Green Cities go mainstream, termites in the works and leadership vacuums

9 March 2012 – Social innovator and author Rachel Botsman clearly stole the show at Green Cities 2012, which this year racked up a massive 2000 plus visitors through the turnstiles, crowding out the spaces beyond capacity at the massive Sydney Convention Centre.

And yes, some people were turned away from some sessions.

It looked and felt like a mainstream event.

The economist/number crunchers such a Nils Kok and IPD’s Anthony De Francesco certainly say there’s no doubt  that green now shows up as a plus on the bottom line. You can’t get more mainstream than that.

It seems the whole industry is on board. A casual look around at the crowd and it appeared indistinguishable from the regular property crowd.

But the thought that slowly emerged is that there are termites in the works here. While the exterior looks normal, solid and non-threatening, underneath is an erosion of everything that props it up. There is a hunger for ideas that will challenge the norm and break down the barriers. Frank Becker of Cornell University handed the delegates the catchphrase of the conference: “break the mould”. The idea swept around the conversations and seemed to provide the prism through which all the content was  judged.

Instead of looking for tried and tested solutions this crowd wanted to leap onto the controversial, the out-there thoughts and strange ideas, as if these were the fuel for the future; the creative thoughts and better solutions and commercial advantages.

Throughout was the feeling that the nexus between commercial success, sustainability and survival of the planet was fusing solid.

No-one at that conference was looking backwards for success.

Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman seemed to nail the sentiment. Her news of the megatrends in society could not help but electrify the audience.You could almost hear the synapses going viral. For instance Botsman said one trend was to ditch the habits and drivers of the past … well, the recent consumerist, individualist and uncaring past.

Instead, they are happy to crowd source goods and borrow them instead of buy them. Including cars. They are playing a game called Farmville where they plant virtual vegetables and feed virtual animals – at the rate of 80 million players a day.

In England there is a 40 year waiting list for community gardens. “It’s not about the gardening”, Botsman’s father discovered when he joined the movement; it’s about “talking to the neighbours for the first time in 18 years.”

OK, it’s also about growing the food. There are little organisms in soil (which Botsman probably knows all about but didn’t get around to mentioning) that make you happy. Yes. And there are millions of powerful little (good) bacteria that have powerful healing properties  if you eat the vegies within 24 hours of harvesting.

(The Fifth Estate knows this because of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s free compost lessons. Where on one recent Saturday a staggering 70 people or so turned up and hung around for the full three hours, partly for the absorbing information and partly to  collect their free compost bins which probably save countless times their cost in landfill fees. Clever Clover.)

The talk between sessions didn’t flinch at talk of a radically changing society that didn’t want to shop. Instead Stockland’s Siobhan Toolhill saw a future where the physical shopping centre space might provide the places for communities to swap goods instead of buying them.

Besides, she said, Stockland invited Botsman to speak to their crew last year. They’re onto it! this is no threat.

No one flinched either when Karen Hovenga of WSP held her session on why it’s time to get “our shit together”. Literally.  And took the audience through a history tour of the sewers of civilisation to arrive at her solution to the emerging phosphorous shortage and the potential of urine and sewage to be turned into nutrients for our food.

Out of three other presentations at that session, it was Hovenga’s that attracted most of the questions.

If there was any complaint among the audiences it was a call for more challenges, and you suspect, more reasons to think they had it all wrong and had to start again.

Don’t you love it?

More on the conference soon. And see our Tweetsheet for a taste of the feedback from the delegates.

The give and take of Green Star
But first, how spoilt rotten are our green knights in Ozland?

Give them a six star sustainable conference centre two years in a row, in Melbourne, for the Green Cities conference and before you know it, Sydney’s old Convention Centre is just not good enough.

Most people we asked for feedback on the conference quickly jumped from the content of the sessions to the building with comments such as:  “too disconnected”;  “Not friendly/community minded enough”;  “way too cold” “badly organised”.  Often it was followed by how nice the Melbourne centre is.

Well goes to show how dangerous it is to go green and let people get a sense of how pleasant these places can be. You can never go back.

Who’s No 1 then?
In the same way, it’s really hard to go backwards in government policy. Such as in Victoria where the state government wants to turn back the clock –  and has stopped wind power, ditched a raft of sustainability and energy efficiency programs and wants to turn all its attention to the worthy effort of waste management.

What can occur is that the competition gets a whiff of a leadership vacuum and jumps in to fill the space.

This happened  twice this week in NSW. First was when NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker promised at the opening cocktails for Green Cities that her state would be first in the nation with green buildings and energy efficiency. Go Ms Parker!

Next was when was when a beaming Prime Minister Julia Gillard met a beaming NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to announce that Sydney would get the headquarter for the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

And showing he’s got more gumption that some attributed to him, the premier promptly brushed aside that his federal counterparts want to scrap the corporation. Like we said, it’s really hard to pedal backwards.

O’Farrell now has to realise that giving virtual carte blanche to mining coal and coal seam gas, with a few minor provisos that amount to some tangle of ineffective red table, is going to be a huge hulking drag on those forward thinking initiatives.