China famously uses “panda diplomacy” to win countries over – gifting the cuddly bears to countries it favours.

Australia is now getting in on the act, with “koala diplomacy” providing an antipodean twist. Brisbane’s G20 summit saw Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel all cuddling with the continent’s favourite furry-eared critter.

The event was also strategically placed, launching Brisbane onto the world stage. As a city that was previously somewhat overlooked compared with its more famous sisters – Sydney and Melbourne – Brisbane has been undergoing a rapid transformation in recent years.

GovInsider caught up with Graham Quirk, Mayor of Brisbane, to discuss this transformation, and his three priorities for the city in the year ahead.

1. Attracting businesses

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First, the Mayor is focused on attracting businesses in digital and creative sectors to spur job growth. The city has plans for A$5m new innovation hub – The Capital – in its central business district, “set aside for 200 startup businesses”, Quirk says.

The hub will house co-working spaces and gather startups and industry, providing entrepreneurs access to expertise, capital, and networks. “The idea of the Capital is to scale them up, where applicable, to internationalise them, and to give them that boost to make sure that they continue to grow as many jobs as possible within the city”, he explains. Quirk’s team has also slashed rent for budding startups, subsidising the cost for the next five years to help them ease their initial burden.

So far, take up of the facility has been positive. It’s now launched for a month, Quirk says, and there are already 100 startups working there, half of the intended target.

This approach is similar to one taken in other cities. For example, Fukuoka city in Japan has launched a “startup cafe” initiative. This facility organises networking sessions for entrepreneurs to connect with venture capitalists and professionals like lawyers and accountants. Meanwhile, the Jakarta Government shares office space with local startups.

Going digital is also part of the Mayor’s plan. The council has shifted transaction services online to increase the ease of doing business in the city. “Everything through from development applications right through to business registrations”, Quirk says.

The council has taken its plan to attract businesses one step further – setting up a 24 hour business telephone line that operates throughout the week. Quirk believes that this will help attract both local and international players, providing a “one stop shop” for them. Staff will “act as a coordinating facility, they will assist new businesses to get the approvals that they need, and give them all of the appropriate contacts” required, he explains.

The idea for a round-the-clock service first happened when a 24 hour complaint hotline was launched for residents. The service covered “every part of city government activity”, where citizens, for instance, could lodge reports on fallen trees, Quirk says. “Because that was so successful, we then set up the business hotline.”

2. Improving Connectivity

New York Free Wifi
New York Free Wifi

The Mayor’s second priority is connectivity. This ties in with his first priority as it increases the ease of doing business in the city. Brisbane used the 2014 G20 Summit as an opportunity to upgrade its service delivery.

“We commenced a significant programme of creating free wifi in certain parts of our city and our South Bank area where the G20 Summit was held”, he says, and “we’ve now extended that to include all of our CBD”. Citizens can now enjoy free wifi in the city’s libraries, parks, and even on public ferries.

3. Infrastructure

Quirk’s top priority is building infrastructure for its residents. He aims to roll out smart services that are energy-efficient and sustainable; part of this involves replacing city lights with smart lighting to cut power usage. “This year, we’ve become a 100 percent carbon neutral city”, and these initiatives “will add to the picture”, he says.

The council is also looking to improve its public transportation, focusing on driverless and electric vehicles and charging stations. Quirk plans to roll these out gradually, catering to the demand of residents, he says. “What we want to do is create enough quantum to make it possible to encourage people to transfer to electric vehicles.”

Next year, the Mayor will focus on building a metro subway system to help citizens move about. “We are a very mobile city, compared to many cities”, and “more liveable in that context”, he says. “But the biggest challenge always is growing population, and making sure you keep up with the infrastructure built.”

The council gathers feedback on citizens’, and incorporates these into the city’s development plan, prioritising projects that are in popular demand. Among these are plans for aged care and retirement living, and financial incentives for student accommodation.

Looking overseas

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The Mayor looks to Singapore for inspiration, admiring the Government’s long-term vision. “The country has no economy production, no mining resources and yet, has used their knowledge [and] intellectual power to create a leading economy”, he says. Similarly, he is “making sure that we understand the sorts of change that’s likely to occur” so that public money will be spent wisely, and infrastructures built “will be relevant into the future”.

The Mayor recalls meeting Liu Thai Ker – one of the urban architects of Singapore – on several occasions.“He’s an old man now, but he was very much one of the inspirations behind modern Singapore.”

Brisbane itself is reshaping, gearing up to be an international hub. It hosts global events and gathers innovative ideas from industry and governments.

For overseas tourists, the Mayor recommends a visit to the South Bank; a stroll on the beach, and ride on a ferry, or cycle along bike paths. The koala factor is also killer: “This is the only place in the world where you can hold and cuddle a koala.” Just ask Vladimir Putin.

Main image shows Lord Mayor Graham Quirk (centre) inspecting progress of the Legacy Way tunnel ahead of its opening in 2015
Ferry light trails by Andrew Sutherland, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0