Our fabulous Tomorrowland MC Ben Peacock, founder of Republic of Everyone, offered his key takeaways from last week’s event in Sydney. He is observing a battle royale playing out for two very different tomorrows – which path will we take?
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying,
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining,
The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows
I don’t know about you, but after working in sustainability for 12 years, I have never been more hopeful nor more terrified of what the future could bring.
It seems that, now more than ever, there’s a battle royale playing out for two very different tomorrows and where it goes, who really knows?
Politically, on the streets of Hong Kong, we’re sneaking a peek at a much bigger global struggle for a future of freedom vs a future of control.
On our front pages, we see the need for greener cities but also demand to construct more dwellings than ever before. In a classic contradiction, I want house prices to go up so that maybe one day I can sell mine and retire (hey, I’ll never pay the mortgage off so it better go up) but I also want house prices to go down so my children may afford to buy their own one day.
LinkedIn feeds me stories about renewables taking over the world, yet I also read that Australia’s coal exports hit a record high in 2018. And speaking of LinkedIn, every day I am more connected to people via it, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp than ever before, yet every day I seem to have less time to sit and truly connect with those I care for in the real world.
When it comes to the environment, the world is more concerned than ever. But, as a planet, we consume and dispose of more than ever before.
In terms of health, the rise of home grown and home cooked food is only rivalled by the rise of Uber Eats, for which the most delivered food is…McDonalds. Maybe that’s why, even though we’re drinking less and (sometimes) eating better as a nation, we are also fatter than ever before.
When I watch the film 2040, I feel the future may be bright, but when I read that Michael Mobbs is checking out and prepping out, I wonder, like him, if we are facing an upheaval the likes of which our generation has never seen.
So which future will it be? The hopeful, the hopeless, or a mix of both?
This is what The Fifth Estate’s Tomorrowland event is all about. Held this week in the majestic offices of Clayton Utz, it brought together a heaven (or is that a hell) of a line up of speakers and panellists to help us find out.
The day began by looking back. Three Indigenous leaders starting with the simple truth that we have to acknowledge the past to move into the future, and we haven’t yet done that. They were talking about indigenous reconciliation, but they could have been talking about environmental reconciliation and the fact that, as a species, it’s time to face the fact that the incredible technological and social advances of the last 100 years have been matched by an equally impressive destruction of the ecology that has supported us.
In the same way, when they said that Indigenous people are the most consulted people on the planet – but there’s no use having people telling you stuff if you’re are not actually listening – they could have been just as easily talking about science and scientists.
ANU’s Dr Virginia Marshall poignantly pointed out that we cannot have reconciliation – Indigenous, environmental or personal, if we don’t have truth. She then generously held forth the idea that Indigenous history is Australia’s history and so all Australians should share in and be proud of it.
Clarence Slockee, director of Yerrabingin, added to this, saying that for 60,000 years Australia’s children could be confident in the environment they inherited from previous generations. He then asked how we will leave this planet for the generations to come.
He also warned that when things are created with one dimension, they lack diversity. He was talking about urban green space but could just as easily have been talking about social diversity too.
Old Ways, New chief executive officer Angie Abdilla pointed out that social and environmental sustainability are not separated but, in fact, intertwined, and that you can’t have one without the other. She said that when you look at communities with social issues they often have environmental ones too.
Most of all, she packaged this in the wonderful thought that if you care for country, it will care for you.
From the lessons of the past we hit fast forward to the future, with a barnstorming presentation from Pinecone Technology Strategies’ Daniella Traino on the power of digital and data.
She said that the primary role of digital has become to reduce friction in our lives, but doing so comes with challenges. On a human level, it creates a culture of instant gratification. On a technical level, every data point and line of code that seeks to make our lives easier is a place for hackers to get in. And while everything starts with good intentions in mind, somewhere, somehow, the nefarious starts to sneak in.
At morning tea, we took a break from proceedings, but not from thinking, where one wise audience member professed that while the world might be collecting digital data at an amazing rate, we are losing ecological data just as fast. With every species that goes extinct, the “code” to that life is lost too.
Session three was about what it takes to create successful communities. Lauren Kajewski, director of sustainability and learning at Landcom, told us that a great community is one with colour, creativity, creation of place and clever use of space. Her slides convinced us that if we want these things, it’s time to move to Germany… alas, if only they had great beaches too.
Lauren convinced us that great communities start with great community engagement and that it’s okay to have big targets without knowing how to get there – that’s what change is all about. Most poignantly, she pointed out that it’s hard to be creative with land as long as property is seen as the nation’s number one investment asset, rather than a place for people to live.
Government policy advisor, Alice Thompson, told us that people are our most important resource and cities are where we care for them. In fact, half of all people worldwide live in cities, so if we get them right it will serve humanity right. Our health and wellbeing is completely dependent on us doing so.
City of Sydney councillor, Jess Miller, said that density can be good, you just need to show people how, and that putting in the community infrastructure before you put in the apartments is one good way to do so.
