On pinholes and the Under 7’s

Take a piece of black card and a pencil. In the centre of the card, push the pencil through the card to make a hole. Hold it to your eye. Look down. Now walk. While you can see where the next foot goes, you have no hope of seeing the light pole dead ahead. Done that? You’re ready for government! Pinholes are an analogy for how the combination of silos & short termism are failing us.

So why the “Under 7’s”? Well, it’s the age your local kids soccer team tends to cluster around the ball in play. It’s not till you get to the teens that you adopt a genuine team structure – playing positions and respecting the role others play towards a common goal. Parts of the last 2 years have felt like being in the under 7’s although there are signs we’re graduating up the league. Under 7’s as an example of the current phase we’re in, and how we need to think more strategically in how organizations work collaboratively (including delegation, trust, co-operation and the rest).

Ianto Ware wrote recently in a blog that Adelaide’s basic problem has two parts;

a. it needs to innovate so it can compete; culturally & economically

b. innovation involves risk taking

Adelaide needs agents that can navigate risk while charting a course for innovation. I think that’s what the Integrated Design Commission did.

That’s also what the Thinkers in Residence program did. And it was the Thinkers program that brought the Integrated Design Commission in to being.

I don’t get the opposition to the Thinkers program. Take a private sector view – companies that succeed know that all the best minds aren’t always in their employ. You can import knowledge. And where there are entrenched hierarchies, opening the business to the outside can be the fastest way to innovate and reform.

The Integrated Design Commission wouldn’t exist without the work of the Thinkers Program and the remarkable Gabe Kelly and her team deserve credit and thanks for everything they have done to further new thinking in South Australia.

Thinkers is what led to a call one Wednesday morning in June 2010 from Premier Mike Rann’s office inviting me to take the role of Commissioner with a new agency designed to work across government to better connect our thinking between design, planning and development. To link research and evidence to independent advice. To be an advocate in the public domain. From that day to this, it has been a privilege.

The first chance I got to speak to cabinet I outlined 3 high level guiding principles for the Commission. They included; Collaboration, Engagement and Design excellence.

In kicking off this ‘retrospective looking forward’ I need to stop and acknowledge the team that has made the Commission what it was. The Government Architect, Ben Hewett who moved from Sydney to be part of this crazy idea, and who will now lead the Office for Design and Architecture. And the tireless Trixie Smith who was on board long before me and had the task of shoe-horning green non government thinking in to government process. Trixie hasn’t been given enough credit. I’ll mention the rest of the team later but this leadership model; shared between a Commissioner, the Government Architect and a Director was a unique characteristic embedded in the organization from the beginning.

IDC org chart

I promised a frank and candid retrospective. I think it’s important we give an account of the work of the Commission – how and where resources were invested. I want to do this by exploring just 5 things I think we did well, offer 5 things we didn’t do so well, and – because design is always an optimistic way of thinking – I want to outline 5 hopes for the future.

But to set the scene, I’d also like to suggest we only had around 200 days of effective life as the independent Commission first envisaged by Cabinet.

Here’s the timeline; 

From starting in July 2010, government procurement process meant it took around 6 months to put the small team in place, and sketch out a workplan.

This is where we moved from the 9 recommendations contained in Laura Lee’s report, to the 5 principles that underpinned the work of the Commission. From here, we had around 9 months to design the implementation with partners before changes in the political landscape that brought changes for us too.

Projects we were able to meaningfully start in this period include;

Zero Carbon Challenge; encouraging architects and builders to work together for a model of housing with low or no bills for home owners. This is an example of being productive in the face of challenge – to find solutions to the challenge of more affordable housing when others are asking for band aids to symptoms.

Integrated Design Strategy; to wrangle the partnership of 8 councils, our own state government and the Australian government at a time of high anxiety and conflict over planning reforms that had largely failed to involve, let alone excite, the community. Something I think 5000+ has been able to play a role in diffusing by engaging more openly and – as the Premier himself has said; ‘providing a model for how we want to run this state’.

Design integration The Commission was asked to operate across the breadth of design impact. This includes graphic and industrial and product design as much as the built environment. So we were thrilled to lead the roll out of the design integration pilot – to bring design thinking to business process and business leadership in association with the Creative Industries Innovation Centre and Enterprise Connect.  Something that has become a significant part of the Advanced Manufacturing strategy released in October.

We were also able to commence research that’s now bearing fruit – but more on this later.

