The beginnings of renewal…

Creating Spaces Conference, Newcastle March 12-14

The opening keynote from Marcus Westbury (Founder of Renew Newcastle and all around trouble maker/over achiever) and the first two panel sessions today covered very similar themes so I’m actually going to lump them into the one blog post so I can actually get some sleep tonight and hopefully not just make it by the skin of my teeth tomorrow after sleeping through my alarm (true story).

So, how do make a city work for people who have ideas but no money?

Renew Newcastle and it’s spin offs including umbrella Renew Australia (Newcastle came first) are essentially permanent structures for enabling temporary things. Operating on the idea that initiative and experimentation (not just capital) are the key to revitalisation, Renew projects broker an agreement with creative projects and land owners to occupy what would be otherwise empty real estate. Occupation is of a temporary nature with the view to projects testing their ideas and activating the space to encourage commercial tenants (including the projects themselves if they discover they are viable). On the surface, it’s a win-win situation for all parties involved. However there are of course barriers, the largest of which seems to be as always, fear (sigh). The morning’s sessions touched on addressing these issues and working proactively with owners and other stakeholders to address the reality that things can and do fail – and that failure can even be a desirable part of the process.

In Marcus’ opening keynote he touched on the growing popularity of DIY and the spike in home based creative businesses and use of online tools such as etsy. It’s worth noting that 70% of Australian etsy sales are to international buyers. Marcus also managed to slip in that he started the This Is Not Art (TINA) festival, as if we weren’t impressed enough.

The keynote also covered off on some of Newcastle’s history to provide deeper context, although the experience of shopping malls killing the main street and the decline of past industry is something I think almost anyone from a regional place in Australia can relate to.

For those who need a good cry, you can also visit ‘Deadmalls’ which Marcus described as ‘ruin porn’ of shopping centres that are empty or never finished. I had a peek and the content is US, but still worth a wander.

(note: Dan Thompson in his key note also referred to ‘ruin porn’ and mentioned Detroit as the pinnacle. You can google further info but it really is devastating. Libraries and schools have been completely abandoned – intact and including all their books!)

Invest in hope.

Some of my take away thoughts from the keynote:

  • Creation is growing much faster than consumption.
  • Demands for places of creativity, creation and interaction are growing but are not well served.
  • Create a dynamic of starting things – not of preserving them. There is power in doing.
  • If you tell people to come back with their idea – you just failed initiative (my note – this is where I think existing funding models fail creative projects)
  • It’s about software of the place not the hardware
  • The transformative process, rather than the art or the capital
  • Risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum, don’t believe the people who try and tell you it does. Risk should be measured against the actual likelihood
  • A sense of things happening can be self perpetuating (in the same way a sense of nothing happening creates a negative feedback loop)

The first panel of the day was then very much a follow on and digging down into all of these things with Tim Horton (Architect and other super impressive things like this) and Marcus again. Tim kicked things off by running through the work and findings of the Integrated Design Commission set up in 2010, including handing out the report summary. Which I will read and then comment on like the good girl I am. The key information to take away according to Tim though is the idea of a 10:1 return on investment, which is pretty darn impressive especially when you compare that to dollar figures invested in the range of events brought to places like Adelaide.

Tim also gave a nod the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence Program, which I am a rather fan of. I was lucky enough to work with previous Thinker in Residence Dr Genevieve Bell as part of an Office for Youth Action Team exploring ICT use in connecting regional communities – read our report here and Genevieve’s report here if you’re interested, you can see the min clip we shared when we presented the report by clicking the ‘Riverland’ tab at the top of this blog.

All of these conversations are about more than just how we activate space though, they’re about how do cities (or regional areas) transition to what they were to what they are? This is something I’m particularly interested in when thinking about the Riverland, we so often here the nostalgia and catch cries of ‘the place is dying/a hole’ etc, but the comparisons we’re using to the functions of these places in the 80’s and 90’s just aren’t relevant. Places are different now (across the nation) and traditional retail in particular is undergoing a HUGE shift.

So where does that leave us?

Grappling with the idea of trying. Of failing. Of risking. Of possibly tipping me over the edge into being a professional trouble maker. Thanks guys.

I was particularly interested in some of the points Marcus and Tim made in regards to how the creative enterprises which have been part of the Renew movement don’t neatly fit into business development paradigms or the arts. Which naturally led me to think about Fifth Quarter and how I’m shaping my creative/business future. For those outside South Australia, Fifth Quarter is a new initiative supporting emerging South Australian Artists  to develop sustainable arts business and step off the funding treadmill. It’s only just launched this year and I’ve been invited on the journey as an inaugural participant with the disjointed mess of things I’m doing. Fifth Quarter is so new, that even those running it and funding it don’t really know what it is or how it will function but that’s part of what’s exciting and the outcomes may well feed into this discussion around business/arts and where creative enterprise fits.

Online, the barriers to entry are low. When you step into the ‘real’ world, the barriers to entry become a cliff – Marcus Westbury.

I’ve just realised I was wrong. I can’t fit everything from 3 sessions into one blog and it’s already 12.45am. I will return to untangle some of the mess I’ve made tomorrow……(including photos to save you from these ugly blocks of text). Hang tight.

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