Cover of Shopping Centre News, from 30th September, 2014

by Michelle Cramer
Shopping Centre News
30 Sep 2014
pp. 24-26

Spread from Shopping Centre News, pp. 24-26

Place consumption is already upon us. In my last article I challenged that new economic models will need to emerge to value and add value to new style bricks and mortar retail environments. It turns out, this shift to a new place economy has already commenced, but not within the traditional realm of retailers. In this article I observe the way that governments, sometimes quasi-government agencies, and definitely partnerships, are linking with new business thinking and paving the way to a sustainable and future-enabling place-based retail economy.

Hot off the press is the ACT Government’s activation of Lake Burley Griffin’s shore with the Westside @ Acton Park ‘pop up village’ project. This is the first step in the government’s activation of the lakeside and a key part of the city’s visionary City to the Lake project, one of Australia’s largest urban renewal projects. According to the RiotACT, the project will dramatically change the way Canberrans engage with public spaces. Utilising three to four storey high shipping containers and the degraded and derided ‘futsal slab’, the precinct is to contain an events space, a stage, retail outlets, bars, restaurants, café and free public Wi-Fi.

The Canberra Times notes the value of public investment at around $800,000 over two years to encourage residents and visitors to the area. But this is not the value of the project. The ACT Government is working in partnership with the Stomping Ground Collective who are currently building and about to manage the precinct. The Stomping Ground Collective includes some of the minds behind popular Canberra café Lonsdale Street Roasters. They are an entrepreneurial group who previously transformed an area in Canberra known for its car yards and petrol stations, into what it is now a thriving urban hub of boutique stores, restaurants and bespoke coffee. On a busy Saturday customers can get up close to the roasting process taking in the sights, sounds and most importantly, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee. Also popular with locals and visitors alike is the ever-growing retail shop where you can purchase many blends and single origin bagged coffee as well as take in demonstrations of home machines and pour overs. The Stomping Ground Collective is expanding this initiative at Westside @ Acton Park. Here, a year-round calendar of events is planned for the space, including live-screen large format broadcasts, and low cost rent spaces for artists, designers, and other local traders.

With a nod to the Christchurch shipping container pop up mall and the Shoreditch London Box Park retail precinct, Westside @ Acton Park is the first demonstration of temporary (pop up for two years) retail based activity precinct certainly in Canberra, potentially Australia.

Arguably more important it is also demonstrating a new financial approach to making the urban precincts and place-based retail experiences that consumers seek. Unshackled from the traditional retail mall it has meant an unshackling from traditional landlord lease agreements. In doing so it is more reminiscent of the Department Store Tapapuna Beach model explored in my previous article entitled ‘The Department Store’. The Department Store is essentially a collective of like-minded, related but not governed folk. The difference at Acton is obviously the much needed injection of funding from government that provides the foundation infrastructure and, in this case land, coupled with a partner akin to a hospitality and entertainment model rather than traditional retail agreement.

With the idea of new concepts in business at the forefront of mind, it is worth considering the rise… and rise… of a growing number of academics and businesses that believe design thinking is key to 21st century business success. Deborah Tarrant, in her further education report ‘Feed Your Head’, believes that there is a quiet revolution taking place inside business schools and universities that I believe couldn’t be better timed to be coupled with the need for revolution in retail business models. It isn’t hard to argue that the numbers, strategy and regulatory components of business may look and feel a world apart from the definition of design practice – founded in concepts, inspiration, ideas, iteration and experimentation. However, business schools around the world, including some in Australia, believe design-led thinking holds the key to the much needed innovation needed by our changing business world.

Stanford University has led the way. It’s, - the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design - has gained recognition in recent years for introducing the trendy, but murky, problem-solving concept known as ‘design thinking’ to executives, educators, scientists, doctors and lawyers. Now other schools are coming up with their own programs. The researchers and educators of the school describe themselves as wayward thinkers – learners, doers, and teachers defining a new kind of organisation, business or, by extension, place. It is this school that has led the Wall Street Journal to write: “Forget b-school. These days, is the place to go” (and this couldn’t make the graduate of a design school happier).

According to the Wall Street Journal, design thinking uses close, almost anthropological observation of people to gain insight into problems that may not be articulated yet. For example, they say, “researchers may study the habits of shoppers waiting to pay for groceries in order to create a more efficient checkout system that maximises last-minute purchases while keeping customers moving quickly.” How timely an example in the changing world of retail economics.

Enter the University of Technology, Sydney. Professor Sam Bucolo is the cofounder of the new UTS Design Innovation Research Centre. He is a leading academic and practitioner in the emerging field of design led innovation, and has led projects which have transformed businesses by embedding design capability, including, by example, the Australian Wine Research Institute’s McLaren Vale supply chain, from growers to distributers and ultimately consumers. Led by Professor Bucolo UTS is currently establishing Australia’s premier centre dedicated to the research, development and diffusion of design thinking and innovation and the opportunities are endless. The new Design Innovation Research Centre (DI:rc) will apply design thinking methodologies to help solve complex problems. Through deep engagements with government, business and industry, the DI:rc will improve understandings of the design framework, how it can be successfully applied for improved product, systems or process outcomes, and what benefits it can provide across all disciplines. And if the application can be made to wine production and sales, by extension one presumes there exists the opportunity for design thinking to lead changes in retail business models that enable the place based consumption consumers so desire.

Arguably, it is design-led thinking that has generated the business model that is currently enabling the Westside @ Acton Park to be under development. Without a change in the financial structure and accounting of the project it is possible to posit that the project would still remain on paper. While the ACT Government has been an enabler, the partnership with providers and managers is essential and certainly falls outside Government’s core capabilities. More importantly, perhaps, is the restructuring of the valuation process that enables the project to be viable despite its breaking of the traditional retail mould. With the evolution of design-led thinking in business I believe we should expect to see more of these consumer desired projects entering and diversifying the existing retail scene.