Sydney sets out its stall to rethink the way the city works

On the eve of the WORKTECH Sydney 2018 conference, Linda Chandler, founder of Hyperlocal Cities, explains why Sydney could become the first Anywhere Working City

It’s almost five years since I co-authored a white paper with Philip Ross, founder and CEO of UnWork, on the subject of the Anywhere Working City. The inspiration for the original paper was from working closely with Transport for London in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

The Olympic Travel Demand Team was liaising with big business about flexible working to alleviate congestion on public transport for the six weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, the opportunity was not only to make smoother visitor and commuter journeys for six weeks one summer, but an inflection point in the way London works.

The question we asked ourselves was: could a societal shift in patterns of working make us use our city infrastructure more effectively for decades to come?

The polycentric city

The concept of an Anywhere Working City is a highly liveable, polycentric city driven by societal expectation of a different way of working and living, enabled by new architectures of building, technology and transport.

In the original paper we covered four concepts.

Beyond the Smart City advanced a holistic view and touched on the concept of a ‘transport architecture’ rather than a ‘transport infrastructure’. It is astonishing to think how the landscape of urban mobility has evolved in the past five years with the introduction of ride-sharing services such as Uber to provide such an ‘architecture’.

The Third Space explored the space between the polarities of working in the office and working from home. In the intervening years, the popular narrative of flexible working has become negative – centred on aspects of unproductive open plan offices and the isolation of home working. Sadly, those points of view miss the opportunity of more innovative ‘activity based workspaces’ and working anywhere in between. The concept of co-working and casual touching down in coffee shops has had an uptake in recent years, but not yet enough to produce the powerful societal change that this could enable.

100 Mile City is a concept of regional economic enablement emanating from a city’s Central Business District that owed its origins to design writer Deyan Sujdjic. It originally referred to the economic benefits being felt from a city that has transport connections stretching into the hinterland. If we expand the concept to both a polycentric city and also replace our physical transport connectivity with digital connectivity, how much further can the economic benefits spread?

Evolution vs Revolution looked at the opportunities and challenges presented by green field cities versus established cities – there are pros and cons to both. Architect Terry Farrell, who we interviewed for the original paper, hinted at both the political dimension of large city experiments and making what we have work with small incremental changes.

Relevant to the conversation

There was much interest in the original paper and many cities asked us: ‘How do I become an Anywhere Working City?’ The topic showed promise alongside movements to a more flexible model of working and is still relevant to many of the city conversations I have had since.

However, as I referenced above, the ideas of flexible working and unappealing desk sharing in open plan offices have lost their popularity and I think we are in danger of missing the bigger opportunity for societal change.

Shocks and stresses

Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from chief resilience officer in Sydney, Beck Dawson to one of the working groups around Resilient Sydney – part of the 100 Resilient Cities network. I hadn’t really had a chance to engage much with this agenda, but the workshop shifted my perspective on the topic.

The key shift for me was acknowledging that resilience deals with both the shocks and the stresses of a city – and that shocks can be amplified by stresses. In my ignorance, I had always considered resilience to deal primarily with the shocks. In our group, we discussed how you make the business case around resilience in a city and the idea that it’s difficult to invest for the shocks alone – you have to invest to alleviate the stresses.

And so, if we recast ‘Anywhere Working’, originally a convenient fix for the ‘shock’ (running an Olympics in your city), as a way to alleviate the ‘stresses’ – reducing congestion, increasing productivity, improving community cohesion – we get a different perspective of the sustainable impact from deliberate intervention and investment. Maybe Sydney could realise its aspiration for the sub-30-minute commute.

How to do it

So, here’s my suggested three-point plan:

  • Develop the vision of your city being open to embrace ‘Anywhere Working’
  • Establish a network of diverse physical spaces for co-working
  • Invest in the digital infrastructure to support and discover working from anywhere in your city.

Technology is often viewed as a short-term solution to busіness challenges rather than the longer-term driver of societal change that could determine our perceptions of the future of work. I’d love to see Anywhere Working Sydney as the first global city to embrace that mindset.

More details on WORKTECH Sydney, which takes place on 20-21 March, here

Linda Chandler co-authored The Anywhere Working City with the founder of UnWork, Philip Ross. She worked at Microsoft as the Smart Cities Lead before founding Hyperlocal Cities Ltd.