When it comes to sustainable real estate, Clayton Utz special council, Eugene Tan, proved that the private sector gets it with one simple statistic, that it invested $4.5 trillion globally last year – roughly the GDP of Germany.
City of Parramatta’s Helen Papathanasiou countered that local government gets it too, it’s just that when council plans, the volume of work is so overwhelming that sustainability can get dropped off. She said the answer is to couch sustainability in terms of human benefit, then tendered the story of Our Living River, an ambitious project to make the Parramatta River swimmable again by 2025, as case in point. At this point I cheered a little as it is both one of my favourite sustainability projects and one I have had the pleasure of working on with her on.
Next came a session on the role of architecture in all this, with 3XN’s Fred Holt bringing a flurry of quotable quotes, including that it’s time to “humanise the high rise”, create “vertical villages” and ”design for disassembly, not demolition”. Most importantly, he pointed out that Tomorrowland is also the name for Europe’s number one dance festival and, in doing so, put forward a strong case for a far more fluoro dress code at next year’s event.
Professor Peter Poulet of Western Sydney University and the Greater Sydney Commission said there’s a reason that WSU no longer has a School of Architecture, but instead a School of the Built Environment, and left us with the simple truth that the circular economy is inevitable if we are to survive, and integrated thinking is the only way to achieve this.
Arup’s Robert Saidman said that creating great places has to be at the heart of what you want achieve – and whether you achieve this is only as good as the inputs you use to make the decision that determines the outputs you create.
NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler OAM challenged all in sundry with the sobering fact that around 1800 new buildings are registered in NSW, and only a handful are the amazing sustainable ones we read about, with too much of the industry trading off getting it done right for simply getting it done. When it comes to the sheer industrial scale at which we now construct, he questioned whether it’s right to industrialise anything at all until you are doing it right in the first place.
And then it was time to talk money and finance. Scott Bocskay, CEO of the Sustainable Australia Fund, showed how unique finance models can create the change we seek for less overall cost.
Then Nightingale Housing’s Jeremy McLeod prophesied that innovation is sustainability in the built environment is ultimately a question of finance, telling the story of how getting his community focused, non-profit developments off the ground involved meeting an awful lot of people, getting an awful lot of no’s and then finding success through perseverance – with the very person he had approached in the first place.
Spark Beyond’s Katherine Leong kept it short and sweet with the wonderful one liner that we don’t just need housing, we need good housing. While ANZ’s Caryn Kakas told us that to think like a bank you have to understand it’s all about risk and return and that, when it comes to risk, people very much like the look of things they have seen before.
Sefa’s Hanna Ebeling reassured us that investors come in all shapes and sizes, and that there are investors on a mission is to create system change and are willing to accept below market returns to do so. She reminded us that investing in ideas like Nightingale Housing is about more than measuring money, it’s about measuring things like how many neighbours you know, how people get around, health, happiness, and more. In short, everything that matters when you boil it down to the basics of this world.
We then went back to the future for the final session to talk tech.
Alex Fuerschke from Dexus opined that there’s a lot of tech for tech’s sake, and that tech is best when paired with design thinkers to make sure its deployed for problem solving. He also echoed Hanna, saying that in all the data we collect from buildings, the one thing missing is often data on the happiness of the humans in them.
ABC technology reporter Ariel Bogle told us that when governments deal with technology companies as large or larger than a country themselves, it changes the game. And that, in the same way, technology and data collection can be forced upon us when there is a power imbalance, whether that’s being a renter seeking a lease on an apartment in Australia or a citizen in China being forced to abide by its big brother social credits system.
Dr Jathan Sadowski from the University of Sydney warned us that what we see in China is the natural next step of current developments going on in Australia and the USA already. He told us the smart city has become the captured city – by the capturing of our data by the groups with the power to own and wield it. He said that, if as Ford says, data is now “a source of pure profit,” then that changes how we design everything. He then left us with the thought that surely it has so much more value to society and communities than pure profit.
But, for me, the quote of the day came from INDIGI LAB’s Luke Briscoe who stated simply that
how you choose to use data ultimately comes down to culture. Which, I believe, captured the theme of the day, that culture and values create the platform on which every decision that decides our future is made.
I left the day feeling that the future can be bright but, nonetheless, we are still on the brink and there are some key questions that need to be answered to know what Tomorrowland is going to be like.
Do we let the rich have the power or will we demand democratisation? Will we try a new way of living like Nightingale and, if so, do we care to share more to make it happen?
Can we have a culture of creativity if land and property and data are treated as solely a financial asset? Will we invest time and money in something new even if it looks scary at the outset, or simply keep doing what we are doing and accept the pathway we are on?
Or, to paraphrase Anthony Robbins, do we have what it takes to feel the fear of change and do it anyway?
Only tomorrow knows.
Ben Peacock is the founder of Republic of Everyone.