The speed with which we were able to operate changed in the last 12 months. The role first envisaged as an independent Commission slowly changed to a business unit of the Department of Premier and Cabinet; reporting through a hierarchy where risk is still the primary currency. This ‘hybrid model’ – meant we retained all the expectations of a commission with the oversight and filtering of a standard business unit. The impact of this stalled or quashed initiatives, and elevated risk-reduction as the over riding mode of operation.

In spite of this, I believe the Commission achieved a few things in its short time.

5 things we got right 

We gave design presence

You don’t value what you can’t measure. And what’s measured matters. And design wasn’t on the radar. Economies with an evolved design sector are more resilient and more growth-oriented. And some of the most competitive design-smart economies are in our region. Singapore, Korea, and New Zealand. To the the credit of what was then the Dept of Trade and Economic Development, work to measure the sector commenced almost immediately, revealing a conservative estimate of design’s impact in South Australia measuring at least $2.7bn annually to the economy (conservative because, faced with what we knew we couldn’t measure, we chose not to include rather than take a guess). And we defined design broadly as all those who make design decisions.

Sector diagram

Design deals with culture. So I’m proud that we commissioned some of the first research on the value of cultural renewal in cities by working with Renew Australia and SGS Economics on the first ever retrospective business case of the Renew Newcastle program showing a return on investment of 10:1 (again conservative because the research showed we just don’t gather data well in Australia). This backs continuing government support for this great program here in Adelaide, and may have helped recently overturn a decision in NSW to cut funding for Renew Newcastle). Here’s hoping the research, and the accompanying report is released soon – we’ve been encouraging it’s release for some months now.

Giving the sector presence is also measured by public awareness.

The design industry, the value of well designed products and places, design practices and their publications, and the value of design research are now more a part of media and public discourse.

Media now has more people to call on and more words in their vocabulary. Adelaide Review has run a successful design and planning focused supplement called FORM for more than 2 years. More recently, online newspaper Indaily launched a design section.

News Limited has appointed an urban affairs reporter. We supported Radio Adelaide’s focus on Architecture, Environment, and Affect by helping to sponsor The Plan.  PLACE magazine has appeared on lobby tables in govt. The state’s advnaced manufactruing strategy Manufacturing Works looks forward to a Centre for Excellence in design for manufacturing.

Most recently the sector was profiled in a bespoke book, Design South Australia. This publication set a new benchmark for government literature; thanks largely to an industry-led editorial board, the talent of Voice Design (recognised in November with an award at the Australian Design Biennale) and local publisher, Wakefield.


So we helped ‘reveal’ the contribution that good design, planning and development make to the quality of life here in South Australia.

We were a conduit

We acted as a conduit through which sectors could connect with public and government (including the Australian Institute of Architects, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Planning Institute of Australia, Australian Graphic Design Association and the Design Institute of Australia; adding to the usual suspects like the Property Council and the Urban Development Institute of Australia)

Recently, the national Built Environment Industry Innovation Council debated whether the construction sector would be the next failed sector. Research and experience shows a fragmented sector where R&D is rare, and knowledge exchange between the design, planning and delivery chain is often poor – especially outside of a specific project. Same for manufacturing.

So having a common rallying point, advocate and forum for exchange helps. In our first two years we did this better for the design and planning fields than for the construction sector or in education.

Our aim was to grow this forum. In our first year, the Commission developed a detailed proposal for a research roundtable to more effectively promote and share research and industry knowledge. But in seeking support from colleague agencies, the proposal was lifted, tweaked and is likely to be realised but in a different form than originally intended.

Still, I believe we succeeded in brokering new relationships and breaking down some of the traditional divide between public and private, and between disciplines.

An example is early work to prototype new planning modules that are yet to be released. To the enormous credit of the Department of Planning at the time, we had the idea to ask five design practices to help ‘hack’ preliminary planning modules – to play forward the outcomes to help inform improvements. A really great model for government/non government partnerships in policy design.

Nationally we helped bring disciplines together – like in this 2010 statement from govt, research and industry that cities were ‘everyone’s business’ where the Commission acted to co-ordinate like-minded urbanists across Australia.


We showed you can engage people differently involved them in framing the question.

Remember an early undertaking was for the Commission to promote 3 things; engagement, collaboration and design excellence

These 3 came together in the Integrated Design strategy. To quote the Deputy Premier and Planning Minister, John Rau at the opening of the exhibition showcasing the process behind the Strategy; our work was a catalyst for engagement. “To bring together the many disparate thoughts of individuals in the community and bring them together in something meaningful which can be developed for the benefit of the whole community – that has been one of the tremendous outcomes of this 5000+ project. More on Rau’s really great speech here.


It was a special thrill to see this understood, and promoted across government during the exhibition with workshops in how a design-based approach to problem solving can work beyond the built environment in community safety, social policy, and public administration.

