often struck by the disproportionate impact the built environment has on our storytelling mission. Done well, architectural icons and considered development can enable our engagement with place and add to that storytelling tradition. Now, the built environment is in relative terms, a recent adornment to a multi-millennia old place. So much about Aboriginal heritage is, well, at least to my untrained eye, obscured from view. How do we uncover, go deeper, engage with our history, and ensure that it takes pride of place in Sydney’s story? Hoisted proudly for residents and visitors to our city to embrace, to respect, to honour, and to share. 

Joining me today on the Neon Grid Podcast is Alison Page, award winning designer, film producer, author, and now adjunct associate at the University of Technology's design school. I want to chat to Alison about Aboriginal storytelling here in Eora and in particular, the role of the modern built environment. I’m keen to pick her brain about how the 24-hour Economy Strategy for Sydney can facilitate that storytelling. If this topic piques your interest, be sure to check out Alison's book, which she co-authored with Professor Paul Memmott, it's called Design: Building on Country. But for now, I hope you enjoy my interview with the one, the only Alison Page.

Alison Page, it took us a while to finally connect. I'm very pleased to see you over a virtual format today, but I'll be even more pleased when we can meet in person. Welcome to the Neon Grid Podcast. 

Alison: Thanks for having me.

Michael: We are going to cover a few things today. I want to touch on our first meeting [chuckles] in person, which has left an indelible imprint on my mind about the place of, I guess, First Nations Aboriginal culture and the storytelling of Sydney. But also, a bit about your professional work, if you want to call it that these days, and the impact and influence that it may be having, may in the future have. But in terms of your story, do you want to just tell us about your own background, and please, in
terms of-- my notes tell me your lineage is Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation, is that correct?

Alison: You did all right there.

Michael: I think it's right that I acknowledge I'm on Gadigal land in this instance and pay my respects to elders past and present. I feel very privileged to be in your company now. So yeah, tell us about you. 

Alison: Yeah. You're sitting in my country. I'm sitting up in Coffs Harbour in Gumbaynggirr land, which is where I've spent the last 20 years. I'm from La Perouse in Sydney. So, the heartland of the NRL, [laughs] which is a great place for an artist to grow up [laughs] and not be sporty at all. Until roller skating is recognized as a serious sport, I'll never be a sportsperson, Mike.

Michael: Ah, well, let's see what we can do. I don't know if we will solve this one on the podcast.

Alison: [laughs] But, yeah, I grew up in LaPa and I have five sisters. We're sort of all artistic really, we're all creatives. We can tell you exactly the fastest way to get from Redfern Oval to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Michael: [laughs] What is that, by the way? How would you recommend that? That's good intel. Alison: Sydney's a great city to walk around because it's all based on the original walking tracks. So, all of the roads go along ridges. I used to live in Kings Cross and work in Central, so I used to just walk across that ridge and down over that saddle to Central it’s so fast, so good. Not a great city to drive around, but a great city to walk around. 

Michael: Well happily, I think the pandemic has spurred more of us into active transport these days, we're getting fresh air along those well-beaten tracks, I guess. Mentioning, I guess your LaPa upbringing and artist’s creativity, I guess that took you in different directions throughout your career, if I can call it that. I know ‘career’ is a great word to describe it though, but your life's journey, shall we say?

Alison: Yeah. It's interesting I got into interior design, because I was one of those kids that was always fixing up the house. Even though I grew up in ‘houso’ and we had a pretty crappy house, my sisters and I were really avid op-shoppers. And I think we developed our eye for design and good design, shopping for clothes and nice things for the house kind of thing and I got into interiors. I won a Lego competition, that was a huge part of why I got into design or the way I even found out about design. It's not like kids from poor upbringings go, "I'm going to be an interior designer." [laughs] Interestingly, I did go and study interiors at UTS, but by my third year, I had this major sort of depression because I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I'm going to just be designing restaurants and bars for hedonistic culture," and everything. There wasn't sort of sustainable design back then. Interiors, particularly, were being kind of ripped out every five years, the MDF was everywhere, which is a really toxic sort of substance. It's just everywhere. By the end of third year, I'm looking at my HECS statement, I'd sort of thought I'd made a dreadful mistake! 

And then, this great thing happened to me. I had this lecturer that was head of interiors at the time George Verghese, who's from Canada. And he said, "Have you ever thought about looking into Aboriginal architecture?" I tell this story many times, but hearing those two words together, it was like the world completely expanded right at that point. And that led me on a path to meeting Douglas Cardinal who's a First Nations architect from Canada. And then, I met Kevin O'Brien and Dillon Kombumerri, who were working at the government architect's office. And yeah, once I’d forced my way into a job with them, the rest has been this really amazing journey that I would never have really thought it possible that I could put my culture and this industry that was so far removed from a values point of view together. I really didn't think that the building industry, construction, interior design, these things that I associated with rich people, I just didn't think that they could live together as meaningfully as they have for me in the last 22 years.

Michael: Do you see that as a part of the journey that we're on though? One of amongst many things that prompted me to invite you on was, I look at the role that has been entrusted to me as kind of a storytelling role for Greater Sydney in the first instance. And then, I find myself thinking about, and this is a bit semantic, but as a former publisher, I draw the distinction, I think of myself more as a publisher. As in I don't tell the stories, but can I create a platform for storytelling and then invite other people to tell the story? What are stories of culture then becomes the question of people and place. I find one of the challenges is the impact of the built environment on storytelling in that, once it's built, it sort of sets the landscape or some hard parameters, if that makes sense for the story that can be told. I find, and you're a very straight-talking person, I like to think of myself like that. This is sort of NAIDOC week almost, the timing of this podcast, which is happen chance, but we're at this point where there's increasing recognition, as late as that's come but how do we really elevate those stories, particularly of Aboriginal people in Sydney, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders more generally, in the context of a land that's been built over? Sometimes, I find it a bit challenging.

Alison: Well, that's right because for 250 years, the built environment has been weaponised really as a way of, I think, muffling the voice of country or the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you look at something, a place like Tubowgule, for instance, which is the site where the Sydney Opera House is now, that place, that word 'Tubowgule' means place where the knowledge waters meet. So, that is a place where the Tank Stream flowed out into Warrane, which is Circular Quay. So, the freshwater and the salt water were mixing there, very high-nutrient kind of waters where they would have been a lot of fish. So, the shell middens that were found on that site were 12 meters high. So, they're just absolutely massive. 

When the first fleet rolled in, for thousands of years, people would have just sat there and danced and sang and ate food and told countless stories around campfires, which is kind of interesting to think about that's kind of what we do on that site right now, with the Opera House. But the first thing that they did was rename it. So, they put cattle on it. And then, they renamed it Cattle Point. And then they, I think, realised that those shells were a really great resource for making concrete, for making foundations of the original buildings that came along after that on Macquarie Street and First Government House where the Museum of Sydney is now. So, they called it Limeburners Point. And then, after Macquarie had the bromance happening with Bennelong, they put a house on there for him, so then they called it Bennelong Point.

Back to the buildings on Macquarie Street, they're literally using the remnants of all of those countless stories, and campfires and knowledges that were shared, as the foundation to build buildings that are from another place. Like, "Let's get buildings from England, and just transplant them here." It's not even about just the voices of Aboriginal people. This is about the voice of country. There's no consideration for the wind direction, the sun, nothing like that. They just wanted to recreate this hyperreal landscape that looked like England in this offshore detention centre that they built here, you know what I mean? It's cooked. So, the built environment, I think everything that we're doing now, in terms of integrating country into the built environment or seeing country as an extension of the natural environment and how Aboriginal people view the natural environment is about, I think, de-weaponising it, or actually just seeing design as an act of power, seeing architecture as an act of power in the sense that it can amplify voices instead of just muffling them out.

Michael: Can I just interrogate this a bit further? I've got over my fear of saying the wrong thing. I'll say that one of the common questions I'm asked now in my role a bit increasingly is acknowledgements of country and people are getting over their, firstly, the fear of doing it. And then, it moves through this cycle where people are then slightly uncomfortable because it becomes a perfunctory component to any engagement, and then is it meaningless or is it meaningful, etc. What I've seen in the last three months also is a real acceleration in that beginning of a ritual for whatever that is, and more emphasis being directed to, firstly, turning from acknowledgement to welcomes and making sure that you do that, and then give a platform for that.

Where I'm going with this is that's the kind of thing that you can do almost as an event. I’m probably picking the wrong word here, but I can pick that up and put that in, in a sense. But with the built environment, the lead time is somewhat longer, [chuckles] in the sense that you've got the existing build environment, you've got new things that you're working on. How rapidly-- and I don't know whether the speed is the great measure, but how visible can we expect that to be?

Alison: It's a good question. I make a lot of comparisons with the environmental sustainability in architecture. So, in the late 90s, that just became a bit of an early conversation, it was a dialogue, people kind of referred to it. There started to be some people who could understand it, and even interpret it in the built environment. Now, I look back at that and it's interesting to me how, I think, architecture and the construction industry is leading the way in terms of sustainability. Really, they're talking about opening up drains in cities now and reinstating the rivers. So, the Tank Stream that we just spoke about, that's in a drain, it's been incarcerated into a drain, and it's underneath Pitt Street. And look, one day, we might release it again, and actually have a river running through that street. That's where the sustainability movement is thinking. 

I just have to be a prisoner of hope and say, "Well, I hope that the Black Design Movement--" which is very related to the sustainability movement, of course, but I hope that it progresses as advanced as that is, and maybe even in a shorter timeframe, because a big part of what Aboriginal design is about sustainability. But engaging people in this kind of meaningful connection to place and instilling within them through that ritual that you talk about, through that dialogue and that relationship that you talk about, there's ways Aboriginal cultural practices including rituals, and ceremonies like welcomes, are a really great way to fast track that connection to country so that you have this compulsion to care for it. It's your homelands, and so you must care for it. 

