Rachel Botsman

15 March 2012 – There was a clear message at Green Cities this year –the era of a community revolution powered by technology is here.

This message was there in the sessions, it was buzzing in conversations during the tea breaks and it was very much in evidence in the social media explosion beyond the conference halls

There is a groundswell of community frustration. Forget about looking to politicians for answers to social or environmental dilemmas, or to corporations – particularly those with vested interests in keeping things mired in the past.

Or to mainstream media, increasingly compromised by minority voices. We are now looking to ourselves and to each other. And we are taking action, fuelled by social media that provides instant, real time connection around the globe.

Keynote speaker, Rachel Botsman hit it right on the head with her inspiring presentation, Collaborative Consumption – The Future of Building Strong Communities.

Collaborative consumption, explained Botsman, is the sharing of assets through the use of real-time network technologies. Where the 20th century was about hyper consumption, the 21st century is about collaborative consumption.

We have moved from the age of ownership to the age of access,” Botsman said. “We are going back to old behaviour, reinvented for the Facebook age. We are sharing, trading, swapping – all through social media.”

People are trading and selling their under-used housing space, cars, clothes, ideas, and skills over the internet. But at its core this behaviour is about the need to connect with others and the desire to stop consuming useless things. “We are using the internet to get off the internet,” she said.

Botsman quoted a survey of young people, which found that 75 per cent of young people would rather own a smart phone than a car. “We no longer want stuff – we want experiences.”

And the drivers for this revolution are:

  • Resurgence in the belief in the importance of community
  • Pressing unresolved environmental concerns
  • Global recession that shocked consumer behaviours
  • Torrent of social technologies that allows frictionless collaboration

Cities of the future
In a session on creating both liveability and sustainability in cities, Catherine Caruana-McManus, IBM Australia, talked about how technology is being used by some cities to make them function better, with a focus on community cohesiveness, connectivity, productivity and better health. She cited Amsterdam, Barcelona and Brazil as good examples. But Australia is falling behind.

Left to right: Tim Horton, SA Integrated Design Commission, Catherine Caruana-McManus IBM, Andrew Thomas City of Sydney

Urban planners and government “need to factor in the changing nature of work in transport planning. Currently they are wedded to traditional norms but that’s not the way people are living,” Caruana-McManus said.

“The challenge in Australian cities is that we are constrained because the policy and regulatory environment doesn’t allow cities to take that next step forward.”

IBM is working with bodies such as Infrastructure Australia to think about the Smart City where technology facilitates efficient transport and utility networks.

“Traffic congestion is killing Sydney. Sydney will not be in the list of most liveable cities in the future unless we change the way we’re doing things.

“Knowledge workers and entrepreneurs are looking to locate businesses in cities that promote health, safety and lifestyle, including the ability to work from home,” Caruana-McManus said.

“Information is only powerful and useful if it’s actually shared.” People are already using their smart devices to check transport, weather and other information and this will go much further. Businesses that don’t make use of this will become irrelevant.”

She pointed to a project in Queensland where IBM’s Smart Transport Research Centre is working in collaboration with government, industry and the Queensland University of Technology to break down the silos to understand what’s happening in the transport network and plan infrastructure more effectively.

“All too often with transport we look at it as separate silos – as one feeder road and one private system and essentially that’s not helping the outcome and citizens who want connectivity with the centre [of the city].

“So don’t underestimate the impact that mobility, social media networks and the information revolution is having on your business.”

In the same session, Tim Horton South Australia’s Integrated Design Commissioner called for better communication between government departments.

Chief executive of the Property Council of Australia Peter Verwer responded with

“enough of this aromatherapy, namby pamby approach of trying to get people to talk to each other – we need to smash the stovepipes.”

Well maybe, said Horton but we still need to talk. One stovepipe that could be smashed though was transport, he said –  for example, the NSW state government should be demanding that Sydney’s local councils extend their bike networks to join up with the City of Sydney’s, rather than pressuring Sydney Mayor, Clover Moore, to dismantle it.

“It’s just common sense,” said Horton. Are you listening Barry O’Farrell?”

