Desktop Magazine: Making Places

What follows is a piece that ran in the truly excellent Desktop Magazine #293 edition on Making Places. It explored the relationship between design and places, and included a really good piece from Marcus Westbury on why cities need to be more like YouTube and less like Hollywood which you can find here.


Desktop editor, Heath Killen interviewed me – I guess representing the ‘Hollywood’ in Marcus’ language – as someone embedded in the formal city planning processes.

We’re currently experiencing massive growth in city populations around the world. What are the major forces behind this growth, and relative to the rest of the world, how well equiped have Australian cities been in accommodating people and their activities?

Yes, our cities have growth pressures. But there’s a risk in focusing on growth alone because it implies we need to plan only for cities to expand. Successive Intergenerational reports, and the work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics point not only to a growth in population but a changing population too. An ageing population brings a hollowing out of the tax base – the traditional means of funding for city infrastructure. An ageing population also brings other challenges that aren’t just about growth. The incidence of dementia is forecast to rise 350% by 2050; changing what people need from where we live, how we’ll move around, services that may become more tailored to on demand home based delivery. Dementia and other age-related diseases and conditions will focus us again on improving the basic activities of daily living; eating, moving, socialising, connecting.

An older population isn’t a problem unless we choose to see it as such. Designing our cities for an older population is an opportunity to design new business models, new products and services, new housing, new mobility choices based on valuing the time and experience of older people which could super charge a new small scale social enterprise based on local social networks. It’s not growth we need to plan for. It’s change.

What then are the the most pressing issues we need to address in our cities to provide for now and the future?

We need to design for change. Most of the management structures in place for our cities are based on a model of steady growth along a known trajectory, not change. So while we know that disruptive change is a necessary part of innovating, and our economic brains track innovation as a measure of health, we’re not yet seeing a pro-innovation wave of reforms passing through financial institutions, economic analysts or most project managers. Witness the City of Sydney’s challenge in rolling out the truly visionary tri generation scheme that could reduce costs to owners and tenants over time and contribute to taking the CBD off grid by 2030.

We have major city-shaping projects seeking to embed innovation in to precinct design and planning. But the finance models underpinning the project view it as an unacceptable risk. We need to promote those minds that can manage change and disruptive innovation well. You often find this is a part of the design skillset – able to bring together what appears to be the unreconcilable for a breakthrough. But only if we can develop cross cutting forums that attract the creative financiers, architects, engineers, developers and planners, product designers and manufacturers for some serious ‘boundary spanning’ (a term that comes out of the social sciences but is relevant here).

In your experience, what do citizens expect from their cities now? And do you believe that designers and policy makers are equipped to meet those demands?

People expect their cities to work. And increasingly that’s not easy, or intuitive. What goes into making a city work is also not well understood because so much of the process is opaque to us. Its governance, its planning and development, how and who gets to activate it with events and commerce. Designers can play a role in making the process more transparent if policy makers allowed design to shape our understanding of cities in evolution. Design is always an optimistic, explanatory process that can help a city’s population better understand the decisions being made about the city. I think interaction design can teach us all a lot about how users can be illogical and impatient. Great products understand this and factor in the intuitive to the interface. Service design understands the drivers behind users behaviour. But do our cities? Built environment professionals place themselves often in the shoes of city users as they wrangle the tensions and trade offs between building envelopes, services, materials, workspace and public space, links and the rest.

Collaborative City Exhibition

South East city residents groupBut is a city’s evolution something we’re permitted to see? Policy makers could do more to allow a glimpse into this work in progress. If they did, some of the argument around development may shift from the binary yes/no (often a struggle between the hyperbolic ‘pro’ and an uninformed ‘con’) to a more patient and informed discussion about merits, options and benefits. This means promoting works in progress, not just at announcement and the opening. We’re beginning to see Victoria and South Australia use a more rigorous process of design review of projects in progress; elevating the design process and finally recognising that the statutory gate of development consent can only do so much to deliver quality in our built environment. Smart governments would see design review as the way to open up city design, planning and development while options are being developed.

