Adelaide – food, wine, sun, fun, creativity and grumpy middle aged leaders

How can Square Holes help?
How can we help?

(14 min read, and hopefully worth it)

Floundering consumer confidence and a population anti-progress are often blamed for poor business and economic performance, particularly in smaller cities such as Adelaide. To me the blame game is neither reasonable nor nice, and the focus should be on business, media and government leaders driving change.

I’ve been fortunate to have been tasked for more than a decade to research and monitor the mind and mood of Adelaidians (through Adelaide based research agency Square Holes).

For those of you unfamiliar with Adelaide, the capital of South Australia is a city with a quirky vibe, home of great wine, food, arts, sport, universities and creativity nestled amongst pristine beaches and beautiful hills. A long narrow city, Adelaide is around 20km east to west, from hills to beach. Home of Australia’s best wine regions within a short drive?—?McLaren Vale (40km south of the CBD?—?45 min drive) and Adelaide Hills (30km east) and Barossa (70km north).

Ad for Adelaide?—?Breathe – by KWP! and SA Tourism (Click here)

How can Square Holes help?
How can we help?

Adelaide is a sports, arts and culture mecca. Adelaide Oval has been a big hit since the revamp launched 18 months ago. The corresponding increased foot traffic and crowds around the Torrens River has already extended the entertainment and experience opportunities for locals and tourists, and exciting improvements will follow in upcoming years.

Adelaide sells 56% of all festival tickets across Australia, and was recently recognised as one of the best festival cities in the world, with an exclusive invitation to join an international network of cities renowned for hosting some of the world’s biggest and best festivals (read article).

It is therefore no surprise that from Square Holes’ research 8 in 10 Adelaidians are happy living in South Australia, and this level has remained relatively flat over the past few years. Those aged 18–39 and 60+ are the happiest South Australians (76% 18–39 year olds and 78% 60+ year olds are ‘happy’ ). Adelaidians are happy people.

Men are a little less happy than Adelaide women (73% vs 78%), and our least happy age group are 40–59 years olds, yet even the majority of these are happy living in Adelaide (72%).

The lower levels of happiness for 40–59 year olds corresponds with this UK research indicating that middle aged people are grumpy because happiness is U-shaped. Coincidentally, this is the age of most of Adelaide’s leaders. Perhaps this explains some of our local naysayers. Rather than embracing what we have, they are unhappy, complain and deflect blame.

Thankfully Adelaidians are not distracted by the grumpy undercurrent from some leaders bemoaning what we don’t have, or obsessed with what they wish our future to be, rather than what we are, and building on this.

Research through Square Holes consistently illustrates more South Australians are confident about the next 12 months, than those who are not?—?in July 2015 42% were confident and 17% were not, with the balance neither confident nor not confident (they’re just getting on with life). This has been the general pattern since 2013, with indication that confidence is building in 2015. Updated confidence tracking figures are due in late October.

Confidence is highest amongst 18–39 year olds. They are excited about the future, and looking forward to whatever may come next.

However, talk from leaders regarding the ramifications from the Holden closure, mining and manufacturing sector challenges, and discussions of economic insecurity do make many Adelaidians nervous. They are trepidatious about electricity and other utility bills continuing to go up.

Uncertainty of leaders is creating a level of caution about the future. This in turn delays critical decisions such as home building, retail sales and major financial decisions, and increases the desire to save not spend wherever possible. The manner in which our leaders discuss economic conditions without clear plans, creates business and consumer uncertainty. Less confidence, less spending, less employment, less confidence et cetera.

Adelaidians are irked with long term plans?—?10, 20, blah, blah?—?that are more talk than action. Perpetual promises that “in the future it’ll be great” illicit a loud groan in the focus groups I’ve moderated relating to the future of the city. Adelaidians are a bright bunch, but skeptical about big visions, unlikely to ever eventuate.

“When we’re talking about twenty years time, those things don’t even come into my mind because they should just happen. Like they are things that should just happen right now, because a lot of the things that are going to be around probably haven’t even been invented yet. What we’re like now compared to twenty years ago is completely different.”

There is a demand for action, rather than promises, and the last few years have seen many positive changes that have been noted by Adelaidians such as the positive vibe surrounding Adelaide Oval, new small bars and anticipation as to what’s coming next.