Michael: I think, and maybe without being an expert in the areas that you're talking about, sustainability, and I guess it's that amplification of two things at a time, which might create more momentum say, but I guess you're always then faced with the question of what is the right approach to it? And let's not have a false start. Where I'm going with this is particularly around, I think you used the word there 'black design' there, did you?

Alison: Yeah. 

Michael: How do we have people of your calibre, ilk, and command of the issues lead that process? I would have mentioned this in the intro, I think your Design: Building On Country was a book that I'm midway through reading, I think, is one source of information, I guess. But do you feel that we've got the right leadership? Is that the right word to use as well? 

Alison: Yeah. Look, there's not many Aboriginal practitioners in architecture and design. It's just a reality, and it's been that reality for a really long time. We all know each other. We are encouraging young people to study it. I think, at the moment-- and I'll park that the solution to that problem aside,
because I do have one. [chuckles] 

Michael: I'll get that out of you before this podcast. 

Alison: [laughs] You will. But I think we need to be put in as-- and this is what's happening on a lot of projects now is that we're being put on as design directors, or we're leading projects. So, it's not just, here's an architectural team delivering quite a big infrastructure project. Here's an Aboriginal sub-consultant, that's not-- I think that does happen. Look, I'm not going to lie. And I think that this is the reality is that we can't be afraid to just push on because like with sustainability, there was always that spectrum of people who were just ticking a box and doing it because it was a regulation, but their heart wasn't in it. But now, I think what's been demonstrated to the market is that there is value. The people who are buying these apartments or living in these neighbourhoods do want sustainable places. So, the landowners are on to that now, and they lead with that. And I think that's what will happen in this instance.

What I'm finding with designing with country on a lot of teams that I'm on now is that we're using the framework of connecting with country to define the narrative of the project and the values of the project, and which is why it's not something that you can just subcontract out, like every member of the team. And these are massive teams, some of these teams are 30, 40 people, they all have to be singing from the same song sheet, they have to be across this cultural narrative. And really buying into these values of the project for it to work and for it to have meaning. 

Michael: A couple of quick questions. The connecting with country framework, excuse my ignorance, is that something that people can look up, or is that a generic reference you've made there?

Alison: Yeah. Dillon Kombumerri, who I worked with at the Government Architect's office 22 years ago, he stayed there. Kevin, and I went off and did our own practice, but he stayed. One of the achievements he's been able to get across the line is developing this regulation that all developments in New South Wales have to have a Connecting with Country framework in order for the planning permissions to be approved. So, that's massive, because I think without that regulation, I'm not sure we'd see this sort of acceleration that we're seeing now. But, of course, that does come at a cost because in the industry, there's actually not enough practitioners, that's the honest truth, for it to be done perfectly every time.

Michael: You mentioned and as the hard-hitting ex-journalist that I am, is going to push you on your solution there. Is it partly around-- I'm going to throw down a hazardous guess, which I'll be a car crash on, but I'm conscious in other areas of education, this idea of-- not micro-credentialing as such, that's one of those buzzwords flying around at the moment, but it's a bit like lifelong education and so forth. I came up, and I'm not going to hazard a guess as to age, but let's say, I was educated in the 90s, graduated in 2000-ish, but it's very vocational thing. You can't be an engineer until you've done all this stuff, you can't be a lawyer till you done all this stuff, in my case. But is there an element where you can accelerate people through a bit and not necessarily wait for the piece of paper at the end, and thereby empower a greater number of people, is that kind of where your head's at or--? 

Alison: It's more about educating the Aboriginal community to get their head around this thing called design and architecture, because we're just going to have to. Aboriginal people didn't have the written word. How we remembered the vast amounts of cultural and ecological data that we needed to survive was that we wrote it into geographic locations through storytelling. So, we would have a piece of information about fishing or a piece of information about hunting, there would be this fictional story told. Then, that story would be embedded into these physical locations. It would also be written into song, dance, decoration that would go on the body through ochre. So that as you walk through country over time, repeatedly, and you walked past that place, that data would come back to you, you would remember it. So, it was a mnemonic system of learning, that involved everything around you in terms of your three-dimensional environment, including the material world. 

So, when you start to bring man-made objects into that system of learning, which is songlines essentially, then those objects and those things that you create, also  become these opportunities for you to record the library of the dreaming, to upload and download that information as you needed it, which you really needed it right? Look, other cultures have these ‘memory palaces’, I think, they call them in Turkish culture. There are other cultures that use this mnemonic system. If we're saying that is
the definition of country, that country is a physical place, but it also contains this story element, which contains all of our traditional knowledge and science and artistic practice, cultural practice, social mores, everything is all written into the land, then, of course, we've got to see the built environment as an extension of country. So, if we want Aboriginal people to be the authors, or the co-authors of those stories, as we bring more and more and more material items into that world, then we're just going to
have to train them up. So, my solution, you ready? Drumroll.

Michael: [mimics drumroll]

Alison: [laughs] I've actually just come on as an associate dean at UTS in the Design Architecture and Building Faculty to start a centre of Designing with Country, so that we can not only offer short courses to communities who might be being asked for the first time to consult on massive infrastructure projects. And they're hearing a whole new language, they're seeing drawings they don't understand. They're dealing with timeframes that go against everything their culture [laughs] is espousing, like come
in and do a short course just to help you with that. Offering courses, I think, to corporates who might want to look at a new opportunity, a new project, or a new idea, and workshop it over 5 days or 10 days through an indigenous lens, right through to actually undergraduate courses where we're going to train up more architects and designers and practitioners, because frankly, that's what we need. 

The value of how can you teach a lifetime of cultural knowledge and traditional knowledges that have been passed on from generation to generation over thousands of years? It's not really something that you're going to get ever competency in. Although in saying that, I do think that there are a whole host of non-Indigenous architects and practitioners that do get it, and they do create space within their practice and the way they run projects for that conversation to happen.

Michael: Yeah, and I suppose it's like leveraging of that. There's the coalition of the willing, as in many other instances where with a bit of your contribution, as you've articulated there, you can take advantage of the other skills that people have, whether they're indigenous or not, I suppose. And is that a relatively recent appointment? Is that published? Excuse my ignorance in not knowing but congratulations, and when can we sign up for these courses?

Alison: It's okay. I've got about 28 followers on my Instagram. [Michael laughs] I don’t think anyone's heard about it. It's really recent. So, it's only been in the last month or so. And it's really come out of-- it was lovely for me to go back to UTS and finish, also considering I was so depressed when I studied there, it's really great to come back and create, I think, a school within the faculty that, or a design lab, really, I'd like to call it that, because I want it to be really active in terms of how it is using designing with
country in the real world with real projects. And giving students, I think, especially Aboriginal students-- like the ideal student really is, sure, we want young, fresh, straight-out-of-high-school Aboriginal students, but also middle-aged women who have got so much cultural knowledge, and so much experience. We can teach you that kind of design, technical sort of skill. But really, all of these projects are really needing that kind of rich history and that knowledge and that experience. And also, I think this
is where we're going to start to see really socially responsible design as well, because we'll start to pull designers from parts of society that designers never engaged with, really. I mean, people from houso, they don't go, "I'm going to be an interior designer," "I'm going to be an architect." They just don't.

Michael: I want to ask, in the context of that question, I started earlier which led us to this point. Are there examples in the visible, say to Sydneysiders of what ‘good’ looks like, in terms of how country is integrated into the modern build environment, if I can put it that way? 

Alison: Look, I reckon we're probably going to start to see some pretty amazing projects come to life in the next five years, because I know there's a lot of projects in the planning right now that are just going to blow people away. It's one of those things where there's a few little gems. Look, I know that Barangaroo development didn't start out as a designing with country project as such, in terms of they didn't fully engage with community in the first instance, but it's an act of will to take a concrete slab and
rebuild what was there before. I look at that project, and I think, "Wow." It used to be the highest point in the harbour for surveillance, the deepest part of the harbour for fishing. People were camping there for thousands and thousands of years. And then, the maritime industry moves in, and over time, just bulldozes the place into submission. Blows it up. And there's so many sites around Australia where headlands have been blown up. They've been blown up, and they're gone. 

So, for the state government to turn around in 2006 and have this plan to reinstate the original shoreline and to reinstate the headland, albeit with this underbelly underneath which has become one of Sydney's favourite cultural spaces, I think, is a really big part of rematriating country and reconnecting with culture.

Michael: In the pregame, we were talking little bit about the importance of symbols or examples, or however you want to put it, but do you want to just comment a bit about the return of Me-mel or ‘Goat Island’, I suppose to indigenous ownership. Maybe it's not exactly a great example, in terms of the build environment, but in terms of what its impact now is and where we are and any other examples like that, that can be catalyst for change?

Alison: I think the rematriation of country in terms of its return to traditional owners is really super important because, I think, it's going to be critical in terms of us getting out of this environmental predicament that we’ve found ourselves in. We need to hand country back to traditional owners so that they can look after it because that's, I think, critical to all of our survival. The return of country, especially in city areas like this and the harbour, is really interesting too, because in Sydney, there is
this, I think, renaissance in a weird sort of way or a reclamation of Sydney by its traditional owners. So, there's really interesting kind of work being done there about people linking themselves back to ancestors who were recorded on Sydney Harbour in 1790 and things like that, which I think has been a long time coming. And as you get these massive metropolises, we can't let it run away from us so much like in North America, where there's just no voice for Indigenous people there at all. It's almost too far
gone, and all of their rights are just being wound back at a million miles an hour. 

I think we've got this chance in Australia to actually right the wrongs. Yes, it's stolen land. But I think there's a way where we can always stand back on the beach with Captain Cook and have a dialogue whereby, we design an Australia moving forward where there is a greater ownership and custodianship by Aboriginal people.

Michael: I just want to throw a few random things at you. Like, just work in your own portfolio and some of it I appreciate might be confidential or may not be seeing yet the light of day in a visible sense. But is there things that you're proud of being associated with or working on or have worked with other people that you'd like to talk about?