George Kostas

George Kostas, managing director of construction + development for Brookfield Multiplex Australasia, took this further, calling for a merging of councils to create more efficiency.

Why do we need 147 councils in Sydney? Kostas said. “Merge them – we will get better services.”

And on the way planning and spending decisions are made at local government level?

“Every year [in Australia] $35 billion is spent on general construction – engineering and infrastructure –  and 80 to 90 per cent of this is spent in major cities outside of main capital cities,” Kostas said.

“If you look at who manages this spending – local councilors – what is their background and experience?

The reality is decisions about how to spend this $35 billion are made by tennis court councillors – they are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. They are expected to make decisions on these matters when in reality they have no idea. We need to fix this.”

Pontus Bengtson (left) and Gerald Guterres, Watpac

The value of BIM
The silo analogy popped up again in the session on Building Information Modelling with Pontus Bengtson, partner and manager WSP, Sweden, telling delegates BIM could be used to break down silos within the planning process.

“The problem is we don’t collaborate early enough. It must be a horizontal process – it is about communication. BIM can be a tool for change but it is only a tool. We must question the way we work,” Bengtson said.

Dexus head of development, Tony Gulliver, said use of BIM at 1 Bligh Street had transformed the way the design process worked, reducing costs and resulting in quality finishes that could not have been achieved otherwise.

“The complex geometry involved in this building needed high levels of control. We wouldn’t do a major job again without BIM modelling.”

Gulliver said Grocon, building contractor for 1 Bligh Street, had already embraced BIM technology before the project.

“Grocon did a fantastic job and they enjoyed most of the benefits of using BIM – cost, time and clarity.”

A standout benefit was there were no variations on the contract side, largely because errors were picked up in planning stage.

“More than 10,000 clashes and errors were found – these would otherwise have gone undetected,”Gulliver said.

In his closing remarks on the BIM session, Bruce Precious, GPT’s national sustainability manager, said: “BIM holds so much promise for reducing waste and cost in the maintenance of high performance buildings.”

The minute clinic…why not?

Communicating for better health
In his keynote talk, author and organisational ecology expert Frank Becker spoke of the strong link between poor communication between doctors and nurses and poor patient care.

In one US hospital a survey of patients was conducted to determine what features they thought were important in a newly designed hospital wing. However, no improvements were made to doctor/nurse communication. The result – improved patient satisfaction but no improvement to medical outcomes.

“It showed that what we thought would work in the design [to improve medical care] didn’t. $300 million was spent on a new design but no money was spent on improving communication and nobody paid attention to the social system of doctors and nurses.”

“We need to research for transformation, not to justify what we’ve already done in the past,”Becker said.

Lessons from nature
Mary-Ann Lazarus, senior vice president and director of sustainable design with architectural firm HOK, talked about the most powerful form of collective wisdom – that provided by nature.

Biomimicry, where designers take inspiration from nature for the design and construction of buildings and communities, is providing new answers, Lazarus said.

It is about creating conditions conducive to life where human systems and natural systems can co-exist. 3.8 billion years of experience can give us ideas of how to be well adapted rather than maladapted,” she said.

Mary-Ann Lazarus

In Haiti the Kapok tree and its ability to store water in its root system provided HOK with inspiration for the design of an orphanage where every drop of water is collected and stored below the complex and a perimeter boundary shades and protects the building just as the Kapok’s bark protects the inner workings of the tree.

In another rapidly developing tropical city the Bromeliad plant was copied in both form and function for the construction of a shopping centre.

And in a master plan for Atlanta Georgia, HOK took inspiration from the natural development of forests. The design featured nodes where density was allowed to occur. In between these nodes natural systems were allowed to repair themselves. High speed transport systems between the nodes replaced the predominance of single occupancy cars so that the land occupied by motorways could be reclaimed for community use. Local water and energy networks replaced centralised systems.

“Nature does not pipe in natural gas,” Lazarus said.

Lazarus finished her address with a quote from Janine Benyus co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature: “When the city and forest are indistinguishable functionally that’s when we’ll be in harmony on this planet.”