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Future Shapers Civic Jess Scully
Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

Time Out's Civics Future Shaper: Jess Scully

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Let’s face it, the world is a bit of a scary place right now. Climate change; the pandemic; closed borders; political extremism migrating to the mainstream; isolationist rhetoric reverberating through our airwaves; and myriad economic uncertainties in all directions – existential crises are pretty difficult to dodge. Which is why Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney Jess Scully is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. Although we’re not talking about blind optimism here. Her approach to local governance focuses on applying intelligence, creativity and robust data to the task of making everyday life in the city richer, more engaging and sustainable in a way that builds civic pride. 

While hers was not a typical journey to the corridors of power, her former career as the founding director of Vivid Ideas, which since its inception in 2009 has now become one of the leading thought festivals in Australia, as well as appointments curating TEDxSydney and leading the Sydney Culture Network, has made her uniquely qualified to unriddle the complexities of life in Sydney. The curating councillor, now Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s right-hand woman, has her sights squarely focused on a vision of Sydney that celebrates diversity, embraces technology, uplifts multiculturalism and above all, foregrounds the highest quality of life for those who call Australia’s largest capital home.

Follow Jess here: @jessscullysydney

In your book, Glimpses of Utopia, you make a case for a more optimistic, proactive approach to life's challenges. Why, for you, is it important to approach problem solving with a glass-half-full attitude, and what were the most valuable lessons you learned while writing your book?

It’s so easy to be overwhelmed and feel disempowered - I think we all feel like that at times, I know I do - by the relentlessness of the news cycle packed with that bad news, and the scale of the challenges we’re facing. But I also know we’ve got more tools at our disposal than ever before to shape a future we can actually look forward to. We’re all connected and sharing knowledge and solutions like never before in history. And I’ve met people all over the planet who are finding better ways of doing things - from how we manage finance to how we make decisions through politics - who’ve taught me that even in the most dire circumstances, creativity and community can prevail. 

If we’re despondent and we give up, we just let this bad situation become worse, and that has the biggest impacts on the most vulnerable people in our communities and on our planet. We have to resist that privilege that we have, to close our eyes and let business-as-usual roll on: and I promise you, we all benefit from that fairer and more sustainable world, even though it’ll take work. 

I learned powerful lessons from all over the world. In Australia, Rowan Foley, a Wondunna Badtjala man, taught me to put outcomes for people at the centre of plans, not the accounting of proving economic impact: centre culture and caring for people (in projects like Aboriginal Carbon Fund’s carbon abatement schemes) and the financial benefits flow from there. Lakota woman Stephanie Guiterrez taught me that a lot of snazzy new ideas like Community Wealth Building are actually rooted in ancient traditions. Game designer turned political change-agent, Robert Bjarnson from Iceland showed me that people are eager to get involved in politics and local decision-making if you make it fun and give them feedback for their contributions. Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang taught me that you get the best outcomes when you have a broad spectrum of people and expertise in the room. Five friends in Sardinia showed me you can redesign the way we use money and create a positive feedback loop to keep wealth flowing in local communities - and those small transactions add up - they’ve had $400 million Euros worth of impact with their new currency in ten years. And dozens of people around the world showed me practical, achievable ways to redesign the broken way we do housing and instead use land for broader public benefit. There are so many ways out of this extractive and exploitative system we’re in right now, and so many people to learn from and work with. 

Your career had been very clearly anchored to curation, notably Vivid Ideas and other thought-led platforms like TEDxSydney and Sydney Culture Network. Why and how did you make the transition into local governance?

Over about a decade of doing creative sector projects like the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards, Vivid Ideas, and working in media promoting the work of makers and artists, I realised that there were factors beyond talent and hard work which influenced whether a project was successful or a career kicked off. At a city and state level there are policy decisions about the hardware of a city (like how transport works, what kind of spaces and stages exist, that sort of thing) and the software (such as grants, regulation, how money is spent and rules are set) which shape the creative culture of a place. 

I decided I wanted to be involved at that strategic level and to make sure the creative and new economy perspective is heard when decisions are made about Sydney: I’ve always admired Lord Mayor Clover Moore for her fierce independence and courage as a progressive voice ahead of her time, so when the opportunity came up to learn from her and join her team I jumped at it.

What similarities are there between the kind of rhetorical and philosophical ideas you explored in your life as a curator and the challenges and opportunities you deal with as Deputy Lord Mayor?

There are definitely some overlaps! My work has always been about one thing: transitioning Australia from an extractive to a generative economy, from thinking our biggest assets are rocks in the ground, to realising our real wealth is in our creative, caring, globally-connected population. 

Working in government I’ve actually been able to turn some of the ideas I’ve been inspired by into policy changes, which will shape the way we spend money as a city, the new ideas we put into action and the priorities we set. Some things I’m super proud of include getting Sydney to develop a Community Wealth Building and Local Procurement Policy which will redirect more of our $500million plus annual spend into ethical local businesses; advocating for changes to get more sustainability and renewables infrastructure into heritage areas; and sparking the Alternative Housing Ideas Challenge which will help Sydney prototype some much-needed innovations in how we make housing and space more affordable. That’s alongside the day to day work of solving problems as they arise - that’s one big difference I suppose - you have to run at two speeds, addressing the challenges of today while trying to work on the long term visionary shifts too. 