Alison: Yeah. Like this year's been a cracker. I'm working on the Bays West Development, which is over in White Bay, which is a former coal power station that's being converted now into a beautiful public space, and a beautiful development. What was really good about that was that we came up with this idea of creating a water songline. Okay, so saying, again, if knowledge is the power of the future, how can we create a library out of this site? Looking at the old building that the power station is in that can be a library with books in it. But then seeing the rest of the site, the public realm is this opportunity to create a songline about water country and sea country where every day when people go on their morning walk, they will be able to discover things, learn things, because of the landscaping, the architecture, all of the built and the grown elements, and maybe even digital elements will speak to them and teach them things about that country Plus, we're using the site itself, we're going to be able to bring the water in from the harbour and filter it through salt marsh gardens, so we're actually cleaning the harbour and creating little motels for the endangered seahorses that are in there as well. That's, I think, an example of how you can look at a development like Bays West and bring some depth and meaning and storytelling and connection to country to it.

The other thing I've just done has been a huge-- It was a project that has its origins 16 years ago. I was at a wedding, and I had a conversation with the head designer for Breville, and we were just talking because we're both designers. I said, "Hey, you should really do a range of Aboriginal products, like coffee machines, and kettles and stuff." We were talking about, "Imagine if you every day when you went into your kitchen, this is the library of the dreaming was there and you wrap these appliances with
country, and it speaks to you," blah, blah, blah. Anyway, nothing happened. 

But then 13 years later, so three years ago, the same guy, Richard Hall, rings me and says, "Hey, remember that conversation we were having?" So in just May, this year, we launched the Aboriginal Culinary Journey, which is a project where we've had four artists. Lucy Simpson, who lives in Sydney, she's a Yuwaalaraay woman from out at Lightning Ridge. Amazing designer. And three artists who are part of the Pintupi Nine, who walked out of the desert in 1984, and saw white man for the first time. 
They are the other three artists. We've created a range of six appliances that are about to travel the world and be the voice for country, I think, globally, which will be unreal.

Michael: That's two amazing examples. Very, very exciting. All right. Have you got any advice for me in my role in what I'm trying to do? Do you want to share?

Alison: [laughs] Have you got a spare couple of days?


Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I'll come up and visit you.

Alison: When I talk about all Australians engaging with Aboriginal culture, it's not just that's because it's the right thing to do, and it's righting the wrongs. I've never approached it like that. Aboriginal culture is an incredibly beautiful culture. What we did traditionally, say in a city like Sydney, we worked about 7 to 14 hours a week, which was ironically, boating, camping, fishing. 

So, the thing that everybody in Australia does on the weekend, boating, camping, fishing, Aboriginal people did that as a job. And then, the rest of the time, they just spent making art, and engaging in culture and ceremony and dance and song, and hanging out with their families and having a pretty good time in a pretty temperate sort of climate, and living a sustainable existence as well. I think all Australians, whilst we were sort of called savages, we know now that that's actually probably quite an advanced way to kind of look at culture and look at the way that we go about our day-to-day existence. So much of our existence, as Australians and as anyone who is engaged in the Western capitalist system, we have to do so much stuff that's just a waste of time and is tedious and boring. I would just hope that coming out of COVID, there's this opportunity to re-evaluate everything, and the way that we design our society, and the way that-- not just our places and our physical things, but the whole way we design our life, and our way of living.

Mike, you're in the business of culture, and you're in the business of-- even this whole idea of looking at a 24-hour Economy, what a ridiculous idea that it was fixed into 9 to 5 or 9 to 9 or 9 to 12, anyway. I mean, it's time that we sort of re-evaluate things and say, "Okay, we're allowed to be critical of all culture, and we're living a culture whether we are purposeful about it or not." What's great about a lot of indigenous cultures and just a lot of other cultures generally is that they're in control of where their culture is headed. What it's about, where it's come from, and where it's headed. Where I just feel with Western culture, it's this organic fungus that's just growing out of control, and no one's at the driver's wheel.

Michael: Yeah, for me listening to that underscores the overall conversation we're having around recognition in the first place, and then that re-imagined joining up as you described of whether through the built environment, whether through artistic practice or cultural expression, where the stories of our First Nations people just have got to be brought into the correct proportion. I feel that is the zeitgeist and very helpful for me to have you on this podcast as a mentoring session almost, to explore these
ideas and think about them and circle back, hopefully through lived experience and concrete examples-- or maybe not concrete, maybe we'll find some other product-


Alison: The glass reinforced concrete examples.


Michael: That was going to be my last question in terms of opportunities coming out of the pandemic, but do you feel you've answered, I think you may have, but is there anything else that grabs you at the moment to think about opportunities coming out of the pandemic?

Alison: I think people are obviously wanting to reconnect more with nature. They're wanting to reconnect more with their families. I think they're already really open and receptive to conversations with other cultures who have that. And that's where I just think this come to Jesus' moment with all industries, whether you're an accounting firm. What does it mean for your accounting firm to have family friendly values, and values where you do allow people to connect with nature more. Look at the Exodus out of the cities and into the regional areas, I think that says quite a lot about what people's priorities are and how they're re-evaluating them. But I think that that should be a little bit of a wake-up call for a lot of leaders to say, "Okay, well, how can we lead with these values now?" 

Michael: Well, Alison, I really appreciate your time this afternoon. What I am looking forward to is this conversation carrying on, and you better believe if you need any help throwing any parties for your new school at UTS, please let me know.


Michael: We'll be in there and we'll party all night and every day.

Alison: Exactly, at 3:00 in the morning.


Michael: All right. Well, on that note, Alison Page, Thanks for being a guest on the Neon Grid Podcast 

Alison: Thanks, Mike.

[Neon Grid theme]

Michael: Thanks for listening to the Neon Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoy that episode. To get involved our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-hour Economy, sign up to the Neon Grid newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au. Or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.

Episode 4. Selina Short

Selina Short is an EY Partner and its Oceania Market Segment Leader – Built Environment & Resources.



Selina: Before COVID hit, one teeny-tiny 2.8 square kilometre area drove 9.4% Australia's GDP. We're talking around $140 billion of national GDP being generated from this tiny little place we call the central business district. This is an economic powerhouse that was a key part of what was driving our nation. So, that is why we should care. We need to care from a human-centred perspective, but there is this really big economic imperative around why the CBD is so important and why we had to engage in that conversation.

[Neon Grid theme]

Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Like CBDs across the world, COVID has posed some fundamental challenges to Sydney. We'll just debate and creative ideation between major stakeholders through forums like the CBD summits that's helped to support businesses over the last few years. Many of the initiatives have also shaped the future of our city for the better. Big alfresco dining, cycleways, the use of technology in-venue to name a few. As we shift gears into a post-pandemic mindset, what do  Sydneysiders actually want from their city and what are the barriers in the way of experiencing that? Rather than leave it to guesswork, our Office commissioned some independent research to answer those questions by consulting over 3,000 Sydneysiders. We asked Ernst & Young to be forensic in their analysis and forthright in their recommendations. There are a lot of angles to this. Changes in working habits, new transport patterns, rapidly shifting consumer preferences, cost of living pressures, and of course, rents. 

The built environment has plenty to do with the last of these, but also makes such an impact on the experience we have in our neighbourhoods and the city we love. Joining me around the watercooler today, so to speak, is cities expert, Selina Short. Boss of Real Estate and Construction for EY. She has a little research report entitled "FLICKING THE SWITCH," which was published in late April. Google "EY FLICKING THE SWITCH" and you will find it. In this podcast, we will draw on Selina's expertise, EY's global perspective, tease out some of the findings of the report. I hope you find it useful.

Welcome, Selina Short, to The Neon Grid Podcast.

Selina: Excited. Thanks for having me.

Michael: You are many things, but according to this well-written research document in front of me, you are EY’s Oceania built environment and resources market segment leader. There's more besides but what is that? I suppose, by way of introduction a bit like this concept of cities, and city's expertise, and so forth. I had no idea about until I found myself in the business of trying to get cities going again. So, you've been drawn in and, I guess, one of the experts really in Sydney, at least on cities, but how did you get into that?

Selina: How did I get into cities? I'd say it's from being a human who is definitely more of a city-phile than a country, regional kind of person. But in terms of the broader role, what does market segment leader mean for the built environment resources, the day job is really broad. At EY, we've brought together these mega segments of sectors that we think have things in common and a lot of things that aren't in common. So, I look after real estate and construction, power and utilities, oil and gas, mining and metals. We brought together all of these capital-intensive physical asset businesses. Don't ask me any questions on mining and metals! It's not my bag, but the teams look after that and sort of that rolls up to me on the exec in terms of looking at that portfolio from EY's point of view. Interestingly, there's actually quite a bit of crossover between a construction site and a mining site. There's really good stuff that we can learn from that kind of confluence and convergence of industries. 

But my background is in real estate and construction. For me, really more so on the real estate side than the construction side. A lot of the work that I've done has been around offices traditionally as a real estate asset class. I've always though been very focused whenever we're talking about the built environment, which I think is incredible, but very much the human-centred part of the built environment, which meant that, if I wind back six, seven years ago, usually used to be the crazy person in the room when you're talking to people in real estate saying, "But what about the humans? What about the customer?" And then always gets questions like, "Who do you mean? The customer, the shareholders. No, no, the person that comes to your building." And then you fast forward now, and that's changed fairly significantly. I've always been a complete city lover and I think the last two years has just taught us so much about cities and the appetite for people to want to engage constructively around that has just shifted, which has been critical. 

Michael: Yeah. I wonder whether our paths would have crossed if there wasn't a pandemic? 

Selina: Good question. 

Michael: Because we came into contact when I met you after you'd done some research work for the Property Council-

Selina: Yes.

Michael: -which explored, I guess, what you would think about the city in the post-pandemic age. Do you want to just outline a little bit about that and then explain how we came to work together on a report you recently launched?

