Only big city thinking will create big brand Sydney

A mate of mine from London messaged me this week to gleefully pass on the news that Melbourne had just been voted a more popular spot than Sydney in some poll or another.

I dismissed his ‘time to move on old chap’ jibes with my usual lecture on the inaccuracy of polls, posted a single finger salute in the chat box and moved on.

Then I happened to see that, according to the BBC, Melbourne has overtaken Sydney as Australia’s most populous city for the first time since the 19th Century gold rush.

These two things got me thinking and forced me to confront an uncomfortable feeling I’ve had since I moved to the Harbour City some 12 years ago.

But first things first – I love living in Sydney.

I still get goosebumps on the Cahill Expressway as I speed (not literally of course because you know, speed cameras!!) and glance between the iconic bridge, the iconic Opera House, the iconic waters leading out past the iconic Eastern Suburbs to the iconic Manly and the iconic heads and think ‘Bloody hell, I live in Sydney – how iconic.’

I love the positivity of the place and the openness of the people, the inspiring nature of the environment and the way even a rough day round here – ain’t ever really that bad. I think Sydney should comfortably be seen as the greatest city in the southern hemisphere.

So after hearing the above I quickly started thinking about what the city could do to turn all this around. Where the come back would start and how we’d take the fight to those oat-milk-Latte-with-caramel-drizzle drinking Melbs. I mean, you can have your Formula 1 and your Grand Slams and your culture and your transport – we’ve got WestConnex, Harry’s Café de Wheels and a new football stadium. So there.

I was recently at an event hosted by the City where they told the gathered business folks about their vision for tomorrow’s Sydney. They also invited feedback.

Now, I’m not going to get into the specifics of their big plan here – cleverer people than me are all over LinkedIn with their (more informed) insights on that. But what they said, how they said it and how they responded to mildly challenging feedback fed into my pre-existing doubts about the way this city sees itself.

I don’t know how I can say this without it sounding rude. But Sydney has a small town thinking problem.

Small town thinking says that a 3-line light rail system is a mass transit solution for the future of a growing global city. It says that a night time economy is something government need to have their hand in. It thinks that growth is thousands of identikit apartments in soulless precincts where culture is what grows on the ceilings of the ill-ventilated unit bathrooms.

And none of this is helping me understand what ‘Brand Sydney’ is. Which is odd – because I’ve lived here long enough to have a really solid grasp by now and I work in branding for God’s sake!! Purpose, position, point of view, personality? Nah sorry mate, not sure.

When a city council describes the metropolis it oversees as a series of neighbouring ‘villages’ it screams small town thinking. Villages?! Does Surry Hills feel like a village to you? The tagline ‘City of Villages’ is small town thinking writ large. It says ‘we’re too scared to be a big city’.

But here’s the thing – cities are big. And busy, over-populated, smelly, noisy, a bit scary and expensive. They are also amazing, stimulating, creative, beautiful organic adventure playgrounds for the soul.

When the head of the city’s association for taxi drivers asks for better consultation about where cycle lanes are put so drivers can drop people in safer places, small town thinking said that’s a ‘passenger education issue’.

When the representative of a global electric scooter hire business wonders why Sydney is one of the few cities in the world where they are unable to operate, small town thinking says ‘because people can get hurt on them.’

A comprehensive taxi system pumps commercial life blood around any big city and keeps it moving beyond public transportation. Businesses need them and big cities value them. Innovation that brings scooters and e-bikes to supplement other transportation is welcomed by most global cities who see the value. Why not Sydney? As the scooter guy said to me as we left the reception; ‘Why do you lot think you’re so different to everywhere else?’

He’s got a point – why do we? And what’s our problem with growing? Sydney has proudly held the title of largest population for more than 100 years. And now someone else does. Personally I think some of the city leaders will be relieved not to have to try to live up to the title any more.

But cities have to grow. And shouldn’t leaders of great cities be coming up with ingenious, outlandish ideas that push innovation further and tackle old problems in revolutionary new ways to create more growth.

You know, the kind of concepts that leave us all shrugging our shoulders and saying things like – ‘whatever will they think of next?’

Instead there’s mutterings from the populace of ‘what are you waiting for?’ and ‘what are you so scared of?’

I want my city leaders to make me feel like I’m part of something with some serious forward propulsion. Like we’re in a contest. Where evolution is mandatory. And growth is the performance-enhancing drug of choice.

And I don’t mean growth through a thousand apologetic suburbs out west and north – any ‘average’ city can manage that without breaking sweat. I mean a dazzling-bright, technologically-advanced, swirling, creative metropolitan area that intoxicates its inhabitants and visitors, truly leverages the power of its indigenous community, doubles-down on the existing work in equality and makes Tokyo and New York look like amateurs.

And all the while still maintaining the gorgeous beaches, breathtaking scenery and ‘lifestyle to die for’ that no other global city can claim.

Do that. That would be my ‘Brand Sydney’ of the future.

Sydney really should be the greatest city in the southern hemisphere – and it will be when those who run it truly start to believe that.

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