When Tom Uglow left Google’s London headquarters two years ago to move to Australia, he managed teams of up to a hundred. Today, as creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, he oversees just one other person. Swapping London for the smaller, sleepier Sydney – and downsizing in the process – seemed to make little sense. Uglow’s Australian partner Nina, an art curator, had just given birth to their son Felix and they wanted to be closer to her family. But, he admits, career-wise at least, it “wasn’t a natural decision”.
To his surprise, the Englishman found that he loved the autonomy that comes with living on the other side of the world. Distance has provided Uglow, 38, with a creative space that he never found in London, where “too many people, too many ideas” jostle for attention.
“There are certain things you lose: you’re not at the centre of things any more. It’s not good for people with a fear of missing out. Your power is relinquished – you’re not in the headquarters [at work]. However, you gain an enormous amount of freedom,” he says, speaking over tea in the multicoloured Google dining room.
The move allowed Uglow to relinquish his managerial duties and focus on what he loves: finding ways to merge the digital world with art. His mission is to get people to stop thinking about digital as a tool and to start thinking about it as a medium in its own right. “It’s very easy to put digital art in a box,” says Uglow. “But it’s fluid. It’s just like having an extra colour in your palette.”
That extra colour has taken myriad forms. Over the past two years Uglow, who graduated from Oxford university with a fine art degree, has worked with some of Australia’s – and the world’s – finest cultural institutions including the Sydney Opera House, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. The internet – plus a fair few international flights – has made collaborating worldwide possible.
Projects range from curating video art at New York’s Guggenheim museum to screening a film Google made with Ridley Scott called Life in a Day (2011) at the Sundance Film Festival. Yet digital art, Uglow believes, is still too often relegated to the sidelines. “There is nothing wrong with paintings or traditional forms of art, but how do we allow digital to augment those forms that we already know or love?” he asks. “Digital should transform storytelling because that is how our audiences in the future will expect it to behave.”
Outside work, Uglow has become a fan of his local New South Wales rugby union team, the Waratahs, where he is a season-ticket holder. He points to a wealth of cultural institutions in Sydney that he and Nina, who works at the hip Carriageworks gallery, converted from an old rail yard, visit on the weekends. “There is the Opera House, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the science museum,” he says. “But it’s really sunny. So your other option is Bondi Beach. And everything is accessible.”
With a small child to entertain, Uglow appreciates the easiness of living in a temperate climate, particularly after years in rainy, grey London. “The climate is fabulous. Winter is pretty similar to summer but with a jumper, which I just adore. Felix has grown up in parks and on beaches. The doors are always open. It’s an extraordinarily nice way to live,” he says.
The most difficult part about moving to Australia is the roughly 21-hour flight back home, particularly with two small children. He has creative ways of getting through this: “We wrap up lots of small things as presents that can be used as rewards; pack lots of things to suck on . . . and take brownies/sweets/bribes to give to folks around you before take-off!”
A more serious gripe, however, is the car culture: Sydney, like Los Angeles, has been built around driving. As such, public transport is patchy. To avoid spending hours behind a wheel, Uglow has rented a quaint tin-roofed bungalow in the inner city district of Redfern where he can walk the half-hour to work. The couple chose the area “because it was a little bit more like London – it wasn’t just completely gorgeous! It’s a little more grotty.”
The area witnessed the infamous Redfern riots in 2004, ignited by the death of an indigenous teenager. Just a decade later it is experiencing its “Hackney moment”, says Uglow, who compares it to the gentrification of east London. While Redfern contains a number of public housing blocks and run down terraces, young professionals are now moving in. Popping up in between are cafés, bars and art galleries.
At Google, the ethos is work hard, play hard. Food is free in the dining room, which overlooks the sparkling water at Pyrmont Bay, just a short walk across Pyrmont Bridge to the skyscrapers of the central business district, and guest chefs from local restaurants are often brought in to cook for staff. Employees unicycle between buildings and play ping pong during office hours to relax. “My partner accuses it of being a bit like a kindergarten,” jokes Uglow.
Yet for Uglow, an important goal since moving to Australia has been getting the young – and often disenfranchised – interested in the creativity of the digital world. Coding in particular, he says, is too uniform. This has led to Start with Code, a project designed to “remind Australians about their incredible heritage as innovators and remind everyone that the future of innovation will require a background in computer science”.
“It’s a male-dominated industry. We would love to see more girls coding. We would love to see more people from other languages and ethnic groups. There is a diversity problem and that leaves to a certain homogeneity,” adds Uglow. This is, he says, a “perspective you get when you are in the office on the edge of the world”.
Best sunset Fish and chips at Watsons Bay, where Sydney Harbour meets the Pacific. Watch the sun set behind the bridge and the opera house
Best morning jog Bondi to Bronte beach at sunrise. An amazing clifftop route to beat the first day of jet lag and see the sights
Best café The Grounds of Alexandria is an increasingly poorly kept secret. Housed in a heritage-listed warehouse on an industrial estate, it is a café crossed with a food festival, with its own petting zoo, organic gardens and coffee lab
Best place to swim Snorkelling with giant blue gropers in Gordon’s Bay. It’s like reef swimming, in an aquarium, only 10ft from showers and a café
Best kids’ adventure Cockatoo Island in the middle of the harbour is where they used to put dangerous convicts; it then became a shipyard and now is an amazing, rusting, relic to that industry. You can even stay the night in previously prepared tents
Photograph: Andy Roberts