Dean Forbes



Creating Australia’s First Global Knowledge City:

“Boston of the Southern Hemisphere”

Australian Higher Education Congress

Sydney, 24-26th March 2009

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

The term knowledge city, and variations of it, is attracting increased attention. 

Since the 1990s Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, and others, have argued the international competitiveness of countries increasingly depends on the capacity to enhance the knowledge intensive sectors of the economy. 

Consequently many cities and urban regions target knowledge industries, and the research, technology, intellectual property, education, and urban amenity features of the city.  Some identify themselves as knowledge cities.

A knowledge-based economy has four key dimensions.  Universities are central to two of them.  Universities focus on education and human resources development, and are important contributors to innovation and technological change.

The remaining two are a business environment that stresses enterprise and an efficient infrastructure, especially in information and communications technology, such as the government’s proposed national broadband network.  Universities, of course, are a lobby for improved ICT infrastructure.  They can also be entrepreneurial, as is evident from the growth of international students, though it seems to have escaped the attention of the business press.

The current global financial crisis, and the recession which it has morphed into, have underlined the fragility of the ‘soft’ infrastructure for maintaining the global economy.   The global cultural circuit of capital, a vital part of the knowledge economy, has fallen short of expectations.


A range of overlapping, but not identical, self-descriptions are thrown around as cities seek to position themselves for a stronger role in knowledge-based economies.  The list includes knowledge cities; education cities; university cities; academic cities; learning cities; and creative cities.

The origins of the contemporary ideal of the knowledge city go back to America in the 1950s.  In her book Cities of Knowledge, Margaret O’Mara (2005) observed that:

‘In the second half of the twentieth century, a new and quintessentially American type of community emerged in the United States: the city of knowledge.  These places were engines of scientific production, filled with high-tech industries, homes for scientific workers and their families, with research universities at their heart…Magnets for high-skilled workers and highly productive industries, cities of knowledge are, in fact, the ultimate post-industrial city.’

Cities of knowledge were inextricably linked with a period of accelerated growth in the research capacity of selected American universities fuelled by Cold War defence spending.

As the global economy deepens its penetration, cities and universities are forced to become more globally competitive.  They share an interest in becoming expanding nodes in the cultural circuit of capital and the global knowledge economy, and these interests, while not identical, intersect in significant ways.  Cities and universities seek competitive advantages by establishing effective alliances.

Richard Florida (2005 pp 251-253), coming to this from a slightly different perspective, argued that it is the creativity of cities that is pivotal to their economic success.  He argues that the three Ts – technology, talent and tolerance – are central features of creative cities, and that universities are important to all three.

Technology: where the universities contribute to social and economic development through innovation and invention.

Talent: universities are “the Ellis Islands of the creative age”, according to Florida (2005 p 251), attracting and nurturing talent.  Universities have a central place in all the innovative regions in the US, such as Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, and Austin, Texas.

Tolerance: universities play a key role in promoting tolerance within communities, by demonstrating in their campus environments the synergy between ethnic, cultural and socio-economic diversity, open discussion and new ideas.

Australia ranks 12th on the Global Creativity Index, a composite of measure of scores of technology, talent and tolerance (Florida 2005 p 275).  Australia’s creative class, he argues, are concentrated in the inner suburbs of Sydney (the strip from South Sydney to Ryde) and Melbourne.


While there have been many strands in writings on knowledge cities the focus initially was primarily on the building and commercialization of the intellectual resources generated in the universities and their contribution to innovation.  This thrust has long been evident in the conference proceedings of the Triple Helix group.

However by the late 1990s the steady growth in international education contributed to the gradual re-formulation of the relationships between cities and universities and the benefits of being a knowledge city.  As international education grew into big business it became a contributor to urban and national economies in its own right.  Australian universities and cities were leaders in this shift of emphasis.

Increasingly, knowledge city strategies address both the expansion of intellectual resources to generate innovation and the attraction of fee-paying international students.  The two, of course, are connected, but not as well as they might be.

There are many initiatives pursuing knowledge city kinds of activities.  Singapore is one of the best known, having expressed its intentions over a decade ago to be ‘the Asia-Pacific hub for world class university education and training’ (Ministry of Information and the Arts 1997 pp 116-118). 

