Can bikes power Adelaide’s economic development?


My Thursday afternoon and Friday morning were spent in a workshop on South Australia and economic prosperity. It was an invited group of people across sectors and ages. We were asked to identify opportunities for South Australia and then create an action plan with a 1-2 year time horizon.

It was all rather timely given the unemployment rate for South Australia is now significantly higher than any other state in Australia at 8.2%.

So what’s it like to do this? Not easy. You’re thrown into a group with people you don’t know and you haven’t built any basis for common knowledge or trust. You don’t necessarily know enough and you have no idea what other people know. You are flattered to be in the room while also realising many of the critical people are not.

It was a valiant effort of the part of the facilitators. They are people passionate about the possibility of people working across sectors to achieve great things. I happen to agree with that philosophy.

At the end of the session we were pretty well challenged to take forward the ideas we’d discussed. And that’s where it gets tricky. I’m not sure we were invited on the basis that we would then need to make it happen. But then the question is – well if you don’t, who will?

The idea our group explored might be seen at first sight as unlikely. What if we used a commitment to cycling and to bikes to leverage a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship?

Adelaide (and SA) hosts the Tour Down Under – a key anchor event – but resists creating safe streets for cycling. Lycra wearing people (mostly men) congregate in coffee shops but probably categorise their efforts as ‘recreation’ rather than ‘economic growth’. Loads of small businesses are creating opportunities around bikes and cycling , but are probably dwarfed by other cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Yet we had a great time imagining what our city could look and feel like by 2025. We mapped out the existing anchors and the potential connections. The more we talked about the idea, the more it felt compelling, fun and transformative.

What if we had an innovation hub connected to bikes? What if we had an ‘ideas festival’ around cycling at the same time as the Tour Down Under? What if we connected bikes to the internet of things and technological innovation? What if we connected stationary exercise bikes to the power grid and battery storage (including in gyms)? What if we invited the city and riders to share their problems and invited entrepreneurs to work up solutions? What if we created car free cycle superhighways in Adelaide for the morning and evening peak hours? What if we closed North, South, East and West Terraces on Sunday mornings to create safe areas for cycling for families?

None of these ideas is original. Cities all over the world are already doing these things. It’s the combination and the intent that might set us apart.

Other groups did the same with the space industry, social enterprise, food, and well-being.

I admit I championed the bike led innovation idea. Or as I like to think about it ‘pedal powered prosperity’. But as I admitted to my friend at the session, it’s not my personal passion. I don’t even ride a bike.

What I like is taking a central idea and then exploring how it could be leveraged to build economic prosperity and a better place to live. I would have loved it to be children’s theatre or the crafts sector. I’d love it to be green industries. The point is, what if creating economic prosperity is not hard at all? What if all we needed to do was apply our imaginations, make lateral connections, understand trends, inspire people and create some incentives? Oh and then we need courage to stay the course. But the idea is to be bold, have a vision and take actions. One after the other. Admit mistakes, learn and keep going.

The trouble we have, I think, is how we segment thinking so that it drains it of imagination and fun. It’s by trying to be serious and ‘economic’ about our cities that we miss what makes them places that attract others and create new value.

Adelaide has many creative opportunities. But those it pursues need to be based on something we already do well and we need to make creative connections with other sectors. Then we need to be people who say – yes. Yes that sounds like a good idea! Yes let’s give it a go! We won’t go crazy throwing huge money until we know we need to – we’ll just be a place that experiments in a productive way.

I hope we can do something with our bike led recovery. If we got anywhere near the ideas we explored I think I’d find myself back on a bike. We’d have thousands of micro entrepreneurs and a much healthier community. And our city would feel different. And that would be fun.

2 thoughts on “Can bikes power Adelaide’s economic development?

  1. I agree, economic development starts very small and builds. In my tiny suburb of Hackett in Canberra, the local shopping centre (tiny, as is often the case in local suburbs in Canberra) at one point was a ghost town, slated for redevelopment as (yet more) apartments. The large shopping centre at Dickson, less than ten minutes by car down the road, is clustered around a Woolworths and is about to add two more major supermarket chains. Over many years it had sucked all the economic life out of the Hackett shops. Then a couple of locals opened a bar and cafe. Within six months it had turned the shops into a lively hub, with things like a bike repair shop and a florist and beautician. There’s still a way to go but it’s so entrenched that even the new developments at Dickson can’t touch it. All this from one (very) small business at the right place at the right time. It still amazes me.


    1. Hi Steve
      thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting topic to explore – the impact one great small business can have on a place. And it is also about the right time and the right place – and I guess the right people. From a strategy point of view I hope people understand these dynamics and recognise how important they are. And then we need people like you who notice and ‘join the dots’ so to speak


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