What makes a city a good one to you personally? What qualities do you look for?

Cities ultimately need to authentically reflect their culture and climate. Climate’s an easier one to define, and reflect but often both are fused. Look at Queensland’s climate responsive, lightweight, permeable housing that has been a recurring theme around which architectural and landscape design have coalesced. Witness a similar response to those same climatic and cultural conditions in Donovan Hill’s State Library Queensland Terrace or GOMA by Architectus – two institutional buildings that reach out with generous covered outdoor spaces for those sticky Brisbane afternoons.

State Library, Qld (Donovan Hill)

GOMA (Architectus)Adelaide’s arid plains demand a different response. Late afternoon gully winds rush down from the Hills to the Gulf; cooling the city. But aside from Colonel Light’s provision for long East-West city blocks to channel these winds and flush the city of its dust, smells and heat, there’s been very little climate-responsive design to capitalise on those gully winds since. Shaded flat roof terraces would bring residents to the roof of the city but government land developers prefer style over substance so instruct visualisers to Photoshop pitched tiles in a quaint nod to some imagined architectural heritage. It’s moves like this that devalue a city; lurching for caricatures divorced from climate and culture. A city constantly in pursuit of itself – its identity and cultural drivers – is more likely to get it right than one reading from a vernacular style guide. If only there were more of the former and less of the latter.

Adelaide's Queen St, Croydon

In addition to basic infrastructure and functionality of a city, the personality of a place is important. Obviously this develops over time, and by the people that live there, but are there ways in which you think we can design to help facilitate the development of unique personalities of places to emerge?

Personality implies individuality or at least characteristics and traits that are intrinsic and possibly unique. Individuality comes from a bespoke approach which is the premise that often brings client and designer together in the first place. So design facilitates personality through this unique relationship of designer, owner, site and surround. It’s interesting to scan social media platforms like Instagram for what inspires people and what they chose to post to represent a place. It’s regularly these moments of surprise and personality. There’s a cohort of cities interested in promoting who they are through a reputation for good design, crafted experiences and boutique business. A set that go well together. And a set that – when traveling together – are about high value.

South Australia’s Integrated Design Commission

What were the objectives of the IDC?

To model and promote an integrated approach to design, including to;

  • Ensure the quality and sustainability of publicly funded buildings, infrastructure programs, urban design and public realm place-making.
  • Maximise the potential of the built environment to contribute to the health, safety, well being, prosperity and lifestyle of South Australia and the creation of a vibrant identity through opportunities for good design to contribute to the State Government’s commitment to sustainability.
  • Support the State Government’s aim to reduce greenhouse emissions and the life-cycle costs of buildings and infrastructure by undertaking research to reduce capital costs of projects, reduce the operating and resource cost of assets and define optimal delivery systems.
  • Work across government to develop guidelines for good design policy, processes and practices based on evidence and best practice including advice on legislation and regulation that will influence good design practice.
  • Raise community awareness of the value of good design and a more sustainable built environment.
  • Foster collaboration between government, industry and local government to achieve best practice in the built environment, including partnerships with the tertiary sector and professional associations for education and professional development.

Integrated Design Commission Advisory Board

Designers and policy makers are often at odds with each other, and the IDC seemed like a unique opportunity to help facilitate communication and understanding. What are some of the ways in which you think these parties can better work together?

Collaboration is easier than we think, but collaboration requires a light touch approach – a broker’s role more about influence than power. A rigorous design process gives a framework for policy making; evidence based and exploratory, human-centric and empathic. We found design-based methods appealed to policy makers because it gave a structure to exploring problems they recognise no longer fit within a single department or portfolio, and because it opened up opportunities for non traditional engagement with professionals, researchers and the public.

What did you learn about the broader value of design during your time at the IDC?