There has been an increased level of respect for entrepreneurial culture from tech to food and small bars, pop-up events and a generally improved city vibrancy. The vibrancy of Adelaide, as for any other city, comes down to a multitude of variables, including economic and social indicators.

For the past decade Square Holes has been commissioned by government and corporate to research Adelaidians about a wide array of how they live, perceptions and more?—?from how they get around, attitudes towards climate change, education, shopping, what they do for fun, the economy and hopes for the future.

Some recent insights about Adelaidians…

Overall performance of Adelaide:

  • Adelaidians rate the city moderate to strong in areas such as ‘food and drink’ (7/10), natural environment (7/10), sports (7/10) and arts (7/10). Yet, weaker for innovation (5/10), industriousness (5/10), economy (5/10) and employment (5/10). The patterns are consistent across age, although our moody 40–59 year olds again rate Adelaide lower across the board.

  • While the sense of pride in Adelaide is moderate (7/10), the view that Adelaide has a ‘positive self identity’ is lower (5/10).

  • There is an indication that consumer confidence is improving since late 2014. Business confidence remains sluggish. A stark difference to when we launched Square Holes a decade a ago. A survey of CEOs at the time illustrated positive thinking driving buoyant businesses.


Climate change:

  • Most Adelaidians are trying to be environmentally responsible at home, although do not always feel that Adelaide’s ability to reduce environmental impact is significant, even with their concern about climate change and the need for leaders to take this seriously.
  • They see the federal government and industry as primarily responsible and performing poorly when it comes to climate change.
  • There is a view that Adelaide has potential to create innovation and globally focused jobs in sectors addressing climate change.


Education from early childhood to tertiary studies:

  • Our public school system is rated well. More so ‘the school and teachers at my child’s school.’ ‘Other’ schools are much worse apparently.
  • Parents are primarily concerned about ‘my child’s happiness, health, well-being and progression.’ Other factors are also concerning, including social media and racism, however, much less concerning than ‘my child.’
  • The offering at our tertiary educators is viewed as strong. There is a desire for support in gaining qualifications that lead to great career prospects, ideally in Adelaide assuming employment opportunities.


Traveling around Adelaide:

  • Adelaide remains a car culture. Almost nine in ten use a car at least monthly (8 in 10 at least every three days). However, more than 5 in 10 use public transport at least monthly (2 in 10 plus at least every few days), and from Square Holes’ research 9 in 10 either currently use or are open to using public transport in Adelaide.
  • Around one in ten ride a bike at least monthly (around 1 in 20 every few days), and a similar proportion catch taxis at least monthly. Around 1 in 20 ride a motorbike at least monthly.
  • Car usage jumps for 40–59 year olds, and is lower for younger and older Adelaidians. Middle aged Adelaidians (40–59) are much less likely to use public transport (surprise, surprise).


How Adelaidians have fun:

  • Around 60% of Adelaidians go for a day trip at least once a month to our wonderful nearby regions?—?the favorites: Adelaide Hills (75%), Barossa(50%), Fleurieu Peninsula (42% / including McLaren Vale), Clare Valley(27%) and Yorke Peninsula(27%).
  • Other faviourite things to do of Adelaidians are going out to dinner (nine in ten?—?40% at least fortnightly), the movies (7 in 10), the beach (6 in 10), attending live sports events (5 in 10) and various forms of the ‘Arts’ (5 in 10).
  • Adelaidians value our Arts sector and festivals. Around 8 in 10 view our Arts Festivals as economically and culturally important. They often don’t attend, from fear of wasting time or money seeing something not to their taste, but irrespective see the importance to our cultural and economic fabric.


Economic confidence

  • Our business leaders are far more nervous about the economic situation than the general population. Consistently in Square Holes’ discussions with Adelaide business leaders is the view that conditions are “tough.” This is a magnified pessimism than we find working with business leaders beyond Adelaide. In other markets, there is a greater tenancy to be told “we’re growing, management have increasing expectations and this is quite challenging for us.” In Adelaide, the views are typically …

“Some are doing OK, but some are really, really struggling.”

“It’s really tough, the screws are getting quite tight… A few years ago you could see bigger projects on the horizon, but now it feels like a flat market.”

