Image: Chris Rossetto, VEIL, University of Melbourne

30 November 2011 – Victoria’s Eco-Innovation Laboratory is pushing boundaries and taking a lead from the private sector.

Experimentation brings uncertainty, and uncertainty, risk. As the call for step-change in the built environment gets louder the room allowed for error is diminishing.

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Chris Ryan says we only have a couple of decades to achieve major change in the urban fabric, and the step-change needed hasn’t been forthcoming.

  • Pictured: neighbours collectively rearrange backyards to create opportunities for new housing and community facilities.

His work has been focused on how to gain the fruits of innovation without paying the cost of building the inevitable number of ideas that are mis-targeted.

Learning from private enterprise but with a unique twist, the Victorian Eco-Innovation Laboratory of which Ryan is the program director, works with designers to establish what the future might look like, then, more importantly, the road map to get there.

Chris Ryan

Rather than keep future concepts secret, consumer product manufacturers hint what the future might look like, and carefully watch their consumers’ reactions to avoid market failures.

Similarly Ryan’s solution for exploring the transformation of the urban environment was to create a design-led “company” that resides in the public realm.

Rather than hiring commercial designers, VEIL draws instead on young-designers from universities. By teaming with design schools, the ingenuity of over 1200 student minds has been focused on eco-innovative solutions.

VEIL then shares these solutions in the public domain – a concept counter to how contemporary Western universities tend to hold intellectual property.

VEIL was founded at a time when Ryan said the Victorian government was “…very concerned by community resistance where innovation was a possibility…such as urban density. He said the government sought highly visible methods to illustrate sustainable urban environments that could adapt to climate change – similar to that produced by private companies.

Needling change
The famed former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, Jaime Lerner,brought  public attention to “urban acupuncture” in which specific urban pressure points are pinpointed with interventions that will have a ripple effect for the whole city.

Jaime Lerner in Curitiba, Brazil

Working with councils of the two west Melbourne suburbs of Broadmeadows and Sunshine, VEIL identified a series of intervention points for what it calls eco-acupuncture.

Landscape architecture, architecture, industrial design and visual communication students developed interventions for these communities that offered resilience to rising petrol, water, electricity and food prices as well as extreme weather events.

Academics from Melbourne, Monash, RMIT and Swinburne Universities teamed with councils and the community to map potential areas for change. These are low-income, car dependent communities that face diminished local employment, population growth, stressed infrastructure and climatic change.

In “vision driven research” the community is engaged with the challenge of future thinking through charrettes. University of Melbourne students are currently delivering solutions for the Melbourne brownfield suburb of Sunshine.

In a previous brownfield project for Broadmeadows, the client, Hume Council, noted that VEIL “…discovered unique and local relationships and amplified them; and by doing so has provided a means of linking up the grass roots ideas with the big picture planning.”

Adding new small businesses on unused residential land. Image: Yee Hui Xian, VEIL, University of Melbourne

Noting VEIL as an “invaluable provocateur” Hume say their “immersion with the local subject matter is the strength of VEIL’s program of engagement and has revealed a wealth of social capital that can drive the transition to a sustainable future.”

Speaking at the recent Bringing BedZED to Melbourne event hosted by the RMIT Centre for Design, Professor Ryan noted: “In Melbourne we have discovered infrastructure is very brittle” and that changing the direction of new development was easier than transforming existing urban fabric.

He said the strength of VEIL’s work on the E-gate project which envisaged the transformation of the Melbourne Docklands’ shunting yards into a eco-city for 10,000 people, saw the former state government fund detailed master planning of the precinct by private consultants.

Growing for the future
With their model proving successful for incubating new thinking, the VEIL team continues to look for new urban opportunities for innovation in Victoria and is currently speaking to several local authorities.

A plan to intensify the eco-acupuncture engagement by setting up design workshops in local precincts across Melbourne should deepen the community engagement in co-designing resilient futures, if VEIL can garner funding support.

As councils nationally are embracing water sensitive urban design , and the concept of distributed energy being largely accepted, Professor Ryan thinks now is the time for promoting localised food production with the concept “food-sensitive urban design” following a project VEIL conducted for VicHealth with CSIRO and Deakin University.

Internationally the concept of eco-acupuncture is growing through a loose coalition with other design research groups.

Next year Melbourne students will travel to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and nearby the City of Rotterdam has already adopted the VEIL model to create its own innovation lab within their docklands redevelopment authority.

Discussions are underway with the cities of Lund and Malmo, Copenhagen and Florence for eco acupuncture projects.

Beyond specific project innovation, VEIL’s greatest impact is likely to be that left on the over 1200 design graduates it has worked with. They leave university with a real grip on the need for urban transition, and their minds unlocked to transformational thinking needed to achieve it

Scott Willey is a Melbourne based sustainability writer and architect.