As Australia’s population clock ticks closer towards 25 million, decades earlier than policy makers projected, it’s the serious catch up needed for infrastructure like transport, housing and schools that’s top of mind for most people.
But start-up entrepreneurs Lucinda Hartley and Simon Smith are more concerned about the social aspects, and the role technology can play to help keep neighbourhoods connected, particularly as high-density living becomes the norm.
“I don't have a problem with population growth per se. We can comfortably fit a lot more people,” says urban designer and CoDesign Studio co-founder Hartley, who last year launched “profit for purpose” start-up Neighbourlytics, a data-analytics platform that measures the social sustainability of neighbourhoods.
“The challenge we have is the type of cities we’re building. We shouldn't be talking about density as the problem. It’s design and policy.”
The lack of emphasis on how people connect is contributing to declining social health, says Hartley, pointing to the Grattan Institute’s report that claimed back in 2012 that social isolation and loneliness was increasing in Australia, and leading to health consequences as serious as smoking, high blood pressure or obesity. With Australia having one of the strongest population growth rates in the world, the issues are unlikely to have eased in the six years since amid ongoing debate about the hot button topics of rising congestion, high house prices and the rate of immigration.
Leveraging advancements in data capture and usage, Neighbourlytics aims to harness information from social media, Google, Zomato, Trip Advisor and other sources to provide insights into the social identity of neighbourhoods being planned, created and managed. Clients are mainly large property developers and government agencies, who use it to better understand a neighbourhood’s population and how they spend time to influence development and budget decisions.
Hartley cites one private sector client that had planned to invest in community infrastructure in a greenfields development aimed at young parents, before Neighbourlytics uncovered a host of home-based online businesses in the local area. “As a result, they redirected their budget to invest in local business support and incubator spaces to capitalise on that previously invisible community strength,” she says.
In other instances, customers are using it to understand retail footfall to more accurately determine the type of outlets that will create successful and vibrant main streets at the heart of communities. “The long game for us is about influencing all city makers and urban designers to think more tangibly about social sustainability,” Hartley says.
Simon Smith, chief executive of social media platform Nabo, agrees connected, engaged neighbours are the key to ensure neighbourhoods are safer, happier and healthier, something that’s made ever more challenging as multi-story housing and high-rise schools, and even vertical farms, become more common in urban areas.
He says Nabo aims to improve connections between neighbours to turn around research findings, such as Edith Cowan University’s discovery that two thirds of Australians don't trust their neighbours, and QBE’s finding that one in 10 Australians don't even know their neighbours.
“When people join Nabo, they're doing it to meet the people around them and find out what's going on in their area. So despite there being fewer back fences over which to loiter and chat as neighbourhoods adjust to growing populations, and despite people being mesmerised by their phones, and growing pressure on their spare time, they still want ways to connect, and it’s a good thing if we can lift that,” he says. “It can be obvious stuff like buying, selling or giving away things, but it’s also around starting clubs with likeminded people, and sharing information about local events.”
Launched by founder Adam Rigby in 2014 and receiving backing by investors including Westpac-backed Reinventure Group and Seven West Media, Nabo has signed up around 310,000 members in 8300 suburbs across Australia, a number that Smith says is “only just really scratching the surface”.
Unlike Facebook which is focused around self-expression, he says Nabo is about “making things happen off-line in the real world”, almost taking the place of the old community bulletin board at the local supermarket. He says his heart is warmed daily by the way members are using Nabo, from the couple who ran into financial difficulty who were able to furnish their empty apartment with donated items from Nabo members, to the bee-keeper who’d called out for jars and ended up running a bee keeping network after receiving a flood of interest, to the many lost pets who’ve been happily reconnected with their owners.
“As we get more people, our growth accelerates. There's a network effect. There's no reason we couldn't get to at least half of all households in Australia – that would be 5 million households – in the next few years,” Smith says, citing a similar business in New Zealand, “Neighbourly”, that’s signed up 40 per cent of Kiwi households. In the US, “Next Door”, which claims to have 50 per cent of all households in the greater San Francisco area, has expanded into the UK, Netherlands, Germany and France.
Smith says Nabo is also eyeing growth from connecting residents with small businesses and local council events, flagging the introduction of a “premium” advertising package on top of other new services.
Ultimately, Hartley says the transition to higher-density living requires a change in mindsets, noting Australia’s lack of “urban identity” despite almost 90 per cent of people living in cities.
“There are no modern cities in the world trying to solve their traffic problem with more freeways, except Australia,” she says. “And there’s a cultural mindset shift needed that it's ok to live in apartments and still have a great lifestyle, like many other great cities around the world. But this needs to be reflected in policies and plans. We need more open space, apartments that are designed for multi-generational families, community areas.”
She adds that this human-centred approach can also help to address the housing affordability, and reduce social housing waitlists.
“We have very meagre targets around affordable housing. It's often considered 6 per cent of new housing should be affordable, while in the US 25 per cent is considered a minimum. The proportions are so out of whack with what's happening in the rest of the world. We need more ambitious targets.”
Nabo is backed by Reinventure, Westpac’s venture capital fund. Lucinda Hartley is a 2018 Westpac Scholar and her social enterprise CoDesign Studio was named a 2017 Westpac Business of Tomorrow. Applications for Westpac's 2018 Businesses of Tomorrow program are open until 8 April.