Diagnosis + Design: a self-help guide to cultural change

This is an upload of an address to Adelaide’s Built Environment Meets Parliament (BEMP)…

Firstly I want to start by thanking members of Parliament for being part of a national ‘first’; the first Built Environment Meets Parliament event outside of Canberra. The first state-based event of its type.

I also want to thank the BEMP partners for their organization, and showing how working across the disciplinary boundaries can yield a great result. I’m aware of the role I might have had in encouraging you on this fool hardy venture; having no concept of the effort involved. But a great example of how a collaborative venture can be essentially constructive.

I’m aware that I’m one of the ‘after lunch’ speakers, and as I read the program, I act as a breather between the very good panel discussions occurring over the course of the day.

So allow me to offer a contribution intended to be deliberately light hearted, with an underlying message that – I hope – will be relevant to the afternoon session, and the wrap up.

I wanted to explore one of the principles of BEMP – which is about working across the parliament; across party lines, across political philosophy and across the political cycles – to promote a sense of ‘common ground’ on issues that are important to the constituents of every member of parliament. Importantly, BEMP is not Built Environment Meets Politics. It’s Built Environment Meets Parliament.

Every constituent has a daily ritual that interacts with the city, with policy, and ultimately with parliament; regardless of political persuasion. The issues of design, of successful planning, and quality development, affect us all. Cities are indeed everybody’s business. And good planning is essentially a hopeful exercise. Quoting the words of our Governor, Kevin Scarce last month; ‘those who plan, intuitively believe’.

Cities are about the daily rituals of those that live there. It’s all too easy to ‘institutionalise’ discussions like these and rarify them at the policy level without remembering that cities are ultimately a success only if they support the ambitions of the individuals, the families, the migrants and business who choose to locate there.

The cities morning starts with getting family ready for the day ahead. It may be about preparing lunches for a school day. It may be about finishing homework, or watering the garden early before the heat sets in. It starts with deliveries and restocking shelves. It starts with bus drivers and city workers preening the city ready for the days trade.

There’s travel to work, school, day time errands, to school sport, a bus to after work drinks or drive to a parent teacher interview….

My point is that cities are for people. And successful cities invite people to move there; to be part of a distinctive cultural attitude. That varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood because of a distinct local history. A social narrative buried deep in the pavement, the streets and pubs of a place. It explains why Burnside is different to Prospect. Brompton is different to West Beach.

So, to ease you back in to the days discussion after your lunch, I wanted to explore this social narrative a bit. It’s one of the things that goes into making the “stuff of a place”; the quality of life we associate with a particular place.

And I wanted to do this by exploring Adelaide’s psychology a little. You can’t have a conversation about change in Adelaide without back-casting a little on what a psychiatrist would call the ‘schema’ of the place.

Any architect, social planner or creative developer knows that a place has a soul. It also has a psyche. A ‘sense of self’. An ‘essence’. A ‘schema’.

So what’s Adelaide’s “essence”? And how does it play into todays discussion about ‘change for the better’?

Anyone who knows Adelaide knows she can be self doubting at times. She can swing wildly from party girl (take the Fringe, the festivals, the abandon of a summer lost at Tumby Bay or Moonta), to conservative prude.

Adelaide lives to travel and see the world, but can fail to re-import the best when she returns. It’s like we can’t face the import duties on the diversity and culture we went to see.

Adelaide can be insecure at times. It can feel inadequate and unloved.

But this is possibly being too polite.

What if we looked more deeply at the psychology of Adelaide? Its self doubt – sometimes paranoia – and mood swings can suggest a personality that’s narcissistic, anti social. Borderline even. It can sometimes suffer from a false sense of self. An insecurity.

If she were a patient, she might benefit from therapy. You might choose to prescribe a set of interventions to urgently establish what’s called a ‘holding environment’. What’s a ‘holding environment?’ An environment built on deep trust. A ‘holding environment’ needs to be free of conflict or contest. In an atmosphere of conflict, Adelaide can be what’s called ‘hyper-vigilant’. Constantly over-geared and under-cooked. In this hyper-ventilating state, Adelaide’s frontal lobe fails to act. It’s called frontal lobe dysfunction.

Whilever we’re in this ‘hyper-vigilant’ state, we work in a linear way. Thought becomes limited to ‘fight or flight’. Without a frontal lobe capacity we can’t be reflective. We can’t problem solve. We can’t undertake complex tasks. We lack what’s called “executive function”.