Selina: Yeah. Look, it is a really interesting question, "Could we have met?", and I would automatically go, "Yeah, of course, we would have?" Actually, would we have, because the real estate sector was so focused on the asset, so the building in the environment? For sure, before COVID, the sector was starting to think about customer, and customer journeys, and user experience, and those things were starting to emerge. But they're like a bonus, a nice to have and the fluffy stuff that you put around that the real work, which was the building, and yields, and your cap rates, and all that stuff that's really important to make an asset work. 

When COVID came, one of the things that initiated that work where you and I came into contact was a discussion with the Property Council and a number of the players to say, "Hey, I know we all wish we could turn that clock back and it was 2019 again, and we'd never heard of this thing called COVID. But that is not going to happen, and we've got to embrace the change, and we've got to actually think differently." If you're an owner of a whole lot of assets, and offices, and shopping centres, your life got fundamentally blown up. It was a really interesting point in time to say, "Let's not focus on what have we got to do to take it back to 2019. Let's accept that genie's out of the bottle. Let's think about how we could make this better. What's got to change, what's got to be different?" And that was the genesis of that report, which was how you and I met. It's been really interesting and how much the sector has taken a lot of really good thinking and work that was already being done, sometimes, a little bit on the periphery, and just that really coming into the mainstream of how those companies are thinking about what the future has to look like.

Selina: I guess the other side, and from our perspective of the work that I've done over the years, and now, in government's been really human centred in the sense of almost they don’t care about the built environment in a sense. To me, it's all about human and what's the barrier to them going out, essentially. I guess, most recently in a report entitled "FLICKING THE SWITCH, Research and insights to help Sydney CBD turn the lights turn on a new era,". We asked you to think about this in a bit more detail around, with the CBD of Sydney in particular, traditionally being an area where people go to work, and then potentially go out afterwards, what happens if you take away the first part of that. If you're no longer going to work, why would you come back into the city? I guess, for many of us, we've all been really focused on the CBDs. It's not just the Sydney discussions, it's a global discussion, but maybe you can outline why CBDs are important, in particular, Sydney CBD matters.

Selina: Look, it really does matter and there's been much conversation and debate about this. But if you just look at it from a simple like, "Why do we care so much about this?". If you take Sydney as the example, before COVID hit, one teeny-tiny 2.8 square kilometre area drove 9.4% of Australia's GDP. So, we're talking around $140 billion of national GDP being generated from this tiny little place we call the central business district. That's really, really significant. We can have all of these big overarching conversations, but this is an economic powerhouse that was a key part of what was driving our nation. So, that is why we should care. 

We need to care from a human-centred perspective, but there is this really big economic imperative around why the CBD is so important and why we had to engage in that conversation. As you allude to, this isn't a Sydney thing either. It is global, it is a phenomenon that every city around the world is facing into, but they're all a little different as well. That's why I think that FLICKING THE SWITCH report has been super interesting, because we've gone out and talked to or listened to 3,000 different Sydneysiders to get their views around what we need to do to restart this economic engine. But how we do that in a really different way, how we take on board what people want and think about that strategically.

Michael: And from our perspective, and I think we share this, there was quite a period of-- I described it as a dartboard and people just throwing things at it, going, "Okay, what about this, what about that?" over the course of the pandemic, which is understandable, both in industry and in government as we wrestled with this major upheaval. But now that the pandemic is-- we're closer to the end than the beginning, let's just work with that assumption. Fingers crossed. But we recently had you speak at an event, CBDs Revitalisation Summit, and I could hear the room collectively draw air when you threw up a slide, which talked about global trends really around return or reengagement with activities. I think I'm right in summarising most things kind of return to games, NBA games, for example, US, F&B trending back towards 80, 90 odd percent, but there was one bit that was notable and what was that?

Selina: It was people returning to the office. The slides you're alluding to was looking at New York and you close your eyes and think of a quintessential global city, and four out of five people would probably say, "New York," if you did a quick straw poll. That data point was on New York. Everything's back except offices. As you say, NBA games, public transport, restaurants, but offices are around circa 40%, whereas everything else is back at that 90% mark and you go, "Hmm, this is interesting." For me, it really does symbolise that view that we've dislocated that “I come to the CBD Monday to Friday, 9 to 5”. That nexus has been fundamentally broken and that is a big shift from how our cities have operated. 

Now, again, if you look at Sydney, by comparison, the latest stats to come out of the Property Council we’re at about the 40% mark and I think given some of the timings of Omicron and all those other fun things, I think we're going to see it lift beyond 40% and get quite a bit beyond 40% in Sydney, and I think we've got different dynamics to somewhere like a New York. But I do think expecting it to go back to 2019 and have people work Monday to Friday-- We know that to be true from the research both that CBD report we did for the Property Council, which talked about how you create not central business districts, but central experience districts and from the work we've done for Investment New South Wales on FLICKING THE SWITCH, we know it's changed.

If you look at what people are telling us and we're talking, we've surveyed 3,000 papers, we've run focus groups, we've spoken to all these big thinkers around the globe. What we've been told is that 70% of CBD workers want flexible working as the norm. 3.3 days was the average preference to come into the office when you average it out. And really interestingly, that was great. That was all our research and it confirms a lot of what we're seeing, feeling, hearing. But the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development just a couple of weeks ago released findings from a work-from-home study they'd done and that was 32,000 people in 25 countries, and they asked the flip question on that 3.3 days in the office stat that we have been talking about. And their results said, 1.7 was the amount of days people wanted to work at home. This perfect flip mirror image stat-- 

You know those freakonomics moments, when you're like, "Oh, my gosh, did they read our report?" But anyway, it was pretty cool, just to see the flip of that stat. So, we know that people have bought into this hybrid work concept. Also, in that same report that they put out, two to three days a week working at home is equivalent to people of a 5% pay rise and 15% of employees said they would quit their job if they were asked to return to the office full time. When you break that down for Australia, it was 22% - second highest after the UK. So, that genie is not going back into the bottle, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 back in the office, it's just not-- We talk a bit about how we've got to flatten the working week curve. We've flattened the COVID curve. Now, it's the working week curve, because we've let it flow organically and we know Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is where it's at. Thursday's the new Friday, Monday's dead, Friday's dead. If you're trying to sell coffees at the bottom of a building, what do you do? Does that even work as a business model? 

I think people have accepted that it's not going to go back to Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, but they're still trying to figure out what is the sustainable business model? How do we actually make this work practically, I think, is a big part of what people are grappling with at the moment. I think it's just trying to work out how we lift it probably a bit above the 40% mark and get it more to maybe towards 60% to 70%, but not taking it back to what it was.

Michael: Yeah. As I say, the point of this discussion, the report, all the work that you're doing, a lot of work that I'm doing, is to create an environment where you can have a debate, and then trial, test ideas. Could you talk a little bit about the great “work-from-home” experiment? I guess we were talking in the pregame about the currently with restrictions, I guess, easing-- they've eased, but just the return of other aspects of life, which have been closed off as busy parents with kids and school activities on weekends, and family commitments, there's an element of work from home routine that we've all embraced now. But in terms of the discussions around - productivity is one, company's attracting talent and retaining it - what's your view or insights really around--? Can it work from home in the way that we'd like to think it can, or is that a bit of a furphy?

Selina: Look, I think it served us so well. Holy moly, if we'd had to get through the last two years, 10 years ago, even 5 years ago, it would have just been a total all-out disaster. From the experience, if I look at it from EY, our productivity during those lockdown periods was incredibly high. We measure our productivity very effectively, so we're able to actually get a very good read on that and compare it to the same period in the prior year. But that is a really important consideration is what we're talking about short-term productivity. Am I cranking out more hours, cranking out more emails? And the answer to that is in a lot of cases, yeah, that ticked along fine.

The interesting bit is when you start to consider some of the longer-term impacts of that and it's really interesting. Microsoft, some work trends index showed that looking at how we're all interacting in this new world, we are operating in clearer silos and in much smaller networks. As we've experienced, our worlds have shrunk. You speak to the people you need to speak to get the job done, but we're missing all of that incidental stuff. We know humans are hardwired to connect. There's a whole bunch of super interesting stuff that tells us that if we lose that human face-to-face, we will see productivity will suffer and we know that-- If you look at a stat like engagement, it is the main metric that organisations use to say, "How much do people like working here? How likely are they to stay?" We know that engagement links very closely to productivity, mental wellbeing. If I'm engaged, all these good things happen.

Interestingly, we know that-- You take, for example, Gallup has been doing work for a long period of time around engagement. And all people, but especially women, if you take women as an example, they are twice as likely to be engaged, if they cite having a close friend at work. I'm not saying you can't make friends virtually, but it's really hard to get connected to people in a culture if you've never stepped foot into the office or you've never met those folks face-to-face. EY did this, EY Empathy and Business Survey, which came out in 2021 and 37% of employees said they'd left an organisation because they felt they couldn't connect with their colleagues. So, it's harder to measure and grapple with, but we intuitively know it, that if there is this face-to-face contact, if we have that human centricity, we get all of this innovation, we get ideas, we feel more connected. 

And really interestingly, I saw a stat the other week saying 84% of people land their next job through a casual contact. How does all of that work? I think we're seeing the effects of that two-year adrenaline charge working from home. Yes, we can get through the short term, but I think we're now starting to see a lack of mentorship, coaching, all of those things that have fallen by the wayside. And interestingly, people are wanting to come back, but they want to come back for that really good stuff. They don't want to come back, and sit in the office, and just smash out seven hours of work, and not talk to another human, or not run into anyone that creates those moments of spark or enjoyment that can be done at home. But when we come into the office, let's make it worth the commute and worth getting out of our slippers for.

Michael: In terms of then-- I guess, we spent a bit of time identifying where the importance of CBDs, where there is a material change. Let's just accept that as-- The question then moves very quickly on to “what are you going to do about it”? 

Selina: Yep.

Michael: I'd like to think, Selina, given that you have such an entrepreneurial public servant in me helping with CBDs revitalisation that we do do better than 40%. There we go, plug for me. But I guess, there's any number of strategies and points of view really and I think that's where rather than the old dartboard and everyone having a go, we asked for a bit of insight. Do you want to outline a few key either findings, or views, anecdotes – What are the practical things one can do around CBD revitalisation?

