Signs of Sydney

I named this post after an article I found in the local newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. It discussed ‘Signs that you’re a Sydneysider.’ I think it’s a little on the cynical side and it made me feel even more like a foreigner in my home country upon reading it. I’m not sure what happened in 2010, but during the year in London I seemed to have lost a large chunk of my Sydney memory for simple things, like how to get to places, and deeper things, like a change in my thinking about how we live. All this has makes me feel like quite the foreigner in my home city. But while I struggle with these feelings, I’m also taking it an opportunity to observe more objectively my home country.

Sydney city skyline

As designers we are always knowledgeable about the context we live and work within. I love this quote by Eliel Saarinen, furniture design and architect:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context-
a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment,
an environment in a city plan.”

So here are some differences I have observed in my new home context since coming back to Sydney after living in London.

The media: I think the media plays such a big part of feeling connected to the world. During our time in the UK, I have grown to love the BBC for their extensive coverage of world news. It made me feel like we were part of a close knit global community. The BBC made world news and issues so easy to access and engage with. Since being back in Australia, I have found a different story. Perhaps it’s the difference of private versus state funding of the media, but I have in the past few weeks been a little shocked at what Australian newspapers think is worthy of front page news. I guess celebrity news sells a few more papers than floods, bushfires and world issues. Geographically Australia’s challenge is its ‘tyranny of distance’ from the rest of the world. This geography certainly shapes media content but with the internet and social media today, there’s no reason we shouldn’t also feel like the centre of the world too.

The internet: Believe it or not, Australian businesses are the ones lagging behind the public and the Government when it comes to using the power of the internet. Our country is one of the most frequent users of Facebook and since January 2002 all appropriate Australian Government services have come online. Having used lots of online services and done lots of online shopping in the UK I came back to Australia to find a barren online retailing landscape. So while the Australian public has been well connected and almost 10 years ago public services of the Australian Government come online, Australian businesses have missed important opportunities to engage with their customers in new ways. This lag is clearly demonstrated by a recent consortium of brick and mortar retailers, including two of Australia’s biggest department stores, who bankrolled a PR campaign to lobby the Australian government to charge GST (goods and sales tax which is 10% in Australia) to customers who make overseas online purchases totalling more than $1000. The Australian Government says it is not budging on their policy (of not charging GST) and personally, I think businesses here have not kept up with the times (For more on the online retail debate see ‘Small retailers join in battle over import taxes’ in The Australian).

Climate: Yes, I had to bring it up, the weather. When we first arrived in the UK, I remember how much the weather changed our lifestyle. Growing up in Australia, we spends lots of time outdoors so when I moved to the UK, spending so much time indoors took a lot of getting used to. A London designer once suggested that maybe all the time spent indoors in the UK encouraged people to take more time to think, and think about doing more things. I wasn’t completely convinced of this until I arrived back here and went to the beach. Yes, I could spent a whole day outdoors at the park or the beach not thinking about a thing. But, at the end of the day we need both thinking and non-thinking time.

Transport: I just have to make this comment about Sydney drivers because after seeing how amicable and polite most UK drivers are, I have returned home to be shocked at how speeding, tailgating and not giving way to pedestrians or other cars is the norm. There have been many times already where I have seen drivers speed and wondered where are they’re all rushing to? Not to mention it’s just plain dangerous. In the article that’s the namesake of this post, the driving habits of Sydneysiders is pretty spot on. But maybe there are simply too many cars on the road because the public transport system in Sydney is famously known to be pretty poor.

Environment: My mother said it last night, at the beginning of each year there always seems to be some sort of environmental disaster in Australia. While the weather here is warm and almost always sunny, the country gets battered each year by bush fires, floods and drought. Earlier this month, three quarters of the state of Queensland was declared a disaster zone due to flooding. Due to heavy rain, three of the state’s biggest rivers went over capacity bursting the dams and causing flash floods and water to drown whole towns and the nation’s third largest city, Brisbane. To give you an idea of the scale of the flooding, the state of Queensland is nearly 7 times the size of the UK. I think Australia is quite proactive with environmental issues on a local level. For as long as I can remember we have been recycling and living with water restriction guidelines. When I arrived in the UK in 2007 environmental awareness was very high. It was all over the media and often talked about, especially at the design school. I have to say I can’t remember there ever being such heightened awareness in Australia about environmental issues. Sure there’s the news of the floods, fires and drought, and recycling and water restrictions are endeavoured, but never the kind of explicit awareness as I saw in the UK.

Population geography: One of the biggest differences returning to Sydney was discovering how expensive the city had become. Yes, compared to London. Groceries, clothing, teleco services, electronics, postal services and eating out seem to hemorrhage cash from the wallet. Buying consumer products and services here is expensive maybe for a few reasons. Firstly, Australia’s population, thus the market, is not very big and the geographical spread is much farther than that of the UK and Europe adding transport costs to our daily purchases. Another reason is that many of our industries are dominated by a few big players. For example, we have only two big supermarket chains. While there are a handful of medium-to-small chains, the two big players seem to be so far ahead in terms of size and scale that there really isn’t the competition to benefit the consumer making the cost of living in Sydney similar, if not higher, to that of London.

Government and politics: I won’t lie and say that growing up in Australia breeds political apathy for a large majority of the population. The Australian Government and our political leaders could do a far better job at engaging the public in ways that don’t make us apathetic and drag our feet to the polling booth every 3-5 years to vote for the “party we least hate.” In a classic story of an American friend who moved to Sydney years ago, he spoke of watching the election on TV one year in Sydney. He phoned an Australian friend to see what s/he thought of the voting results thus far and they replied “we’re not watching it.” Having spent a lot of time getting to know British politics and how design can improve public services, I am still amazed at how engaged and knowledgeable young UK designers are with government and policy. I hope that young Australians and Australian designers become less apathetic and more proactive when it comes to our country’s issues.

Health: If you think of the UK public health system and then the private US health system, Australia sits smack bang in the middle. I cannot comment on whether or not the public or private health systems here are good or bad, but all I know is that Australia has achieved a good balance in terms of public and private health care thus far. I hope we figure out how to stay this way because the balance seems to be a good thing.

The nation: Australia was colonised in 1788 making us a very young nation. We’re young, small, and somewhat isolated presenting many opportunities to do something big for ourselves and our country. While this is a long post, there are many, many more themes that could be (and may well be) added to help understand the Sydney and Australian context. Much of what I have written could be seen as more pessimistic than positive, but what I’m looking to illuminate here are opportunities for design and designers to identify how they might work with this context and/or use design to improve these situations. This discussion is of course subjective and swift (swift because I have only been back a few weeks) so feel free to add your perspectives (especially if you are local and don’t agree!).

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