Clues for a more sustainable future are littered throughout our history, nature, and in our relationships with one another.

This was the key takeaway from our Tomorrowland 2018 event held in Baker McKenzie’s Barangaroo offices on 6 September: the secrets for better cities and buildings have been hiding in plain sight.

For Greenaway Architects’ Jefa Greenaway, a leading Indigenous architect and academic based in Melbourne, the modern world has a lot to learn from the way indigenous cultures interact with land and place.

He believes we need to tune into the unique physical attributes and cultural heritage associated with places, through an Indigenous sensibility, to create better cities.

“There are remnants of Indigenous culture [in our cities]. Even when you concrete over them, they are still there,” he said.

Greenaway said indigenous culture can also help guide the transition to a less destructive, more sustainable society and economy. 

The bio mimicry experts also think the keys to a better built environment have been hiding right under our noses.

They believe we should be borrowing from structures and mechanics that already exist – including those found in nature – rather than constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.

Brookfield Scientific Solutions’ James Murray-Parkes, has drawn inspiration from plants to create building structures with flexible joints that are more resilient to earthquakes and other environmental factors.

“Nature does not build stiff structures like buildings,” he said.

More clues will emerge when we opened the discussion to the public. Lauren Kajewski from Landcom reminded us that sometimes its about asking the right questions – or any questions at all – to find out what people really want from their neighbourhoods.

It’s important to hear from a broad cross-section of voices, we were reminded, rather than just the highly-vocal complainers and dissenters; they may not be representative, newDemocracy’s Iain Walker pointed out.

Most speakers and attendees seemed to agree that technology is only part of the solution in the pursuit of more sustainable cities and landscapes. Remembering human centred design was key.

The mention of autonomous vehicles polarised the room, with Amy Child from Arup suggesting that they may be a “bandaid solution” for poor planning.

Macroplan Dimasi’s Brian Haratis said they may influence a new urban geography in more subtle ways than expected, and warned of a future where AV manufacturers have unfettered oversight and influence over our every move.

But with the appropriate planning and regulation, AVs may help communities located far from the city centre become more productive by making them more mobile.

Others warned of the hidden dangers of the most promising, cure-all technologies, and suggested approaching with caution to avoid ending up in a worse situation than before.

Widespread desalination in Dubai, for example, has left the surrounding sea so salty that almost nothing can survive but it’s so buoyant from the salt that even the worst swimmer can manage a butterfly, Planning Institute of Australia’s John Brockhoff quipped.

Some speakers suggested that our resistance to the economics of sustainability has been holding the sustainable agenda back.

Terry Leckie from Flow Systems said that the precincts of the future could benefit by keeping the financial returns of utility provision within the community by self managing the facilities instead of allowing leakage of returns to external providers.

“The problem we’ve had with sustainability is for developers it means it will cost more, and for customers it has typically cost more,” Leckie said.

“So we’ve worked on the economics. If you get this right the rest will follow… and yes I say this with a degree of tongue in cheek.”

More coverage to come in following weeks and in our Tomorrowland2018 ebook.

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