Selina: There'd be a couple of things that I'd call out. One that I know is close to your heart, Mike, and he spoke about it last week which is, do we have the right voices at the table? When we look at the data from the report, I want to say push on the open door. Who is going to be the easiest people that we can get to reengage with the CBD, who wants to be there, who have a reason to be there? They are young folk, probably ageing myself, by calling them young folk.

Michael: [laughs] The young people.

Selina: The young people! I like to think that I can still roll with that from time to time. But the young folk, people who work in the CBD and those who are within a closer commuting distance. Now, that's not to say that we just focus on that group at the exclusion of others, at all. But let's push on some open doors. You particularly raised the point about young voices, where are they at the decision-making table as we come up with these strategies? And how much of the CBD is designed with those users in mind? Yet they're the ones in this survey that are saying, "Yeah, I'm keen. I love the city. I want to come back." How are we making it a place that makes it easy for them to come back? And that links to one of the really obvious things for that cohort, which again comes through really strongly in the report, is – it's too expensive. 

So, there's some things I think we could do around getting the right voices to the table, designing the offering to meet the needs of that cohort, and leaning on some of the issues, which we know is a sticking point. CBDs are a special occasion place, they're really expensive. How do we break that down? How do we think about it differently if we know that's the problem? We've got this problem, we've got a group saying, "I want to come," that seems like a really obvious place to start.

Michael: Are there CBDs elsewhere, either around the country or around the world that EY has experienced, yours personally, that you see are doing a good job of A, this discussion, B, the intentionality required by government and industry to really rethink it or are we on our “Pat Malone”? 

Selina: Look, I think most cities are leaning into this in some way, shape, or form. I actually think there is work to be done to connect that piece up. You see this playing out, and we can maybe touch on this in a sec, but within our own city, this whole running down your own lanes concept, but that's also happening globally. Every city is trying to solve for pretty much the same problem. They've all got their little nuances, and differences, and tweaks, but I think there needs to be a lot more learnings happening at a global level, and taking the good and the interesting. I think there's work to be done for us as the Sydney CBD. I think we're actually doing a pretty bloody good job, mainly because we got back to it so much earlier than the other cities. But then, we kept having these lockdowns after everyone else had left that well behind. I think we had a really good head start, lost our way-- Not lost our way, but then just got taken back to the start line a couple of times. But I do think there would be power in elevating the story of Sydney, because I think we've done some really cool stuff but also learning from other cities as well. 

And I do think one interesting observation from just some of the other city folk I'm speaking to around the world is the residential component and that's always a controversial topic. But we don't have a high residential component in the Sydney CBD versus other cities. Often when you go to those cities that you think are super cool cities like Paris, Berlin, they've got a lot of people that live in the city as well. So, there's less of that dependency just on the office work. I think that's a consideration for us. Do we want to be a city that actually encourages more residential? There's some really big picture questions, which are not easy solves, but I think we need to lean into as we consider what something different could look like on the other side of this as well. But I think your point is a good one, because I don't think there's enough of that happening at the moment.

Michael: Yeah. I guess as well, I don't know if anyone's else has gone in and tried to do a benchmarking exercise, which is really what this is. I guess the purpose of it, particularly, because of the high level of investment from government in reactivating or reimagining CBD is to hope that we're doing it from a sense of data as opposed to speculation over a period of time. We did talk a little bit about the report and many of its findings. Did you have a pet one that you were like, "Yeah." It was one which I-- [crosstalk] 

Selina: What was your pet? What was your-- Is there a little fluffy kitten in there somewhere? [chuckles] 

Michael: What I did think was interesting was, create a city camp program for school groups. Encourage schools and community groups to undertake city camp for children from suburban and regional areas, both in New South Wales and interstate, get to experience city life advocating and sharing these experiences with their friends and families. I thought that was pretty, "Oh yeah." I don't know. I feel that what I found was like, "Yeah, let's have a talk about that one." I thought that was pretty interesting.

Selina: Yeah. Look, I've really liked that one as well. Maybe it's because you and I both got young kids and- [crosstalk] 

Michael: Possibly..

Selina: -trying to look to get them off our hands at various points. I don't know. But it is those ideas though, I think, around how you create attachment to the city. And I go back to how we kicked off this podcast. I'm like, "Hey, why are you so into cities?" Because I remember as a little kid coming into the centre of Sydney, I remember going past the DJs (David Jones) Christmas windows at Christmas, and my grandma bringing me on the bus from Collaroy, where she lives and go into the food hall at David Jones. I remember coming in with my mum and my dad for a special annual thing to the Opera House. You've got these memories burned into your brain of this aspirational place that is super cool. I think we need to be able to create that for our own kids. But it still goes back to what we found in this report, which was one of the standouts for me. It is a special occasion place. And that's my experience of it as a child. 

When you start working in there more, and you get more in the run of the mill, how you use the CBD but for me, that was one of the key takeaways of the report. How do we break the special occasion association? Don't get rid of it. Keep it, because it's really important, and it is cool, and you've got Bennelong, and you've got these amazing restaurants, and these world-class experiences. I'm not saying get rid of that. But how can you come in with your kids, or bring in your ageing parents, or whatever it might be, and hit a noodle market-- We've seen some of that activation in The Rocks, but how do you make it inclusive and accessible, somewhere that you think, "Hey, what should we do? Saturday night, what'd you do? Should we just go into the city? Yeah, let’s go into the city.” That is the level of thought that's required. You get your kids and you jump on the train or maybe you pick up your mum on the way and you've literally got three generations on the train rolling into the city. There's nothing on at the Opera House, you're not going anywhere near the Opera House. But you're going in there because you know you'll have fun. It's not going to break the bank. You'll have a good time and I think that for me is the key takeaway, how do we make it more accessible, more inclusive.

Michael: Or, against one of the most spectacular backdrops on the planet as we-- [crosstalk] 

Selina: Absolutely. 

Michael: All right, Selina, we've been going for a while. There are a few things, but I've been speaking about rents and other things on other podcasts. So, we'll leave that one for another time. 


Selina: I agree with you, I agree with you. Let's just quickly go there. We do need to look at the rental model around the CBD and look at how you create free, cheap rental options for creatives, thinkers that we know that creates interesting, exciting, delightful, and then you get more rent on the floors above. So, it's a bit of a no-brainer for me. We just need to work through the models. 

Michael: Yeah. And I think coming off the forumwe did the other day, I think that there is this idea of, "Okay, we've identified the problem. We've got some insights into solutions." But in terms of like, "Let's go find some specific examples of where we can create impact and showcase success," I think is probably where at least my head is. Happily, there's a few landlords who are I think like-minded in that, and connecting them with the creative community, and so on, all these types of concepts we understand. But it's execution ultimately, isn't it, that we want to see practical examples that I guess, hopefully, look to redefine the market. Is there anything else you want to throw in? Haven't we covered it, or--?

Selina: Look, as you know, I could talk for days and I think you want to probably get out of here at some point. But the two for me that we probably haven't touched on, one is this whole concept of the micro district, which goes back to this whole-- Everyone, I think, is coming at this with gusto and heaps of enthusiasm, lots of ideas around what we could do around the CBD. But one of my observations is people running down their own lanes, but they're all running to the same place. I think there would be so much power if those run lanes all serpentined around each other. Also with New South Wales Government, we've got this concept going around, how do we build a micro district, and you've done a great job and been involved on it with YCK, which is a phenomenal example of that. But how do we create a brand and something distinct and bring together all the important people and businesses that galvanise around this really small little area, and go, "Let's work together." What are you bringing to the table? We talked about in the panel last week, like practical-- what are you going to bring? 

We're talking about that around Wynyard Park. How do you have someone like a Brookfield who owns some of the really spectacular assets around that park? How do you bring the big employers, who are trying to get their people back to work around that park? How do you work with the F&B providers, how do you work with the small businesses in the retail, and how do you think about what could this place be, and then bring in local government and state government, and actually all work together? That for me is really critical. We showed the power of collaboration through COVID. We've now all gotten busy getting back to our own thing. We can't lose that collaboration magic. I think if we can collaborate around-- start small on these little micro districts, I think there's a heap in that that we could do. EY's also working on the Wynyard one to write this micro district playbook, which hopefully should be out in the not-too-distant future. So, we're not repeating stuff again in a variation of a theme. It's getting some efficiencies and some economies of scale in that. So, that is a big one for me. 

The other key thing, which I just feel I can't share views on anything without coming back to is also whilst COVID has been tough, yes, no one's going to argue with that, holy moly, it is nothing with what we've got coming around climate change. Cities are massive contributors to our carbon emissions, circa 40% built environments’ contribution to carbon emissions. So, you just can't have conversations around “what should the future of our cities be?” responsibly without also addressing this other problem. What I want to see, desperately, desperately want to see more of is co-benefits. How do we solve for this current problem? Let's get people back to the city and what does that look like along with, how do we do that in a way that also makes our cities greener, more sustainable? Because if we're not trying to solve for both of those problems simultaneously, we are missing a massive trick. Looking for those co-benefits-- 

We do a lot of work with MIT out of Boston and their real estate innovation lab, they've done amazing work on the benefit of trees and of green space. We know from the report that we did that people told us that 43% greenspace is a deterrent. If we know that actually, people like coming into the city more if it's greener. And guess what? It's actually also really great for the planet. And the work that MIT has done has shown that it actually also increases asset values, both from a sale and a rental point of view, no-brainer. Yet, I don't see the city filled with trees. If you sat down rationally and said to me, bam, bam, bam, you'd be like, "Okay, let's put in a heap of trees." There's some things I think we need to lean into. The trees are just one example, but we need to really lean into that. If you read the IPCC report a couple of weeks ago, it's sobering, we've got to.

