Innovation. Cities

Some time in 2008, quietly and anonymously, Earth underwent a major shift. For the first time in human history, more people lived in towns and cities than the rural hinterland. It was a tipping point that had been a long time in coming. The first wave of urbanization took place in North America and Europe between 1750 and 1950, fuelled by the employment opportunities of the industrial age. In these 200 years, the population of cities in the developed world rocketed from 15 to 423 million. According to the UN Population fund, a second wave of urbanization – this time primarily in the developing world – will see the number of urbanites reach a staggering 3.9 billion in 2030.

So it’s no wonder that cities, and the quality of life they represent has become the stuff of interest.

At the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, the Australian pavilion explored the future of our increasingly urbanised world and offered design visions for Australian cities. Teams imagined a flooded Gold Coast, a new city built above another in Melbourne, underwater cities that run on wave power, and a South Australian entry that explored a massive re-engineering of the continental landmass to restore rainfall and secure food production for a new Australian population of 50 million in 90 years.

courtesy of HASSELL

There is a long tradition of imagining the future of cities. There’s not a high strike rate in getting the prediction (or the prescription) right, but then that’s often not the purpose. Imagining new urban forms is often more about questioning what has been done before, and stoking the fire of imagination.

Sometimes, imagination and opportunity align. Probably no where as spectacularly as the new city rising just outside of Abu Dhabi. Masdar is one of the world’s most ambitious new cities that will redefine urban life in the 21st century. Besides being one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable cities, Masdar is a particularly intriguing design template for Adelaide as it shares a strikingly similar set of physical attributes. Masdar describes itself as a ‘walled city’ with a footprint of 6 square kilometers. Adelaide’s is 6 square miles. Visually the similarities are striking. Masdar anticipates a population of 50,000. Adelaide’s population has fluctuated over time, but the 30 Year Plan projects around 40,000. Both are ‘knowledge cities’ which value an intellectual and research-driven culture of enquiry. Both share a regimented underlying city structure, with organic, meandering natural features that disrupt the ordered grid and introduce surprise and delight, green space and respite. The early images of Masdar emphasize quality public spaces, to encourage an active street based civic life.

Masdar – Foster + Partners

Masdar has banned private cars, banned fossil fuels, and restricted all traffic to a subterranean level below the city (or rather, the city sits above; built 7m clear of the desert plain to capture cooling breezes). Masdar is designed to respond to its environment. Shaded walkways and narrow streets reduce glare and heat gain, creating attractive outdoor green spaces. The orientation of streets and public spaces make the most of cooling night time desert breezes, and reduce the adverse impact of hot daytime temperatures. Masdar is at once a leading example of a modern, smart and connected city and a pattern book of traditional design techniques.

Masdar is also a city built from scratch. Low rise and compact in contrast to Dubai’s sprawling Disneyland of towers. Masdar has no history, but is impeccably designed. In contrast, Adelaide has a rich heritage, and is – genuinely – recognised as a global exemplar of considered urban planning. But what lessons can we learn from this new urban experiment in the desert and how can it help our own city-on-a-plain? We share the challenges of a dry, water-constrained climate, and remoteness. But what else can we take from this sister in the mid east?

Masdar has defined itself by its ambition, and focused a global network of resources on the challenge of achieving those aspirations. It has set goals fearlessly, and without precedent. And generated a ‘brand’ in doing so. Masdar has been endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund and is accredited as a ‘One Planet living’ city. This means that if all cities achieved Masdars targets, we’d only need one planet to live on. Not the two many have forecast we’ll need by 2030 given our rate of consumption.

Masdar – Foster + Partners

Masdar has allowed itself to imagine a new urban form where technology sits alongside tradition and quality of life is valued.  But it’s the ambitious targets and a clearly stated set of values that build a brand which, in turn, attracts investment, interest and innovation. The ‘safe’ environs of Adelaide do little to attract the creative class, the innovators and the risk takers. But the city of the future is knowledge-driven and powered by the ‘creatives’ whose knowledge and innovation are highly valued. These are the ‘key workers’ of the 21st century economy. And we are luck to have some interesting threads worth exploring.

The mining sector in SA developed three-dimensional virtual reality tools decades ago to improve safety and productivity. Yet we still don’t have a 3-D virtual model of Greater Adelaide. We rely on isolated paper-based perspectives of a building, a street or a new park without seeing it in its context, understanding its energy consumption or how much carbon it could sequester. Drawing from the expertise of other emergent sectors in SA offers a tantalising glimpse at an Adelaide that is technologically-enabled, within a natural parkland setting. How can the emerging technology employed in the defence industry at Adelaide’s Techport be applied in other sectors? How can our understanding of the complex supply chain of advanced manufacturing – such as  just-in-time delivery – be used in the next generation of transport management?

In the world of design and innovation, there’s a dictum for success; ‘fail early, fail cheaply’. Failure works when it’s backed by a commitment to find a pathway to achieving a target. We wouldn’t have landed a man on the moon without failure in the laboratory, and on the launch pad. There are quavering voices already perceptible. Will we accept the changes needed in our own lives? Are we open to seeing a new city emerge? Can our design, planning and development industries re-tool to a more sustainable urban form in the context of a ‘carbon constrained’ economy? Will new, diverse housing models be appealing to the market? These are natural fears. Adelaide is waking from its hiatus, and we are building understanding as much as we are building a city.