Reviving Sydney’s nightlife is one of the key focuses of your work as Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney. Why is an after-dark renaissance an important thing for the city?

The nightlife of a city is so important to its character, the vibe and energy of a place that keeps us entertained and helps us feel inspired to live in or visit a city, and as a driver of social connection. When I think about the places I’ve made lifelong friends, the standout moments of love, discovery, joy and elation in my memories, so many of them took place on dancefloors or in a crowd watching performers, over dinner or drinks, in festivals or wandering down buzzy streets at night… I want everyone to have the chance to make memories like those. But beyond the emotional and social value of nightlife, there’s a massive employment and economic benefit delivered by the nighttime economy: pre-Covid and pre-lockouts, Deloitte Access Economics estimated that the value of Greater Sydney’s nighttime economy in 2017 was $27.2 billion supporting 234,000 jobs with an estimated $16 billion in potential economic uplift and associated jobs creation. For Sydney to work, we need our nighttime life to be thriving. 

After a devastating few years for Sydney, with the lockout laws, followed by the lockdown, some of our favourite spaces haven’t been able to survive financially. Those that remain, and those that are starting out, need to be supported by relaxing of restrictions and making it easier to operate, support from government and our patronage. I think the City of Sydney has done a really great job at the first two - by accelerating outdoor dining, changing our planning rules to allow trading, incentivising live performance with bonus hours, advocating for funding to the arts and entertainment sector, and business support through Covid Recovery grants. 

I’m one of the chairs of our Nightlife and Creative Sector Advisory Panel, working with local businesses in this sector to help them shift Sydney nightlife from surviving to thriving. One of the best steps we’ve taken in the past few years has been to switch the focus of our business grants to boost a diverse, creative offering in all kinds of venues after dark, helping small businesses bring the ideas they’ve had in the back of their minds for events and programs to life, as well as helping venues invest in staging more performances.

I know TimeOut readers are nightlife lovers, and it’s up to us to get out there, and spend our money in our nighttime economy businesses, and keep consumer and business confidence on the upward trajectory. Not only is it important for our local economy, but it's important for our community. After dark is when we can meet our friends, find new friends and immerse ourselves in music, dance, art, creativity and live performance - which is all so important for our souls and for the spirit of our city.  

You’re an advocate for younger and more diverse people becoming active in political arenas. How can we achieve this and why is it important for the city’s future health to encourage this infusion of new blood into Sydney’s political structures?

This is so so important! I very rarely hear from younger people, even though demographically our city is quite young, and I often hear from people who tell me they’re ratepayers, even though more than 55% of people who live in the City of Sydney are renting. There’s generations of people who aren’t directly involved in politics and whose perspectives aren’t being considered when decisions are made that will have an impact on them. 

Who decides how you can get to work? Who decides where you can party, and how late you can stay out? Who decides if there’s a playground or skatepark, a basketball court or a BBQ, in that park near you? Who decides if that car space serves more people as a bar? Who decides to fund art and culture, to prioritise nightlife and creativity, to create space for new ideas to flourish? Who decides whether to make climate action a priority, and to take tangible action towards it on your street? If you’re not involved, who is having their voice heard instead?

Local government can seem pretty boring at times, but we have a direct impact on people’s lives, and we need to hear from the people who will inherit this city to make sure they can see themselves in its future. But a lot of people don’t really know where to begin, and I want to help. 

I’d love to see more young and diverse people run for office and be in politics, but even if that’s not your path, you can still contribute and we need to hear from you. I’ve created a platform called YIMBY Squad (, that offers potential YIMBYs (the people that say Yes In My Backyard) the tools and opportunities to be positive voices for climate action, creativity, inclusion, public space activation and social justice nearer to home. I want to empower people who don’t normally get involved, to make sure a real spectrum of ideas are heard on the issues that affect our day to day lives. I want to give the voices of “YES!” the tools we usually see in the hands of people who say no.

What does the future of Sydney look like to you?

I want a Sydney that brings out the best in us. I can imagine how thrilling and stimulating this place can be when everyone feels included and that their contribution is valued. Imagine more musicians getting access to more stages, more basements becoming nightclubs and theatres, more rooftops becoming bars and cinemas, more space being unlocked for new ideas to flourish as development occurs. 

I want a Sydney that models the brighter, fairer future we could all enjoy. I want to help create a city that experiments with new ways to provide affordable housing and space. I want people to be able to ride and walk and scoot their way to work and school and to feel safe and protected. I want us to continue to be environmental leaders and to show the world how wonderful it can be to live in a regenerative urban ecosystem, where we use technology, transport, planning, greening, and all the tools at our disposal to reduce our impact on the planet and to give back more than we take from nature. I don’t think this future is too far away: I think it’s just at our fingertips, but we need more voices for positive change and for that creative future to be heard. 

Meet the Future Shapers

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