Or outside of the exhibition, in Project Tag which we did with the help of the Council for the Care of Children making visible the place of youth at risk in Adelaide. Even the Commissions’ website set a new standard for government. Our graphic identity only got up thanks to personal intervention by friendly bureaucrats at the time.

We developed new ways of working

This is critical to innovation & enterprise in public administration and in better connecting policy design to user needs.

Continuing on from the lessons learned from the Integrated Design Strategy we were thrilled not only with John Rau’s perspective, but the Premier who stated very clearly the value of design-based thinking when he said that the Integrated Design Strategy represents “much more than just an urban design proposition, it’s actually a recipe for the way in which we want to run this state. If we get this right, then this is the image we can project to the whole world

Beyond the work of the Strategy, the Commission moved from a role as design advisor, to a broader innovation unit across govt. Like our partnership with Renewal SA on initiating the Zero Carbon Challenge.

TS4 Architecture

This net zero house is much more than an eco friendly house. It offers a working prototype for low or no bills living for families. It means using a project to probe where gaps in our own local manufacturing supply chains exist. Where trades training needs focus. Where new products, new materials & new technologies can be brought to market.

Interestingly – when ideas to kickstart innovation in housing and construction were put to the Treasurer, Jack Snelling 12 months earlier, his view that the “market was not failing”. Events subsequently have disproved this thesis – and I presume he now support the Premiers decision to call a construction roundtable (even if it did choose to exclude architects, engineers, researchers or the far sighted suppliers from the developer-centred conversation), and I presume Treasury supports the COAG taskforce examining the costs & productivity in the construction sector. Just a shame we didn’t lead on this 18 months ago, and take a more forward thinking trajectory instead of the reactive one we chose.

We promoted design excellence.

Clearly this is most recently been enacted through John Rau’s clear support for Design Review as an essential plank in Planning. Genuinely a nationally leading model.

Design Review hasn’t happened overnight. It’s been 2 years in the making. The first proposal was signed off by then Premier Mike Rann on Christmas Eve 2010 prior to the first ever global MoU signed by the UK’s Design Council with us to learn from a decade’s experience.

The Capital City Design Review program is a great model but since everyone deserves places that work, the ultimate test will be its roll out across Greater Adelaide and beyond. Design review was originally proposed to be a service accessible to all, although ODASA will need resources boosted given recent slashing cuts.

But Design excellence is about a culture beyond just the built environment. Graphic and product design gives our great food produce its identity. Industrial design creates the products for global markets. Design excellence starts with an informed audience that expects it, and a sector able to deliver. It starts in how we teach, train and use our design talent. Something we’ll need to continue to work at.

So if this is what we did right, what didn’t we do so right? And by ‘we’ I’m happy to view this as personal critique.

5 things we did wrong

We tried too much, too soon.

According to one around the cabinet we ‘tried too much, too soon’. That’s probably true although in retrospect, with around 200 working days of ‘autonomy’ I’m glad we did.

Perhaps this was because we assumed government knew & backed our purpose. In retrospect, should we have aimed lower & invested more in repeating a ‘corporate mantra’ to build understanding within government of our value proposition? We assumed the audience we needed to engage was the public. Perhaps the public got it before some in government.

For example, I’m still intrigued by senior bureaucrat Rod Hook’s question to a room of developers at a Melbourne Cup lunch in November 2011 as to “what to do” with the Commission. Was this a public servant operating on instructions or going rogue while on tour? What was the purpose of Rod’s question that day?

Did the hyperbolic effort and intense lobbying required to get a Commission supported in the first place mean we promised the moon on day one?

We sought to address the cause not the symptoms 

The Commission could have taken the easy route and contained ourselves to being an arbiter-in-chief; “ruling” on materials, colours and shape.

But any product is the result of the forces that shape it. So we’ve been interested in influencing the forces that shape projects or policies; confident the right process will generally deliver the right product.

We sought to look past the symptoms on the surface to address root causes that lay below. But did it confuse those who believe that design is about colour, shape and the ‘tizzy bits’.

Add to this our remit to work across design; from the scale of product to place and it seems we confused some by being what one colleague called a ‘serial pest’; insisting design could add value in health, education, food packaging, branding, manufacturing, construction and the rest. Given our birth coincided with the 30 Year plan, were we boxed in to planning early? Every time we tried to step out, perhaps it was viewed as empire building.

I’m not sure our broader interest – or value – was understood in government until the Collaborative City exhibition which described more than any other work our interest in reframing the question in the interests of a more human centred process. You can check out the highlight video of the exhibition here.