Many things but the first two that come to mind include; the enormous potential that lies in continuing efforts to bring together disciplines to grow the scope and impact of design beyond the silos we can be guilty of entrenching ourselves through our own professions, and the value of engaging government in their terms and from their perspective to promote a better understanding of design as a valuable tool for change.

Could you share any of the ideas proposed by the IDC that weren’t able to fully take shape in Adelaide?

We achieved a lot in just over two years, but we were still building a genuinely integrated model of design, planning and development – powered by project based research and informing regulation and policy reform. This larger model was still emerging but had galvanised the design community and built environment professions, the public and media who all saw a more open organization whose purpose was to inform, engage and educate where government so often struggles to communicate or connect. We were in the process of establishing a funded program for integrated design-based research as well as a series of publications drawn from CABE’s excellent work through a global agreement signed with the UK’s Design Council in 2011 that will now be published by the Office of Design and Architecture – a smaller unit initially located centrally but recently shifted to the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure.

10 integrating domains

What are the biggest lessons you’ve taken away from this experience?

Public sector innovation is hard – not because public servants lack the will, but because government often lacks the tools and training in collaboration, strategy and foresight that characterize the design-based method.

The Future

What are some of the most impressive innovations you’ve observed in cities internationally that are paving the way for the future?

Melbourne’s Collabforge advise clients one simple rule; it’s pants first, then shoes. To me, this means strategy first, then implementation. We need to design for change, and for implementation to be structured around executing change. We need the leadership, the strategy and the tools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for a sustainable New York, PlaNYC, represents the best example of a city wide design-based vision linked to objectives and targets, and to organizational cultural change. Zurich’s ETH Institute leads globally in developing the tools we need to model scenarios and understand the social, environmental and economic impacts of change.

Australian cities desperately need long term, non-partisan commitment to implementing visionary strategic change.

What about those here in Australia?

Sydney’s Clover Moore, and the team at the City of Sydney led by CEO Monica Barone, have shown the big thinking our cities need – like the work behind Sydney 2030, the Green Infrastructure Plan, the Better Buildings Partnership and support for design excellence. South Australia’s Design Review process is an encouraging start. In the city centre, good design is being linked to streamlined planning; which positions good design is the positive – not as an additional burden or extra hoop through which to jump.

City of Sydney's Sustainable 2030

Where do you think the current trajectory of design and policy is taking us?

Design can struggle to find a serious foothold in the minds of our civic leaders and general public, and little information exists about the precise value and impact of design beyond the usual focus on expensive real estate in weekend newspapers or luxury products featured in airline magazines. Singapore, New Zealand, Korea and Denmark have invested in design policy as a means of ensuring a more competitive industry, high value manufacturing and creative industries.

In late 2012, it was the industry members on the Prime Ministers Manufacturing taskforce who put it more simply than any of us by stating “design should be seen as the ubiquitous capability for innovation”. This is the message being championed by the Australian Design Alliance who will lead efforts to promote the place for a design vision for Australia in this election year. There is no indication that either side of politics will move on design policy soon. The current government has failed to progress its promise to develop a National Design Policy and the Opposition remains silent. The design community – and all those interested in better cities, and a thriving local design-based manufacturing sector – have an important year ahead.

There has been some radical new thinking about the future of cities recently, from renewal projects to “smart cities” to living architecture. Which new ideas that you’ve observed are the most likely to play a real part in our future?

Energy from algae. Nano tech in green walls. Driverless vehicles. However smart systems and technology emerge, the future of Australian cities lies in whether we can align property development, industry and manufacturing value chains through design. Design drives an innovative built environment. Bespoke design pushes the existing supply chain beyond the business as usual – drawing contractors, trades and suppliers up the value chain and supporting local solutions for new materials, new products and new technologies. Government wants to support local jobs, and local industry participation. The best way to do this, and the future for Australia’s built environment is to link procurement to a better built environment, better design to drive better local manufacturing. For a better quality of life.


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