Cities in the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, have also been very active, leading to the development of Knowledge Village, Dubai; University City, Sharjah; Academic City, Abu Dhabi; Education City, Qatar; and Bahrain Higher Education City.


Growing competition among Australian cities has seen several try and position themselves as knowledge cities of one kind or another, with a particular emphasis on working with universities to attract international students.  The support of state governments has generally, but not always, been an important catalyst.

Perth Education City was formally established in 1996 to promote the city as an education destination. It is funded through a consortium of private and public universities, together with colleges and schools that enlist international students.  The consortium is supported by Western Australia’s Department of Industry and Resources and Department of Education and Training.

StudyBrisbane, a newcomer, is a consortium of the Brisbane City Council and four universities in Queensland.  It is focused on promoting Brisbane as a study destination, and is designed to complement the Study Queensland and Study in Australia brands.

Melbourne has taken a slightly different tack.  The Committee for Melbourne’s Higher Education Taskforce Group released a report in 2007 saying higher education was at a tipping point.  It called for more effective partnerships between business, governments and universities, policy changes and stronger funding support for universities.  Included was a recommendation to market Melbourne as a global university city.

As part of the Committee’s initiative it commissioned the preparation of a Global University City Index from RMIT University.  The study focused on four clusters of measures centred on global university recognition (30%), urban amenity (30%), education inputs and performance (20%) and research inputs and performance (20%).  It ranked 20 cities, Melbourne achieving 5th spot, and bragging rights over Sydney, which came in 6th.  In the 2008 survey both cities went up one position with Paris dropping from 3rd to 7th.  Only cities with populations in excess of two million were included in the survey, thereby excluding any other Australian city, and quite a few aspiring knowledge cities around the world, such as Austin, from consideration.


Adelaide is an interesting case study of the way a city has sought to enhance its knowledge base.  Strategies sought to position Adelaide first as an education city and later as a university city.  There was for a time a third descriptor on the Adelaide City Council’s radar, and that was a learning city, but interest has waned.

In 1997 the Adelaide 21 Education Industry Development Group identified increasing international students as a way of helping expand education exports for the city.  It prepared a report for the Premier and the Lord Mayor of Adelaide that led to the formation of the Education Industry Development Council (EIDC), which later changed its name to Education Adelaide.

The Education Adelaide partnership was subsequently formally established in 1998 between the South Australian state government, the Adelaide City Council, and the three universities in Adelaide: Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. 

The fragmented governance structure of Australian cities means that while the Adelaide City Council is an active member of Education Adelaide, the other urban councils have no direct role.  However, the state government through four departments (Education and Children’s Services (DECS), Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (DFEEST), Trade and Economic Development (DTED) and the SA Tourism Commission (SATC)) has a key role in Education Adelaide, and represent the broader interests of the metropolitan area.

In its early years its primary focus was attracting international students to Adelaide.  Offices were established in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo to support the provision of information on Adelaide’s education institutions and facilitate student recruitment. 

After the election of Alfred Huang as Lord Mayor of Adelaide in 2002, the Adelaide City Council took an increasingly active role in Education Adelaide.  The Lord Mayor led a number of delegations to China, Chinese delegations to Adelaide increased in number, and support was given to the formation of a China cluster among the Adelaide business community, with education having a featured role. 

A government review of funding, combined with some rumblings of discontent with Education Adelaide’s performance, resulted in Education Adelaide undergoing some significant changes in early 2003. 

A new strategic approach was developed.  It focused on three main strategies that complemented the student recruitment activities of the city’s education institutions:

•    the consistent branding and support of Adelaide as an education city

•    the provision of information and support to those marketing Adelaide as an education destination

•    the building of relations between international students and the communities of Adelaide

The strategy was implemented in 2004 and remains the current focus.  A fourth strategy was added in 2007 aimed at attracting new educational providers to Adelaide. 

A readjustment occurred in early 2005 with the appointment of a new Chief Executive.  The branding and marketing of Adelaide as an education destination was given stronger emphasis and new advertising skills and strategies, drawn from tourism marketing, were introduced. 