And that dog-eared tag of Adelaide as a small-scaled city is quickly becoming a strength. As the larger cities of the East coast groan under the legacy of rapid expansion, much of their essential infrastructure is crumbling, or was never put in place.

As business becomes easier to transact from anywhere in the world with a connection to broadband, the differentiator will be the quality of life offered by a city. Add to this the potential to turn our historic weakness into a new strength. While the global mega-cities struggle to react to the enormity of the task in regenerating infrastructure, address social equity and stay within reach of nature, a small network of second-sized cities is emerging with a more agile outlook. Helsinki and Zurich are just two that are working to emphasize the place for the human within the urban experience.

Through the Helsinki design lab, the Finnish Innovation Fund is ‘tithing’ some of the revenue from its natural resources and mining to programmes that rethink how an aging population might influence the future of cities. It looks at their housing needs, how they will contribute to work and mentoring, and any mobility and social opportunities. Zurich has developed a virtual model of the city that is a three-dimensional form model, a carbon management plan and energy simulator. All in one. Imagine ETSA being able to instantly model the impact of a new RAH, or SA Water having the energy consumption of a Desalination Plant simulated instantly. A city of the scale of Helsinki, Zurich or Adelaide can work more flexibly, openly and more effectively – we subvert the ‘6 degrees of separation’ truism in Adelaide by at least 4 degrees and we need to start working these close networks harder to collectively imagine the Adelaide of the future.

The 30 Year Plan is an invitation to imagine an Adelaide of 30 years time. The plan is a high level strategic document and in many ways is one of the leading plans in the country. But where Masdar powerfully states its aim through design, the 30 Year Plan is a planning framework. The invitation to all of us lies in recognition that the plans success lies in developing a “new urban form”.

There’s a sketchy outline of this new urban form, including; a concentration of new housing in existing urban areas to contain growth including locating new and diverse housing and jobs in transit corridors to reduce the need for private car use, and a renewed emphasis on world class design with distinct characteristics.

Picking up a cue from Masdar, what sort of urban form would Adelaide have if it understood its own natural systems better? Right now, a research partnership between Fifth Creek studio’s Graeme Hopkins and Flinders University School of Remote Sensing is mapping the urban heat island effect of the Adelaide CBD. That’s the heat profile generated by the city itself throughout the day; a sort of ‘heat bubble’ that hangs over the city as the day warms. The research is showing that the Gully Winds that trundle down from the Hills in the late summer afternoon effectively ‘cleanse’ the city of much of the heat. But it also shows the heat settling west of the city. This is vital intelligence for urban planners, architects and landscape architects and city governors. And it’s remarkable that we’re only now beginning to understand the science behind this phenomena almost 175 years after settlement.

Research, technology and innovation. These are recurring themes in imagining more friendly, more sustainable cities. As the range of technologies we rely on for daily life grows, we need to ask how we can draw these technologies together into a seamless support system for us? What sort of city experience would we enjoy if our phones tracked available car parks, or anticipated the arrival of the bus home? How can real-time information help us make decisions that improve our quality of life?

Take the example of the IT world. Software 30 years ago was about green-screen and syntax errors — if/then/else statements and DOS-based commands. Fast forward to today’s interface on an iPhone, a PC or Telstra T hub. All have bundled the (essentially) meaningless computer-speak to the background and have intuitive interface tools and software icons driving those commands. It’s shifted from geek-speak to something my five year old ‘gets’. Imagine bundling the myriad complexities of the urban realm into the background, and developing a more user-friendly interface with the city. Imagine environmental sensors constantly monitoring air quality, pedestrian and cycling movement, traffic congestion, ambient and surface temperatures. And for this input stream to drive a more efficient city infrastructure. It might mean more pedestrian friendly traffic lights that activate by sensing presence; not by a pre-determined time interval.

Increasingly industry is seeing possibilities to link these discrete interactions into an integrated ‘urban operating system’. Take Cisco’s Smart & Connected Communities concept. The idea is to use intelligent (digital) networking to inter-link people with services, social infrastructure and information. By networking the functions of the city, more intelligent decisions are made possible, including new options for managing energy consumption (by diverting resources where they’re needed instantly, or automatically powering down a building after hours), reducing operating costs, or by making buildings more responsive to their tenants needs. It may mean better ‘remote control’ of building air conditioning and lighting, better IT networks that promote flexible work arrangements. Location will be less important that connection.

Another glimpse in to the future-now is in global design practice Arup’s work in ‘urban informatics’. The term refers to how information and communications technologies might shape our cities, and how a more responsive city might enable more interaction, more empowering of individual needs and how a city can become “alive to the touch of its citizens” (as Dan Hill puts it). An example might be how city infrastructure could be driven by the number of people in the vicinity. Imagine a new Torrens footbridge whose lights automatically ‘power up’ after a game at the Oval, as the fans leave and head into the city to celebrate. Could the foot traffic itself power the lighting? It’s been trialled in Tokyo. “People powered infrastructure”; just imagine it.

Whatever future we choose for ourselves, we know it will need a greater level of co-operation and collaboration between government , industry and community, and involve new and exciting opportunities for cities to respond to our needs in ‘real time’. One thing’s for certain; things will have to change. And in many ways, that includes us.

Reprinted from a 2010 article for Adelaide Magazine

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