Many cities look at the digital economy regarding digitizing the functions of government. The Australian city of Brisbane took a different approach.
In 2013, Brisbane became the second city in the world (after New York) to appoint a Chief Digital Officer. Since then, the city saw digital as an “enabler”: encouraging businesses of all sizes to adopt digital tools to grow their business, collaborate, and expand the city’s economy at the same time.
It’s About Business
Cat Matson is the second person to hold the title of CDO for Brisbane, and she’s been in the role for over three years. With a background in small business entrepreneurship and consulting, she says her experience was a key factor for her in landing the job.
“I was the CEO of a social media software startup and running a business coaching practice when I applied for the role. And one of the first things which came up when I interviewed for the role was that they were having a lot of trouble engaging the small business audience,” Matson said.
“I asked what they were saying to small businesses, and they said ‘we are telling them the importance of digital.' And I said, well no small business owner is lying in bed at night worrying about digital: they are worried about paying their staff and the mortgage on their home,” she added.
Matson takes a fundamentally practical approach to implementing the digital technology. She understood early that not all digital tools are appropriate for all businesses. She also knew that digital draws many business owners mainly through the hype and the "fear of missing out" syndrome.
“I boil it down to a couple of things. Digital can help make you more money, reduce your costs, or get more time back. You need to look at which tool, platform or approach is the best fit for your business, so it's a value chain proposition,” Matson said.
“When somebody asks about how they implement blockchain I can tell them that their business doesn’t need it. So, it's about reassuring [the businesses] are not missing out and also calling out the hype that exists out there,” Matson added.
Under Matson’s leadership, Digital Brisbane holds monthly seminars on technology for business owners. The evening seminar runs two hours and costs AUD 25 primarily to improve the commitment factor.
“It’s really the 101 stuff, with social media, Linkedin, email marketing and SEO, those kinds of areas," Matson said. “It’s helping them pick the right tool that is appropriate for them.”
Another initiative was the creation of an academic Chair of Digital Economy at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The Brisbane City Council, QUT, accounting firm PwC and the Queensland State Government jointly funded this initiative.
One of the first projects for the new Chair is a ‘Digital Confidence’ survey of Brisbane businesses. The research aimed to show the council how the Digital Brisbane initiative, and the office of the CDO, is helping move the needle on confidence and ultimately digital engagement.
Matson's focus is not merely on small businesses, however. Her task is to implement the Digital Brisbane 2.0 strategy which sits within other business development plans for the city. The focus extends to entrepreneurship, smart city initiatives, business growth strategies and a broader program around major events and tourism.
“When I was brought into the role, digital was about helping businesses sell online,” Matson said. "Now it's about how digital can help human beings live their lives, grow their businesses and their work, and do it better and easier. It's about how we help people connect to the world and help navigate the evolving landscape.”
One of Matson’s projects is called Brisbane Innovate. It aims to foster collaboration to get smaller players to come up with broader solutions.
Then there is an initiative around council procurement, based on the understanding that for an early-stage business a sizeable contract with an entity such as the City of Brisbane can be a game changer.
“Research has shown that if startups can engage early on with a company or a council not only do they get the cash flow, but they also get the validation which helps them go to other customers,” Matson said.
Evolution; Not Big Bang
Although Matson noted that "helping make Brisbane awesome" through fostering digital technology is the "best job in the world," she is realistic.
The digital world, Matson observed, will arrive through evolution rather than a big bang. Although the world is speeding up, many of the promises of next-generation technology are not yet in widespread use.
“Business has been business since the dawn of time; all that has happened so far is that we can spread information a lot faster,” Matson said.
"For us in Brisbane, it's about pulling the right levers to transform the city with the guiding principle being that we want to use the currently available digital technology to enhance the quality of life in our city.”