Opportunity grows from city’s ‘starfish’ projects

The Starfish and the Spider is a great book by Ori Bafram. It’s a bit old now but presents a solid argument about the strength of decentralised systems or organisations, led by people we might call catalysts, where the network has strength, small businesses have power, knowledge is shared and everyone wants to contribute.

SHIFTING SAND: The Hunter is seeing the power of projects where there are many thinking parts, shared roles and regular renewal.

The analogy is that if you cut off a spider’s head, it dies. But a starfish has a ‘distributed neural system’. Ifyou cut off one part, it grows a new one. More importantly, each point of the starfish can take the lead depending on what it needs to do at that time.

OK,it’s a kitsch analogy but in the Hunter we can see the power of ‘starfish’ projects where there are many thinking parts, shared roles and regular change and renewal.

We see it most clearly through the work of the Hunter Innovation Project (HIP), which has been led by committed people in Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle Now and Hunter DiGiT and supported by a funding impetus from the State Government. HIP itself is focused on the Newcastle city centre with smart city infrastructure, a planned digital precinct and an innovation hub.

However, HIP has now grown some new ‘legs’, starfish style, with enthusiastic collaboration through the Hunter Innovation Ecosystem Project, the University’s I2N network of innovation hubs and new inner-city campus space. These projects have attracted involvement from over 30 regional organisations and from representatives of national and global corporations.

Another opportunity for collaboration has been announced with the state providing funding to Newcastle Now for a project that aims to install interactive creative features in night-time trouble spots. This project is a collaboration between Newcastle Now, council and Hamilton Chamber with considerable support in its planning by the NSW Police.

Newcastle Now invests in research, attempting to adapt the lessons learned elsewhere to the Newcastle context. We made a three-year investment in a university research project mapping the region’s creative industries. We then began to learn about the global ‘smart cities’ movement and the potential of new technologies to make cities more liveable and sustainable. This led to a pilot project in Darby Street. It provided a network of street sensors that has allowed us to learn about the potential of smart city technologies to help business be more efficient and profitable. It is now being absorbed into the broader smart cities strategy that council is developing.

Through these two projects we came to understand more about how modern cities are changing, and more about how we, as a Business Improvement Association, need to constantly review our priorities to leverage the big projects and their energies for the benefit of our members – as one player within a bigger team.

Like all periods of change there can be conflicting goals, but if we can work together and redirect our long-standing programs to take advantage of opportunities, the city and region can go a long way.

It’s not just that ‘many hands make light work’, it’s also that enthusiasm is greatest when people feel they are making a difference. And that happens best when by helping to meet the goals of the many, they can also achieve their own purpose.

The starfish has more going for it than you see at first glance.

Edward Duc is executive chairperson for Newcastle Now Business Improvement Association

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