We failed to hustle

Design and innovation work in an open and transparent environment and neither pay much attention to traditional boundaries or territory.

Our remit was to work across government. And our belief was to work with people. We operated on the maxim that change could be inspired, not imposed.

The Commission never had power and never sought it. Some suggested we should – that we should demand to be a referral agency for all cabinet submissions prior to approval. By seeking statutory authority we’d deal ourselves in to the decision hierarchy. The reality is, we were always more interested in assisting than intervening. We were happy being small because it kept us agile & able to work often as a small, single team.

Perhaps our interest was acting as an innovation aid to others. It turns out that’s a difficult business model to sell.

We assumed the island had broadband

What do I mean by this? We assumed process moved as fast as our ambitions. This is the twin to ‘too much too soon’. We assumed the island was connected to broadband. For a change agent, momentum is everything. And it’s darn hard to build momentum in government.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration is that correspondence was returned if there were not 6 carriage returns at the end of an internal Minute. All of us want a consistently prudent public service. But 6 returns? Some approvals require 5 signatures. Is this productive?

Work to promote a productive and innovation-focused public service has started. It’s got the right leader in Erma Ranieri and needs to be supported – a productive, energetic public service is in all our interests. Something I hope ODASA can help further with its ways of working. And some great moves occurring in more open government and open data. The good news is, the bandwidth may be growing.

We failed to build

A plumbers tap always drips. An architects house is never finished.  The Commission has never had the home it needs.

For an agency fueled with a passion for communicating the remarkable potential of the built environment we were given a budget for fitout and never spent it. Our ambitions for a public exhibition space where physical models, talks, seminars, forums and display always ran second to more pressing needs. And never seemed to have the spare resources to look after ourselves.

This meant we never had a strong physical identity, or physical presence.

Having proved that you can have a dialogue about the future of Adelaide without descending in to the acrimony around the original 30 Year Plan, I hope ODASA will establish for itself a physical identity and presence around which industry, government and the community can coalesce.

5 hopes for the future

A transport plan for Adelaide & regions

Adelaide has performed well in the absence of big picture thinking in transport & infrastructure. Lord knows how. The 30 Year Plan is no transport strategy. Bus lanes announced on morning radio are valuable but only if part of a broader network. Where is the transport master plan for Greater Adelaide; integrated and far sighted? We need a strategy that is multimodal. We need to back bikes with a budget and transparent long term planning (beyond Map D16 in the 30 Year Plan), we need to buy buses that are designed for Australian conditions (or just the same colour for a start), where are our school buses to reduce road congestion, help parents & build resilience in our kids?

Where’s the long term master plan for tram expansion & train upgrade?

Renewal SA CEO Fred Hansen laid an admirable foundation during his residency – one the Department was unable to deliver before his residency. Fred’s own work points to a structural, cultural shortfall in the work of the Department of Transport and Infrastructure over many years. A troubling – but reasonably typical – moment was hearing that the team planning a possible Tram loop around the city was a) designing it based on the least number of carriages we could get away with (as opposed to, say, most efficient long term service to widest catchment of residents), and b). that the team hadn’t spoken to the same department’s team planning the bus corridor along the same stretch of roadway. In a world where inter agency collaboration can be difficult, you’d expect intra agency collaboration to be a cinch.

So unfortunately my judgement from more than 2 years deep engagement with the department is that the strategic capacity for long term scenario planning is missing. Certainly if a plan exists, I don’t know of it and, I suspect, neither do a large proportion of south Australians.

Let’s hope this is a part of the strategic infrastructure plan that has also been missing in action for too long. We need a transport plan.

Networked capability.

Agencies like Renewal SA, DPTI, and councils with serious commitment to design, and planning need to be better networked to span the boundaries better & work better together. The Under 16’s model, not under 7’s. This is where the Office for Design and Architecture will play a crucial role in moving between each of these key players. But it can’t work alone. We need to boost the design & planning capability of Renewal SA, and DPTI. Adelaide city council and the inner metro. Adelaide city council is searching for a senior city planner. Great news.

Where ODASA provides strategic advice across government, DPTI requires better planning advice in its policy, and Renewal SA will need design in the delivery of its projects. Think of it as the three essential legs in delivering the built environment; design, planning and delivery. An even more evolved model might mean innovation units working between state & local gov the way the Commission has during it’s work on the Integrated Design Strategy. Perhaps this has already started with the diaspora from valuable Commission staff in to agencies & councils – perhaps the beginning of a better networked culture interested – and capable of delivering – quality design.