“Plenty of capabilities, but nothing is going to happen quickly. There’s a lot more we can do but need investment.”

  • The general populous are by no means oblivious to the economic challenges but from Square Holes’ research Adelaidians see two clear priorities

“1) A clear plan is essential!”

“2) Stop the blame game.”

On the announcement of the Holden closure …

“Concerned it took this long for us to think about new industries and opportunities.”

“We need sustainable industries that don’t rely on Government funding.”

“Opportunity to move into a higher level of manufacturing, such as advanced technology and renewable energy.”


So, what next?

Square Holes was commissioned to conduct a study in early 2015 with young people as to their vision of Adelaide now and into the future. Noted in the research was a solid level of love of Adelaide and a desire to embrace a positive future.

“We need to instil some pride in the people that live here. Tourists that come here love Adelaide more than the people that live here.”

“It woud be good if people had more pride in the city, because all we do is complain. And if there is any change there will be a complaint about it. I moved here when I was eleven and I still act like a tourist here because there is so much to do here. All people do is complain that there’s nothing new to do here. And, that’s changed in the past few years, there’s been a a lot more going on.”

There is a desire for Adelaide to embrace what it has and build on this, rather than lamenting perceived gaps.

Young Adelaidians hope for a future more strategic and calculated (and less conservative), retaining the relaxed pace (yet, avoiding stop-start thinking), being active (but not crowded), having a sense of pride (absent of comparing to other cities), and ultimately getting the basics right (and not being hung up on space aged nebulous future visions).

From Square Holes’ research a few priorities seem to exist for Adelaide …

  1. Encourage a strong self-identity and progressive mindset?—?How can one not be positive about Adelaide? Portland, Oregon is a city very similar in many ways to Adelaide, yet a population of only 600,000 compared with Adelaide’s 1.2M. Another difference is Portland has a reputation for always being forward thinking with a strong sense of self, and home of brands as diverse as Intel, Nike and global ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. Adelaide has a reputation of being conservative and perceptually insecure about our sense of self. Even so, much success comes from within Adelaide such as Haigh’s ChocolatesCoopers BreweryRedarc and Woods Bagot. Brands such as these are conquering beyond Adelaide, by offering world-class products and service with solid understanding of growth opportunities and well planned and executed strategies. Success can and does come from Adelaide. Perhaps we need to legislate to evict non-progressive, insecure and grumpy leaders more rapidly— “here’s a plane ticket to somewhere else!” This would free up the limited number of key roles for those able to create positive change. There is some evidence that self-identity is improving, yet it is still less than emphatic enthusiasm.
  2. Take personal responsibility and act?—?Deflecting responsibility is counter productive. Any perceived problems are not the problem of consumers, the ageing population or even the government. It is critical leaders take responsibility for encouraging progress, as failure to do so frustrates Adelaidians. And, don’t just postulate about the future, act again and again, and again in the short, medium and longer term. There is no silver bullet solution. The biggest impediment to strategic growth is inaction, and leaders deflecting blame rather than researching, strategising and implementing change are unlikely to see any improvement. Too often leaders are waiting for change to come, or are reactive rather than proactive. True entrepreneurial leaders understand and work with the ever changing opportunities and restraints of a market. Rather than blaming others for making it difficult. As Albert Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
  3. Live local, think global— Adelaide offers a wonderful lifestyle and standard of living. Yet, the city needs more employers, growing their staff base in Adelaide, and with plans to further build their teams. Be this SMEs growing, or enticing businesses to base teams locally. Adelaide also needs to be increasingly an international city building on the awesome quality of life on offer, solid pool of talent and the trend towards globalisation and improved ease in collaborating with geographically diverse teams and customers. Adelaide has much potential as a global head-office base of the future for high value innovation jobs. From Square Holes’ research, it is what Adelaidians believe and desire. Critical in this, is the concept of product-market fit to ensure what we produce in Adelaide is economically sustainable with minimal government support. Also, important in this is support structures to assist businesses to access new markets. Much of this is happening in Adelaide, and Adelaidians view such a focus as critical and well overdue to ensure future job creation and security.
  4. Buy local, support local?—?Adelaide has a strong base of quality locally supplied products and services, talent and universities. Yet, Adelaidians can have a tendency to see what comes from elsewhere as superior?—?products, services or new recruits to the team. Buying local should always be viewed as the default and strong justification required to shop elsewhere. If we do not support our local SMEs and larger businesses, economic challenges will continue. While it is fair to encourage Adelaide based businesses to target the world, this is not always viable, and it is reasonable that the local economy will support local?—?retail, hospitality, products and service?—?businesses and jobs. The local support also needs to extend to our sports, arts and entertainment offerings. And, not just in Mad March, Adelaide has much to do throughout the year?—?On now in Adelaide … Adelaide Film FestivalTARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art (both Square Holes clients) and much, much more. Adelaide is generally strong in this regard, yet there is opportunity for greater engagement. If we don’t support our local culture, events and businesses, Adelaide will struggle to sustain and grow a socially and economically vibrant city. Also important is tangible commitment from media, business and government leaders to support local small and large entrepreneurs. In many ways it is easier doing business in Adelaide. Networks are easier to establish, travel times across the city relatively short, and access to our modern airport only 10 minutes from the CBD. A strong local economy is of benefit to all. We need to condemn the very Australian tall poppy syndrome, and see our collaborative role as elevating emerging and established entrepreneurs and the local jobs they create.
  5. Be the best?—?In a small city, businesses need to deliver quality products and services to remain competitive and viable. Consistently ‘punching above our weight’ should be viewed as a given. Often Adelaide out performs in many ways, yet often it does not. Some have a tendency to be reactive, under-invest and increasingly want more for less. For some ignorance is bliss. Some leaders fail to research their market and/or adequately understand the problem. They then struggle to be strategic and even with this are slow to act. If sales are down, it is more likely from a lack of perceived value (i.e. price, quality, experience and/or brand reputation) than sluggish consumer confidence. Waiting for a silver bullet or for the economy to improve is dangerous.