In conjunction with the activities of Education Adelaide the SA government has sought to leverage on the growth of international students by linking it with the population strategy.  The government strongly supported the General Skilled Migration Visa and particular the Australian Government’s provision of additional migration bonus points for students who studied in designated ‘regional areas’ of which Adelaide was one.  Although the advantage provided by the bonus points has eroded, graduates of local universities represent a significant proportion of the skilled migrants.

The second major strategy has been to position Adelaide as a university city.

Adelaide’s initial foray into attracting a foreign university resulted in the South Australian government providing significant financial support to lure Carnegie Mellon University to locate in Adelaide and offer a small range of graduate degrees in the city.  The initiative was announced in 2004, and programs began in 2006. 

The Premier of South Australia followed this with a Ministerial Statement on the University City concept in June 2006.  He acknowledged the role of Alexander Downer, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop in getting Carnegie Mellon to Adelaide, and foreshadowed Cranfield University establishing a presence.  He concluded his speech to parliament saying ‘Mr Speaker, I am determined that Adelaide will become Australia’s internationally recognized University City’.

A pre-feasibility study into the benefits of Adelaide becoming a University City was subsequently approved by Cabinet in October 2006.  It endorsed the University City concept, pointing out that it was a ‘complex and long-term ambition’. 

Boston, it argued, was acclaimed as a university city because it was the home of world class universities such as Harvard and MIT.  Therefore Adelaide’s strategy ‘would involve the attraction of additional foreign brands with their own individual strengths’.

Cranfield University signed an agreement with the state government in 2006, and currently offers short courses.  The Royal Institution of Australia, which focuses on popularizing science, was launched in 2008.  And University College, London, which intends offering a Masters degree in Energy and Resources, will commence the program in 2010 with substantial financial support from Santos.

The University of Ballarat also has a presence in Adelaide, and a private Indian university is currently seeking accreditation.

The University City Project sits within the Department of Premier and Cabinet.  In addition to attracting universities to Adelaide the Project has assisted in building links between universities in South Australian and counterparts in Manitoba and Puglia, and negotiated a state based agreement for scholarship students from Kazakhstan.

The SA government has also leveraged the University City on a range of complementary initiatives designed to boost the knowledge and creative aspects of Adelaide.  These include the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence program and the Festival of Ideas.  Constellation SA has been formed to build research strengths around a series of clusters.  Plans to enhance health research have occurred with the plans for the redevelopment and relocation of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (known briefly as the Marjorie Jackson Nelson Hospital).  Finally a ‘bringing them home’ strategy targeting alumni of the three South Australian universities has been underway for several years.


In concluding, it would seem that Australian attempts to position cities as knowledge or university or education cities has been primarily driven by a wish to enhance the city’s brand and reputation in the global market-place. 

The City of Boston, which ranks 2nd in the Global University City Index and is often cited as the model to which other cities aspire, makes no mention of it being a knowledge city on its’ website.  The one mention of knowledge cities is a brief reference to a Dutch initiative.  Nor is there anything of consequence about the City of Austin being a knowledge city or an education city on its website.

There is something distinctive about Australia’s self-identified knowledge cities: the large concentrations of international students.  As the Institute of International Education’s 2008 Open Doors report noted, Melbourne (75,000) has more international higher education students than New York (55,000), the US frontrunner, and Sydney (43,000) more than Los Angeles (39,000).

Establishing the broader characteristics of knowledge cities is a work in progress.  It is telling that claims to back Australian universities global rankings cite the less rigorous Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, not the research-focused Shanghai Jiaotong ranking.  Australian universities do better in the former than the latter.

The challenge is establishing the international credibility of the knowledge city claims. 

As is evident from the Committee of Melbourne report this includes an appeal for additional state and federal government funding for research and knowledge creation. 

More important from my perspective is building knowledge partnerships with urban communities, strengthening the grass-roots support for knowledge city activities and bridging the divide between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor. 

Finally cities and universities must work together on the universities third wave internationalization agendas, attracting research students, building international research collaborations, and supporting efforts to complement commercial activities by being more pro-active and generous global citizens.


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