Design for long term growth

We the community need to ensure that design continues to be seen as key to local economic growth, development and innovation. Not only because of the local benefits that accrue, but also because there is a rising national interest across politics, business and the community in a stronger investment in design. Can South Australia continue to lead the way and benefit from funding? Look to Australian business leaders on the PM’s Manufacturing Taskforce who call design “the ubiquitous capability for innovation” (p75). Or more recently, DMITRE’s Manufacturing Works strategy that recommends investment in research, design and development be part of any business plan. To build this long term commitment to design in our economy, we’ll need broad partnerships interested in long term planning that brings business, universities and agencies together. Beyond interest groups to champions on behalf of community. And we need support across the state parliament.

Open engagement

There are hints that 5000+ has set a new tone for how major projects can be delivered in a more open way. Engagement is more than telling people what’s planned. It’s inviting involvement to get the best from it.

Major projects represent far more than a cash spend. Major projects represent the essential ‘pull factor’ to fuel the new products, new materials and new technologies that we seek from our local entrepreneurs if we can link project procurement to research, innovation and manufacturing. And it might start by recognising the talent and capacity of local professional skills. Too many projects have been awarded outside the state while the capacity here is forced to service interstate and international markets. And be awarded for it.

This is a question of industry engagement.

There’s no reason that public engagement demonstrated by 5000+ can’t be deployed tomorrow – showcased in the Riverbank work or perhaps in the wider Bowden to Hackney Rd precinct. And it can be shown in the adoption of recommendations across government from the work of the 5000+ partnership.

Recent examples suggest this is happening in a small way; with the announcement of city WiFi, more rational licensing reform promoting small bars and small business. These are just 2 of 98 recommendations contained in the Draft Placeshaping framework released last month. Fingers crossed for more next year.

To upend the triangles

Government can only do so much, and old ways of connecting with people just aren’t working any longer. Government’s everywhere are facing the same challenge – we need to find mechanisms to open gov to non government input earlier. For this, traditional public sector systems need to give way to new ones. From the pyramid that reacts and reduces, to an inversion that grows, explains and expands as a key part of public administration decision making.


This is an Innovation challenge that has the potential to drive a new workforce culture in our public service. Good moves are in play to bring some new thinking to this area in the potential for more open data and digital tools, new skills and hopefully a shift in how government talks to people.


The Commission’s work was not, and is not, finished. Anyone who suggests that innovation is just a isolated phase fails to understand how innovation works.


Closing the Commission now is a bit like Apple thanking the R&D team for the desktop PC and sending them home; dealing themselves out of the benefits you get from rolling innovation out across prototypes. Innovation is a continuum, not a moment. Of course while the commission is closing, ODASA takes up the baton.

Design can’t save the world. But it does play a role in making our lives better and making dollars go further. Silos of excellence continue to further knowledge in their own field. The challenge for South Australia is to set the pace in spanning those siloes – spanning the boundaries between sectors. It’s a more efficient approach that makes scarce resources and existing infrastructure stretch.

There is a place for those outside the “college” of the public service to provide independent advice to government. We brought that, and we brought a new culture of innovation and enterprise in how we worked. I hope there’ll always be what are sometimes called ‘tempered radicals’ that connect, irritate and reform.

I need to thank some of my fellow tempered radicals, including;

– the truly marvellous Greg Mackie. A light went out in Premier & Cabinet when Greg moved to rage against age

– to Minister John Hill who has supported the idea of flourishing local design enterprise

– to our extraordinary advisory board who must still be bemused by their short stint

– to the staff of the Commission and the crack squad from the Integrated Design Strategy single handedly authoring a new manual for designing Australian cities. So along with Trixie and Ben, thank you Mimi Crowe, Sky Allen and Jane Crosby who assisted me so well, to Sonia and Sonya, Heath and Jeremy, Rose, Georgie, Kate, Giles, Matt Davis, Di, Kara, Jason, Christina, Angelique, Jo and finally to Sharon Mackay – one of the stellar strategic thinkers in South Australia

– thanks to the Councils and agencies who helped along the way

– a final thanks to the many volunteer hours, in kind and financial support from industry for our events and our experiments. Our design and planning community, to business leaders and to the very many for whom the Commission represented something about South Australia that made them proud. As it did me.

There is a place for independent advice outside the “college of the public service”. And while this won’t be the role for the Commission, the Office of Design and Architecture represents a model of enormous potential and it deserves our support in 2013 and beyond.

I wish them very very well. And I close by thanking Premier Mike Rann and his cabinet, and Premier Weatherill and his cabinet for the chance to work in this extraordinary role.



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