Michael: Yeah, and how fast-- Using that example, time is ticking in terms of that and greening the city, genuinely greening the city, I assume, how quickly can it be done?

Selina: Theoretically, anything can be done quickly. COVID showed us that if something needs to happen and it needs to happen now, we can move mountains. Unfortunately, the challenge of this one is the slow burn and the politicisation of the topic has made it really, really challenging, which I think is a shame for our children or grandchildren, and us to be honest, it's going to hit our lifetimes. But I think with enough will, and I think what we saw during COVID, and my big fear was that everyone would go, "Oh, my God. Forget climate change, because this is all consuming." That wasn't what happened. We actually saw people double down and we saw particularly the corporates make really big net zero commitment. I feel we've actually got momentum now.

Again, the New South Wales Government has really moved things forward, and hugely commendable in the policies and the way things have moved forward from a New South Wales point of view. Great examples in SA (South Australia) around the renewables. So, we're starting to see some of this come to life. But around the city's agenda, I think there is more that we can do to weave some of this into the solutions that we're working on now around the revitalisation piece.

Michael: Oh, well, we'll look forward to having that discussion with you as we go about our work. Our paths cross in a serpentine manner often. So, thanks for joining me on The Neon Grid Podcast.

Selina: Thanks, Mike. It's always a pleasure.

Michael: Thanks for listening to The Neon Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get involved with our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues, on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.

Episode 3. Dylan Parker

Dylan Parker is the Mayor of Randwick City Council.

Episode details

At just 30 years old, Dylan Parker is the Mayor of Randwick City Council and giving a new perspective to where things are heading.

We discuss the need for more representation of young people in government and reimagining Randwick’s economy due to changes brought on by the pandemic.

What you will learn in this episode? The positive impacts an accurate representation of constituency in government can have. 

How people's shopping, dining and local life has changed due to the pandemic and how Randwick City Council is reimagining their economy to capitalise on these changes.  

For more on Randwick City Council:

To keep up to date with The Neon Grid:

Find and connect with Dylan here:

Produced by Pod PasteExternal Link , in Sydney Australia.



What does the future of Randwick's economy look like?

Dylan: One of the things we've seen is that practices and how people shop have changed. It's not just during the day in the middle of the week. People are ordering from home, but they're also working slightly different hours and they want to go out and shop. We've got to figure out ways to maintain some form of physical retail presence, and some of the way we do that is by actually expanding the hours which they operate as well. So, there's a big chunk there of work to do. But I think it's a really exciting kind of period of time where we can just look at everything again with fresh eyes and go, "Well, do we need to do it as we did in the past?"

[The Neon Grid intro] Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Much of my time in government has been spent helping the sector navigate the unruly trading conditions created by COVID. There's been a real and very necessary emphasis on short-term government relief. But the 24-Hour Economy Strategy I've been asked to deliver is about a long-term vision for Sydney. Yes, that includes the city goers of today, but what about the going-out audiences of the future? What will they want to do? What will excite them? And how do we shape the environment to permit full engagement by those who might not necessarily be represented at industry and government events? Let's face it, sitting around council meetings or participating in roundtables tends to be dominated by other demographics. Bucking the trend, is today's guest Councillor Dylan Parker. Dylan joined Randwick Council five years ago and in December, he was elected mayor, aged just 30. Amazing.

[00:01:24] Councillor Parker has just announced a series of proposals, aiming to transform his Eastern Sydney Council area into a new hub for all the stuff we love. Food, drink, arts, culture and nightlife. All that, 26 kilometres of pristine coastline and a world-class uni to boot. I want to hear about Dylan's plan to make this happen, in a way that excites Sydneysiders about sometimes underappreciated part of this great city. I also want to pick his brain on how millennials and Gen Z can play a more active role in civic life. And in so doing, help us usher forward a new generation of going-out experiences and behaviours.


Michael: [00:02:07] Welcome, Councillor Parker or Mayor Parker, I'm going to refer to you all the way through this interview, to The Neon Grid podcast. It's the first one of 2022. And it's a pleasure to have you as our guest today.

Dylan: [00:02:18] Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. Exciting topic.

Michael: [00:02:21] Yeah. We prompted to leap at the opportunity to interview you, because recently you were talking about, I guess, plans for nightlife or going out in your city council area. But I think for some context, council elections were last December, if I'm right, and they'd been delayed and pandemic for all of us has been challenging. So, you're in for a term now, and I think it's a bit of a shorter term if I'm right, because council elections will be two and a half years away if I've got that correct.
Dylan: [00:02:48] Yeah. September 2024.

Michael: [00:02:51] Before we get into the nitty gritty of vision or thinking around Randwick, I guess I just want to know a little bit about the man. What's excited you particularly around this agenda, as in your personal background, the way you live your life, or what's motivated you around this particular issue?

Dylan: [00:03:07] Thank you firstly, just for having me on. When we talk about this topic, I was having a think on the way in here as to what brought me to all things, 24-hour economy and nightlife, but more generally arts and culture. To be honest, it's via osmosis through my family background. I've got a
stepfather who is a longtime actor. My stepmother is an artist and a painter. My sister is a ceramicist. I'm a failed childhood saxophonist trying to have a go on the sax as well. So, look, I think, to some extent, it's definitely in the blood.

[00:03:45] When I got elected to council, I was 25. I looked around, it's a horseshoe at Randwick. One of the observations, no aspersions on my colleagues, but just a statement of fact, was that I was a good 20 to 25 years younger than all of my colleagues, which gave me a rather different perspective, but also life experiences. It brought me here because someone who's 25 elected to council loves the bit of Sydney which I represent, but went, "Hmm, okay, what are we missing?" It's something which is rather important to young people, which is nightlife and I looked at that and I said, "Look, there's space for growth here. Let's see what we can do."

Michael: [00:04:26] It's interesting insight that around, I guess, your family background potentially.
Would you see yourself as a bit of a black sheep and going into-- or does your family see you as a
black sheep going into politics? Or, is that an extension of that artist within?

Dylan: [00:04:42] Oh, look, it's definitely a rebellion in some way. A little bit about my family, my dad
was a small business involved in art supplies, but before he got into that, he was also an environmental campaigner, so it is in the family in that regard but on the brainy side. My mother could only be
described as a small city conservative. Some background about me, I'm half black American, and I
reckon she was probably the only black American to have voted for George Bush in 2004.

Michael: [00:05:18] [chuckles]

Dylan: [00:05:18] We get all sides in the family. But, for me, my childhood rebellion was definitely Labor and progressive politics there. Actually, getting involved in elected life is very, very different. What drew me there was me going, "Well, look, I have a lot of views. I really care about community service. But rather than griping in the sidelines, roll up the sleeves and see what I can do." It's got its challenges. I'm not going to say that it's all roses and super exciting all of the time. Sometimes, it's being on the receiving end of some grumpy people. But that's life, and that's really elected life as well.

Michael: [00:05:53] Coming into my role, I've got that Roosevelt quote, which talks about being in the stands, or the gladiator on the field, and rolling up his sleeves, and joining the fray sets all of us to some level of criticism at times. But once you're in it, you got to have respect for those who've gone before.

But I want to say it's just upon the age discussion for a bit. I recall one of my first entries into, I guess, advocacy was being invited to speak to a committee for a Sydney event. And I think I was aged 40 at the time, and I said to the room, I said, "The problem with this discussion is, I think I'm the youngest person in it, and we're trying to make decisions for a generation or two away." I'm keen to go back to that observation that you've had around the discussion that you identified at age 25 and now a little bit older in a position, I think, have some influence, particularly in in your local area. Do you see that there's a demographic shift in your electorate maybe or across Sydney, and that there's an underrepresentation the youth of today or the next generation at all? Any advice for people that might be looking to try and make an impact or roll up their sleeves, because sometimes it's a bit of a opaque to know how to get involved, I think.

Dylan: [00:07:19] Yeah, totally. Two points, the first one, and I think you really hit the nail on the head. 40, in a room full of individuals, and you may be the youngest one there. What's interesting, I'm no longer the youngest mayor in New South Wales. I've been pipped by, from my understanding the mayor of Ryde, but I was for a couple of months. I'm 30, and I look at that, and I go-- It's actually not surprising in my view that I'm a 30-year-old mayor. I think it's more surprising that there aren't more 30-year-olds.

The reason why I think it's quite surprising is you look at it, and you have young people who are
passionate, who are active out in the community, who are fighting for issues, which will impact them, and they're not necessarily represented in elected office. I think there are some structural reasons as to why that is, but it's also a matter of ambition.

[00:08:04] I look at it and what really drew me is, as was mentioned is decisions are happening over there, which impact me, I want to have some say on that. For anyone who is passionate about politics, passionate about what their community looks like, the world which they are going to inherit, then really it pays to actually be there at the table. And bringing it home to all things after dark at a council level, it was-- when I got elected, it was like parks and rec. We were talking about open spaces, development applications, playgrounds, these are all very important, valuable things, but it isn't the whole portrait. And councils, state parliaments, federal parliament, they all make decisions, which impact the whole range of people in different walks of life. You need to actually have a diversity of representation there.

[00:09:04] If you wanted some advice from me if you're a young person having a listen to this going on, "Look, I could have a shot at this," the advice I would have is you actually do bring life experience and you do bring perspectives, which are not necessarily being represented. It was definitely a nagging doubt in my mind going, "Well, what would I know, as compared to all of the other candidates or all the other more senior staff who I'm engaging with?" Part of it is perspective. You will bring a different set of life experiences to other generations. I was quipping earlier before our recording saying I'm part of the lockout generation, where decisions made by 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds completely overnight changed the face of Sydney as we enjoyed it, and as we experienced it, and we didn't really have any input on that. I look at that, and I go, "Well, look, politics is complicated. It's hard. But you got to have somebody who represents a constituency. And there's no reason why it can't be a young person, especially if your voters will agree with you." And that tended to be my experience. People said, "God, it's really nice having a fresh perspective here, and a new set of eyes," because people get into bad habits as well.