It comes back to getting the basics right. From Square Holes’ research, Adelaidians see the future as exciting. There is a desire to not replicate other cities, but to be ourselves, and to be confident and content about this. Adelaide needs to be a city getting the basics right. Wi-fi that works, and technology that exists without being visible. Tech to enhance our environmental sustainability, accessing things to do, travel, education, economy and employment prospects and to make life easier. Businesses that are truly innovative, rather than caught in innovation platitudes and replicating their category norms, when customers are wanting more.

It is about media, business and government leaders playing their part in creating a positive and vibrant city socially and economically. Toughening up and embracing and engaging the positive attitude of the general population, and displaying strong leadership both psychologically and structurally.

The above post was inspired by Square Holes’ research studies over the past eleven years speaking with Adelaidians to explore everything from what they do for fun, how they shop and views on topics as diverse as digital technology, education, banking, public transport, zoos and arts. Square Holes has monitored how Adelaidians think and feel, and their confidence and hopes for the State’s economic future. And, has also explored business confidence, challenges and opportunities across business and key sectors including building and manufacturing. Research has included partnerships across government (education, health, transport, infrastucture, environment, economy, digital etc), a large cross section of the business sector (private businesses, Business SA, Brand SA, Engine Room, Master Builders SA, AIM etc) and key ‘fun’ enterprises (Zoos SA, Adelaide Oval, SkyCity Adelaide, Arts, Tourism, State Theatre etc). Recent fascinating studies have been as diverse as Adelaide’s youth imaging the future, the role of tech to improving our city and attitudes to the environment, older South Australians, our economy and entertainment offerings. Thank you clients.

If you like this, you may also find these by me interesting …

J’adore Adeliade (2012)

Why thinking strategic is often tragic (Aug 2015)

Design thinking and overcoming strategic inaction (July 2015)

But wait, there’s more …

Ben Folds?—?Adelaide

Paul Kelly?—?Adelaide

Tourism options in Adelaide / South Australia

Doing business in Adelaide / South Australia

Ps. Please excuse any seeming hypocritical grumpiness. I am a 40-something Adelaidian. If you would like to discuss the above, or any other facts, stats and insights about Adelaidians and how you may be able to best navigate forward, I would be most happy to discuss. Contact me via LinkedIn, Twitter (@jasondunstone) or email

Also posted on Medium – here.

Thanks for reading to the end 🙂