In short, we can’t navigate the complex territory needed for integrated decision making. What’s needed to deliver on the promise of more integrated decision making? Problem solving skills, and being comfortable with complexity. And anyone involved in negotiating public policy knows how complex it can be.

Earlier this week, someone shared with me advice his dad gave him when he was young. He said: ‘for every complex problem, there’s a simple solution. And it’s always the wrong one”.

There’s a real opportunity for South Australia to lead in this space of thinking beyond the short term fix, and in developing ways to think – and act – more strategically. Our scale lends itself to a leadership role if we can embed this into our state brand.

Having a more strategic outlook on the critical importance of city shaping is reflected in The Grattan Institute’s report published in 2010 – Cities: Who Decides?
The report acknowledges that every city has a different story, but among these differences a consistent theme emerged. The most successful cities valued public engagement, had benefited from a consistent strategic direction across political cycles, enjoyed unusually high levels of cross-sectoral collaboration, and had co-opted the regions in a co-operative arrangement to support the growth of the centre.

In initiatives like BEMP we see some cross-sectoral collaboration emerging. In the opening statements from the Deputy Premier today we see an invitation for industry engagement in developing policy around design quality. We have further to go in engaging the public on the smart thinking behind the 30 Year Plan, but through a conversation with over 10,000 people statewide on the next generation of the strategic plan, I think we’re beginning to see regional co-operation in the state agenda for a common strategic vision for the state.

I’d also keep an eye on the incoming chair of the Economic Development Board. Raymond Spencer’s first public comments on 22 February suggests an EDB that understands the role that functional design, visionary planning and audacious development have played from the beginning in this state.

And there’s a stronger role for industry in mapping the design-focused future of the state too.

I want to close by looking forward just a little at a new role for architects, planners, landscape architects, urban designers and engineers, cost and heritage expertise, and creatively minded developers in delivering on the expectation of a higher quality built environment.

We have for too long asked the statutory planning system to deliver on our design and construction aspirations along with a changing understanding of how we might plan for more mixed communities.

Over the last few months, the Commission has worked with Planning & Local Govt to develop a design framework that can sit alongside, and complement a reformed planning framework.

On Christmas Eve 2010, the Premier endorsed a proposal to empanel recognized industry experts across the fields of the built environment to provide a ‘design due diligence’ service to both public and private projects. Providing a ‘design review service’ is intended to assist earlier, to avoid the need to intervene later. The initiative recognizes that argument at development assessment is an argument opened too late; long after the investment has occurred. And long after the opportunity for real impact is passed.

By teaming this design assistance with a more agile planning framework, we should be able to get better results, faster.

I hope we’ll be in a position to launch the Expression of Interest for membership of this panel in the next 4 weeks. This is a big shift in thinking, but is only the first of a number of initiatives that we need to consider.

You can’t have a conversation about improving design quality without owning up to the lack of minimum standards in the professional qualifications we expect of those preparing and lodging development applications. How can we expect better outcomes if we don’t value those specialists we’ve trained – often at our own Universities? Why don’t we mandate a role for Architects and others in the most fundamental of tasks; designing and delivering on creative visions for what the city can be.

You also can’t have the conversation without acknowledge the role of those who build our cities for us. Those developers who invest in the best design skills, invest wisely in public communications, that own and maintain their assets over the longer term. Can we continue to offer these developers the same path as a speculative developer in it for short term profit?

Shouldn’t we start to think about ways to more actively intervene in the market to promote the best, and more actively discourage the damaging short term development that has scarred Adelaide in the past?

It seems we need to redesign the processes we’ve relied on – those simple solutions that have failed to provide the answer to complex problems in the past.

I want to leave by headlining some of the themes I’ve tried to cover.

Firstly, the importance of working to a singular strategic vision, and for this direction to be locked in long term.

Secondly, for us to embrace the cultural shift needed to exercise more of that ‘frontal lobe capacity’; the head space to embrace complexity and to develop problem solving skills. For us to become the country’s specialist problem-solvers within the next decade, off the back of a new sector built off our capacity to design solutions to the most difficult, intractable and wicked problems.

Finally, to build on South Australia’s strengths in innovating new public policy by designing new governance models that more actively embrace a role for expert industry in developing policy for 21st century government.

I look forward to the afternoon’s discussion and again congratulate the BEMP partners on what is an Australian first. And I look forward to doing what I can to help deliver on outcomes from the day.

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