Michael: [00:10:25] I think that happens, doesn't it? Speaking of bad habits, one thing that I give some time thinking to in my role is the impact of the pandemic on different demographics. If you look at the going-out landscape where those with cash, the degree of access, those without don't have the same degree of access, and then you're imposing the pandemic on it, you end up starting to think about, "Well, who's the city for and who's able to enjoy it?" I guess looking at your own area, if we talk about Randwick, in particular, for a time recently, as I mentioned the beginning of the interview, you talked about a new vision for nightlife or going out in Randwick, and just sort of maybe, in your own words, explain, like what you see. We've touched on it in terms of where it was, but what do you sort of see? You've been around this for a while. I think you set up advisory, nightlife advisory group or chaired at some time back. So, it's not a new idea, in a sense, you've been at it but now you're in a position and you're making some commitment. Just want to articulate what you can see ahead of you?

Dylan: [00:11:30] Totally. One of the things I would say in terms of where I'd like to see us go is first to
get an idea, one, where we were and then where we are, and then where I think it'd be a great idea for us to be heading. Look, when I got elected, it was very much a business-as-usual counsel, which we understood. I set up a nighttime advisory committee, but the main thing which I thought was really important around that is it wasn't about me as an elected official, for that matter planners or bureaucrats driving the agenda, but it was actually getting some people who lived, worked in the industry, who knew all things 24-hour economy well, and to give us the feedback. What was really quite interesting is the committee just had a life of its own.

[00:12:13] I sat there, opened the meeting, and then off it went, because people were passionate about it. It was their bread and butter. There were small business owners, they're small bar owners. There were individuals from the Live Music Office. There was the university. There was Fringe Festival. It became an ongoing brainstorming session as to ways where we can improve our part of Sydney. It really took a life of its own. In some ways, it was a bit of a group therapy session of people venting their frustrations, but also their hopes and their aspirations for the city. But I also think that's really important, because it gives us an idea of going, "Well, what's the impossible that we can imagine? And then, how do we chart half the way there?" or whatever. So, that's how it gets rolling. There was a fantastic study, which came out of it with far too many actions to go through here. And then, council started chipping away very slowly at it over time. Boring, bureaucratic speak, but very important.

[00:13:11] Bringing it to the pandemic, I think it is a really interesting time to be re-looking at everything with fresh eyes, because as you mentioned, almost how we do everything has changed. Travel patterns have changed. People used to get on the bus in the morning, stay in the CBD for work, and then stay and drink after dark now. People are local, but they still want to go out, they still want to enjoy their backyard and they're finding there isn't that much there. Add on the complications of struggles for staff.

It is an interesting set of circumstances. But challenges are also in some ways an opportunity for a bit of a reset. I look at it and I go, "Everyone's had their world turned upside down. We can figure out, going, 'All right, well, we've had two years doing things differently. Do we revert back to business as usual? Or, do we keep the good bits which we like and build on some of the others?'"

[00:14:11] One of the great things which we've really tried and rolled out is shared streets, for example.

Coogee Bay Road, the iconic Coogee. There was a trial for several months. Taking back some of the
street for expanded outdoor dining. Ostensibly, it was under the safety measures for COVID. But what we also found is it was more enjoyable street space during the day, but also at night. And here is an area of Sydney that has been dominated by an anchor institution from nightlife which is the Coogee Bay Hotel for its good publicity and its bad publicity. But actually, by expanding the street, you had quite a diverse nighttime ecosystem that popped up. There was live music which was operating down there. The businesses quite liked it. And it was an interesting experiment, which we were able to do because of COVID.

[00:15:12] And would I be able to say, would we have taken a significant chunk of the street under
business as usual? I'm not sure about that. But it's a good opportunity there. What I'd like to see is us to keep building on it. Things like all of the expanded outdoor dining, which happens at day and night, keep it. It seems to work, it's worked for the last two years, we can do that. Another thing, more retail trading, especially later into the night. One of the things we've seen is that practices and how people shop have changed. It's not just during the day, in the middle of the week. People are ordering from home, but they're also working slightly different hours, and they want to go out and shop. We've got to figure out ways to maintain some form of physical retail presence. And some of the way we do that is by actually expanding the hours which they operate as well. So, there's a big chunk there of work to do but I think it's a really exciting period of time where we can just look at everything again with fresh eyes and go, "Well, do we need to do it as we did in the past?"

Michael: [00:16:17] Just on the big chunk of work, and that things like Alfresco and extension of retail hours, they're the good initiatives. What we're thinking is, if it's working, how do we make it more permanent at the state level with the levers that we have. But for our listeners, and people from industry listening to this, in terms of the big tasks, in terms of council instruments, for example, Parramatta Council's just announced and put out for exhibition its Late Night Trading Development Control Plan. There's no doubt there's a nighttime economy strategy. There's these pieces of kit that you need, is that what you mean with the big tasks? What are they in your context for Randwick? What things do you need to get done in the next three years?

Dylan: [00:17:05] Well, to give you an idea, just tonight, we're doing one big chunk of our strategy
piece, and that is our Economic Development Strategy. We're putting that in place tonight. Part of it is it sets tangible, measurable targets that councils actually need to meet in terms of measuring our performance. There is a whole section for the first time on the 24-Hour Economy. Putting things like encouraging additional nighttime spending across our city. That's a target. We're looking at it and we're down 20% on our nighttime spending from pre-pandemic levels. It's building upon where we were up to in the past, and then improving on that. So, getting at least an additional 10% to 15% nighttime spending now, putting in future DCPs, noise attenuation measures for new town centres, because that's always a challenge. You know you've had a restaurant or a small bar or a music venue that has been a part of the furniture of an area for years. A new residential development pops up next door, and the neighbours start complaining, and it's already under pressure there. So, they're the kind of more technical pieces which we've got.

[00:18:23] But also, it's about looking what works across a range of other local government areas.
Looking at the toolkit that's being rolled out from the New South Wales Government as well and trying to pick the eyes out of all the good bits which are there. We've got the nighttime economy, component of our economic strategy coming up, but also things like developing food truck policies so that we can activate our parks. Heffron Park, we've been trialling it for the last year, having food trucks pop up at some of our courts. It's a raging success, and it's looking at policies where we can encourage that across the city. A busking policy, implementing that in the coming months, as well as expanding on our paid performance, who we actually have across our town centres. We've ran it across two summers now and making that a permanent fixture as well.

Michael: [00:19:16] It's really exciting to hear you talk. For people listening, it's good to identify just the amount of work that you're signing yourself up for in a sense. Because it's kind of a bit, you're asking me for about 24-Hour Economy, nighttime economy, there's an element of-- it's in the public focus now in particularly because of the pandemic, but from the amount of work that you need to go through, either at state government levels, through your journey so far with more to come, it's equally is reflected in the work that councils are taking on.

[00:19:48] One observation I've had and feedback that's come from the investment community, which is that these are great signals to the investment committees that both government at all levels is backing a particular vision for an area. One fly in the ointment sometimes is how a mix of residents might react to a bold vision. So, you've got a vision for your area, and is everyone on board or some people complaining about a saxophone, and maybe that's not such a good thing, the residency, the world that you see or is it difference of opinion?

Dylan: [00:20:24] Look, there are really enjoyable parts of being a mayor of a very tightly knit
community. The benefits are, I would say that they're very close. But what it also means is that people feel comfortable contacting you when they don't like something. Like any council, across Sydney, across New South Wales, you have entrenched residents' groups, which have a particular sense of ownership over their streets, over their communities as how they want to eat, see their city grow and develop. But to be totally fair, they tend to represent a certain demographic. All I would say is that they don't necessarily look like me, they don't necessarily look like a younger person, or someone who is more interested in a vibrant nightlife. And that's not a criticism on anyone, it's just to say that generally, the types of community groups, which will kick up a stink about noise issues around activating places, aren't strictly representative of the community at large. It's actually a difficult thing to say at some point but it's also important to acknowledge that you can actually get trapped in a bit of an echo chamber.

[00:21:35] One thing which I found really refreshing is by talking about issues such as this, that you can actually bring the community along with you, if you put the pros of a more vibrant and diverse nightlife, not just to younger people, not just to businessowners, but to residents who also look at it and they go, "Well, don't have a raging bar next to my house." But you can actually put to people saying shared streets later in the evening are actually safer streets because you have a range of people and demographics, which are out. A diversity of nighttime offerings means that people aren't always shoved into massive beer barns, and stumbling out at 3:00 in the morning because they look at it and they go, "Well, actually, you know what? I didn't want to pack in like sardines at a venue. I actually only wanted to go for to a restaurant or go to a show, and then have a drink after."

[00:22:34] When you explain that to people, some will go, "No, no, no, no, under no circumstances,"
but others go, "Well, actually, it sounds like you we do share some interests, and I am open to it." I think it is important to acknowledge that not all instances, the people who'll be coming to you saying, "I hate this thing," or, "I think it's the worst proposal ever," are going to be reflective of the community. I've had so many people who say, "Actually, I really appreciate the fact that yes, it's complicated. Yes, there is a lot of moving parts here. But at least we have local governments and governments talking about a policy issue and a space which I care about, which is a vibrant liveable city."

Michael: [00:23:18] Can I ask you, specifically around the LGA and the unique aspects of Randwick,
which you might just outline, maybe in your response, like the geographical definition a bit for listeners?

I'm going to frame it a little bit this way. I was not set up for today, but did the Malabar Headland walk yesterday evening. It was amazing. Even getting rained on didn't dampen the spirits. But I'm reminded how blessed Sydney is with just this different topography and different experiences on our doorstep that people travel the world for. In terms of your geographical area what are the USPs, there's the university, there's a rail corridor that's got-- what makes Randwick pop when it comes to, for example, telling its story to international visitors or tourists in time?

