The newly-created Greater Sydney Commission has been assigned the ambitious task of envisaging the Greater Sydney region in 40 years’ time. But in a world where disruptive technologies are constantly shifting paradigms, is a 40-year plan really the best way to prepare for the future?

The GSC: Who, what and why?

The Greater Sydney Commission is an independent statutory organisation appointed by the NSW state government to provide a “one government” planning approach to the Greater Sydney region in NSW.

The GSC is tasked with developing a holistic 20-year and 40-year plan for the region and has significant governmental power in order to put these plans into effect. There is no doubt that the GSC has many challenges to tackle in determining their long-term vision for Greater Sydney, most notably:

  • Population increases: The Greater Sydney population is expected to increase from five million today to six million by 2036, further growing to eight million by 2056.
  • Housing affordability: Sydney was recently ranked as the second most-expensive city in the world for housing in a recent study by Demographia.
  • Urban sprawl/densification: The debate over whether to have a dense, compact city or an expansive, spacious region is a hot topic in deciding the look and shape of Sydney in the future.
  • Efficient and affordable transport: As the city continues to sprawl and densify, the commission will need to consider flexible transport solutions to take people from home to work or play.
  • Job availability and distribution: While the unemployment rate in Sydney remains low, the majority of high-paying jobs are confined to the CBD, North Shore and Parramatta. As the population increases the GSC will need to work closely with industry to encourage the development of new jobs while also incentivising the distribution of jobs across the region.
  • Access to health, education and recreational services: As the shape and size of Greater Sydney changes, there will be enormous pressure on the capacity and access to health, education and recreation facilities.

How will technological disruptions shape the future of Sydney?

In addition to the current issues facing Sydney, there is the possibility of new challenges and opportunities arising from disruptive technological developments. The exact impact of these new technologies is hard to predict and their evolution and implementation will reshape the way a modern, global city functions. Current developments have the potential to change:

  • The way we move: The face of transport looks to change drastically over the next 40 years. The advent of autonomous cars, car sharing and high-speed travel all has the ability to radically shift the norm for transport across Greater Sydney. Could this mean we need to continue building new rail lines and highways throughout Sydney?
  • The way we work: As digital communication and collaboration technology improves, the need for offices and face-to-face working continues to diminish. Industry-standard technologies such as Skype and Google Docs now make it possible for people to work together without ever having to be in the same room. Employer/employee relationships are certain to change even further with the development of virtual reality and work-sharing. Increased decentralisation seems unavoidable; could this mean there will be no need for a multi-storey office block in the future?
  • What we do for work: As artificial intelligence and automation continues to penetrate the services market, more and more people will find their jobs outsourced to their digital alternatives. In addition, a study by the US Department of Labor predicted that 65 per cent of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t even exist yet upon graduation. How do we plan for jobs that don’t exist? Can we influence and predict the development of new industries?
  • The way we learn: With the development of digital communication technology, it is likely that whole university courses could soon be taken from the comfort of your own bedroom. The development of virtual reality also means that students may not need to congregate in a central location to learn in a collaborative environment. Does this mean that the traditional school or lecture hall will be empty in the future?
  • How we access services: Developments such as the My Emergency Dr App, online self-service for government departments and outsourcing sharing apps (such as Airtasker or Deliveroo) may mean that we don’t need to leave home to access services and buy products. Could the current development of large recreation and health precincts be completely unnecessary?

What considerations need to be made for the future?

The only definite outcome of these technologies is uncertainty about the future – which is okay. The upside of this uncertainty is that the GSC has a number of distinct avenues to achieve their goals. The Greater Sydney of the future will likely be dictated by drastically different technologies and industries to those that drive Sydney today and perhaps the advancements that will shape the future of Greater Sydney don’t even exist yet!

Adding more flexibility

However, all this begs the question: if the future is uncertain, what use is a 40-year plan?

Instead, the GSC could look to be an experimental early adopter, with prescriptive goals but flexible means of achieving these outcomes. To adopt a planning approach that embodies these values, the commission could look to implement the following:

  • Success benchmarks: Deciding the appropriate actions to fully realise the GSC’s goals is a complex task, however determining the ideal end-goal is much easier. The GSC could set long-term goals in terms of productivity, liveability and sustainability that are then used as benchmarks to determine the success of actions in the short term.
  • Innovation trials: The GSC should consistently look for new ways to achieve their goals by considering and trialling promising new technologies (similar to the recent autonomous Uber trials in Pittsburgh) to determine their impact and suitability for adoption in in the future. A fail-fast and fail-forward approach would be valuable in maintaining relevancy of the plans.
  • Trigger points: Given the relative uncertainty in regards to the potential changes and rate at which such changes occur, the GSC could incorporate “trigger” points for key benchmarking measures (population, density, housing affordability, etcetera) which induce a review of current plans when reached. Additionally, implementing “danger markers” that monitor undesirable changes could identify when plans are failing to achieve their goals.

When trying to determine the best move for 40 years’ time, flexibility, objectiveness and opportunism are essential to the steps we take now.

This insight piece was prepared by five undergraduates with backgrounds in civil/mechanical engineering and commerce working at advisory firm Advisian, and under the supervision and guidance of a senior associate with 20 yearsexperience in architecture, infrastructure and property development. The opinions expressed in this piece represent those of the authors and are not affiliated with the opinions of Advisian.

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  1. As a constant user of planning strategies and policies I found the thoughts and attitudes of these students quite refreshing.
    I really don’t think we need any more documents filled with endless words. It seems the plan they would be driving would be more targeted i.e having benchmarks and trigger points.
    Of course the success of the plan will come down to what is exactly being measured. For example – Liveability and Sustainability – the battle lines are drawn on the need to protect Sydney’s food bowl and the desire to use this land for housing. Would a success bench mark be: No decline in the area of Sydney’s food bowl and a commensurate increase relative to the population increase?

  2. As someone who has taught critical thinking courses in both faculties of economics & engineering, I very much appreciate the work and thoughts of these students.

    My only criticism is that there is no mention of that most basic criterion of what nourishes the city in terms of water and food. This is not necessarily a given in future scenarios.