Dylan: [00:24:20] Randwick has so many unique selling points which our community would happily spruik to the rest of the world. Look, I love other bits of Sydney, but as a mayor, yes, I can be a bit parochial, but I would honestly say, "Look, I think it is one of the most beautiful and dynamic parts of Sydney in plenty of ways." You have a major anchor tenant with the university. You have a significant health precinct. You have nearly 26 kilometres of coastline, which are the envy of not just the rest of Sydney, but all of New South Wales. You've got the iconic Coogee Beach. You've got phenomenal Maroubra Beach. As you mentioned, the beautiful Malabar Headland, as well as the iconic La Perouse Headland with so much history tied up into it. This is all a beauty and a history and a colour of an area.

[00:25:17] What I think we're missing is that nighttime component. You package up all of the natural beauty, all of the history of that particular area, and you tie that to thriving arts and culture, thriving nightlife scene at Randwick, I hazard a guess that no bit of Sydney could beat it. It's a real draw card, because it really has all of the combinations. It does have its challenges though. Why I look at it and I think it's important to acknowledge the challenges is I go if you can crack Randwick, you can pretty much crack most parts of Sydney, because you've got long-term established heritage suburbs in the north, you've got quiet suburban streets in the south, you've got diverse town centres as well. But along the Anzac Parade, from about Centennial Park down to where the old Nine Ways used to be in
Kingsford, there is an area which has-- because of several years of light rail construction, then the
double whammy with COVID on top, there is a significant amount of business attrition along there. I look at that, and I go that is very hard for local small businesses, the students haven't been there, but it's also a fresh opportunity.

[00:26:42] There really is an ability there to-- literally just kilometres from the heart of the CBD side, we can make this a thriving hub. From unique selling points, you've got a university right there, you've got a hospital right there, you've got a port and an airport. We're really right on Sydney's gateway, and rather than heading into the city, there's so much beauty right here, so much to offer. And you throw in thriving nighttime scene as well, why would you go anywhere else?

Michael: [00:27:18] Yeah. Genuinely is quite exciting. One thing I'm trying to get into the collective
consciousness of nighttime economy practitioners in Sydney, is that we often reference London and New York when we're talking about nighttime economy, neither of which cities are reputed for their pristine coastlines, and beaches and beach culture. I just think it's a gap in our storytelling of our own city, because our reference points are potentially places like Mexico and Rio, when it comes to nightlife in coastal areas, for example. It just is amazing and exciting to have this conversation. I also like the retail observation and really keen to see how those trials go, because as nighttime economies come to life, that diversification away from one type of entertainment, which has sometimes in the past tended, towards alcohol, it may actually be an opportunity for a struggling retail sector. I get that there's penalty rates and all the challenges that might go with that. But maybe it isn't the best decision to open at 9:00 in the morning, and maybe opening 2:00 in the afternoon and trading through the 10:00, the flexibility is there from the regulatory bodies, then maybe that is something that adds to the overall experience of evening out.

[00:28:39] I was running around Martin Place the other night and saw something that was open to
trade in the evening, which is just probably because there's more people out enjoying the city as an entertainment district now as opposed to the corporate use it's had in the past. I'm really keen to see what you deliver up for us. Just want to talk a little bit about arts and culture specifically. It's a bit of a subset of the conversation track we've been on. But you did describe it as Newtown of the East, the which is a nice complement to Newtown as well. I think we should call that out as an area that has thrived through lockout and there's a lot of community management of decisions around who should come to the area and party buses has been turned away. There's a lot to take from that example, because, of course, there was an increase in violence that many people feel would happen notwithstanding the increase in footfall. So nice compliment to say Newtown of the East. I think creative communities are looking for homes. What's the attraction, and how do you see arts and culture in particular coming to life in in your area?

Dylan: [00:29:48] Local arts and culture is so important is because it gives people a reason to actually come. You look at it and you go-- restaurants are all across Sydney. There's not a suburb in Sydney bar some very industrial ones which doesn't have a restaurant. There isn't a suburb in Sydney that doesn't have a bar or a pub of some sort. But it's about bringing people to an area where there is a diversity of offerings. One of the things which I think is a real challenge, but something, once again, is an
opportunity to work on. With the exception of NIDA, there isn't a single theater in in Randwick city
council. We've got one cinema, which is a beautiful art deco cinema, the Ritz, and is much loved by our community. But if you want small bar owners, or beautiful restaurants or diversity of retail as well, there needs to be a variety of offerings. People don't normally just come and do one thing and then leave.

They want to do a range of things. And I look at it and I go, "Arts and culture is the special sauce to
some extent that, that puts it all together."

[00:31:03] I know, for example, me and my partner, we like to go to de Marrickville, and I love Lazy
Bones, but I don't just go to Lazy Bones. I'll go see a gig there, but I'll also go to dinner. I might see
what else is on earlier in the afternoon, or whatever it is, and then you spend a period of time there.
And I look at that, and I go, "Well-- Credit to the west, I guess, you've got a Randwick man that's
travelling in order to do that. But for me, I look and I go, "I don’t want to have to travel." As much as I
love that part of Sydney, I'd much rather enjoy it at home. For me, I'm travelling for the arts and culture component. If you can give that to people at home, then hopefully you'll get the rest of it.

[00:31:51] Locally, there's still a lot of opportunity there. You look at the institutions, which we have.
We've got NIDA there. There's also some beautiful historical spots which can be activated. I was in a conversation with a gentleman from NIDA about activating the La Perouse Museum, which has a
fantastic, beautiful history, which is tied to a variety of different uses, but also interest groups. And you go, well, it doesn't just have to be a museum. It can have a variety of uses there, which will keep people locally.

Michael: [00:32:26] Yeah. It's the storytelling aspect, isn't it? The thing that where it's influenced our
thinking around deliver the 24-Hour Economy Strategy in that. When New South Wales government is looking at grants programs for this space, we're looking at the flow through impact of the spend into small businesses in the area, and also artists and creatives in and from the area, because I think if you don't have that lens, what you end up with is a homogeneity of offering, because just one thing that
you're doing in one place is just transported to another, because the same operators are bringing their second and third venue to life, it's just as great but also, what's good is when people who want to have their own story and can tell it in their local area makes it exciting for the rest of us.

[00:33:14] Well, looking forward to the discussion on La Perouse. Again, I think it's something for, us as government, to be thinking about is investments and funding in the areas of cultural infrastructure, if we can call it that. And are these located across the city, or they concentrated in one area? That's one
thing that I think there'll be some reflections on as part of the 24-Hour Economy Strategy and hopefully other government agencies can work together to help with some of those initiatives. We've been having a really good discussion about all things, nightlife, 24-Hour Economy in Randwick City Council with second youngest mayor, as it currently stands.

Dylan: [00:33:48] Not grumpy about that at all.

Michael: [00:33:49] [chuckles] Happens to all of us, eh? It only goes downhill from here. I'm the
youngest 24-Hour Economy Commissioner, I should put that out there. The only one as well. But either way, take it where you can. Someone else will beat my record in time, I hope. I'm just going to wrap
with a couple of questions, don’t know if that's all right. So, the first is COVID has thrown us a lot of
challenges, but also opportunities to reimagine Sydney. What's one opportunity that excites you the most?

Dylan: [00:34:12] Its inability to take back our streets. I look at it and I go, "If people aren't travelling,
there's all of this unused road space really." And people have been walking around their city, actually they've fallen in love with it and they've gone, "How can we reimagine our streets in a way that is liveable, is breathable?" And it is well, is exciting, where you can have all the arts, the culture, the entertainment, right there on our normal suburban streets. I look at that and I go, "That's a phenomenal opportunity." As well as just looking at going, "So much of our city is dedicated to cars. Can we take some of it back and give it to outdoor entertainment?"

Michael: [00:34:50] The 24-Hour Economy Strategy contains this idea of a Neon Grid, which is how
Sydney lights up at different times of the day and night across the great metropolitan. With that in mind, what's one experience of your area that you would most like to share with others?

Dylan: [00:35:03] My view, and it's not going to come as a surprise to anyone is, everyone's drawn to
our area because of the beach. We've got phenomenal beaches, Coogee, Maroubra. My great dream is that if people come for the beach, they stay at the beach, they stay for dinner, they stay for a show. I look at it, and you go you start your day at Coogee, spend the day there, go have a bite to eat, stay at the beach. And then in the evening, when the sun sets, you're up the hill to the spot, you're at a small bar, you're at back country, my local favourite. And then, you roll out after a few martinis across to the Ritz. And then, you've seen a movie over there. Hopefully, we can see that all across the area. But that's what I would say would be a classic Randwick experience.

Michael: [00:35:49] It's a great way to wrap up a podcast. Your uphill journey from Coogee Bay to the spot is somewhat in contrast to my downhill journey from UNSW where I did my study to the Coogee Bay on a more regular basis than I like to do.

Dylan, thanks so much for your good work and the civic service that you provide. And I look forward to seeing the great things that will come under your leadership in your council area.

Dylan: [00:36:15] Thank you.

Michael: [00:36:16] Thanks for listening to The Neo Grid podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get involved our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid newsletter.

You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au. Or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host Michael Rodrigues on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.


Episode 2. Karl Schlothauer

Karl Schlothauer is a bar owner and the President of the Independent Bar Association.

Episode details

One of the largest playing cards for Sydney’s night life is YCK Laneways - the buzzing cluster of small bars located across York, Clarence and Kent Streets. Tune in to this episode as Michael Rodrigues speaks to the owner of Sydney’s award-winning and loved small bars, co-founder of YCK Laneways and President of the Independent Bars Association (IBA), Karl Schlothauer.

In this episode, you will learn about:

  • the IBA’s establishment and purpose
  • how the COVID pandemic shaped Sydney’s nightlife relationships
  • how technology will connect Sydney’s venues together and improve user experience.

If you're curious, visit:

To keep up to date with the efforts behind Sydney’s 24-hour economy:

Find and connect with Karl on LinkedInExternal Link 

Produced by Pod PasteExternal Link , in Sydney Australia.


Episode 1. Lindy Deitz

Lindy Deitz is the General Manager of Campbelltown City Council. 

Episode details

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