Image: Daniel A'Vard, Open Cage

Melbourne’s young engineering minds have been put to the test to address Melbourne’s urban design and infrastructure problems at GHD’s annual Smart Seeds event.

The innovation competition asks engineers from different firms to team up and dream big to solve some of the city’s most pressing problems. Young engineers at the Melbourne event came from Powercor, Western Water, Leighton, GHD, Lend Lease, United Energy, South East Water, Yarra Valley Water, Vic Roads and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

After 10 weeks of preparation, six teams presented their ideas to four judges and an audience of industry leaders.

Here’s a summary of their ideas:

Team A: Reclaim the road

This was a plan to breathe life into Southbank Boulevard. The group proposed to transform the boulevard into a green pedestrian space and create space for outdoor performances. As part of the green artery running through Southbank, they wanted a community garden, an overpass for non-vehicular traffic and for the ground floor of all major buildings to be more pedestrian oriented with shops.

Team B: Nice assets

This group was trying to address the disorganised design of utility assets – those box-like units dotted all over city streets that are unsightly and take up valuable space. Their idea was to establish a forum for all the utility companies to talk to each other before the design phase and consolidate their assets so they could be simplified and beautified. In the next several decades, they said, the number of unsightly assets could be significantly reduced.

Team C: Closed loop precinct

This team proposed to use human hair to reduce pollution to the Yarra. They explained the filtration properties of hair and said that it was an idea already being executed successfully in India. With 200-plus hair salons in Melbourne’s CBD, they said, there would be a guaranteed hair supply. This would offer hair salons a welcome waste strategy. The hair in filters would need to be changed regularly and they proposed using the waste hair as a material to make benches and play equipment. They extended the hair filtration idea as a way of treating stormwater and said more stormwater could be collected with porous asphalt roads.

Team D: Banishing the boom gates

This team addressed an issue that currently has the engineering industry in Melbourne scratching its head: how to get rid of 50 level crossings, which the state government has committed itself to doing.

Separating road from rail requires a “grade separation” where the rail is moved below or above the road. The team said grade separations had the potential to completely ruin an area. So they proposed a community-driven system that asks members of an area to have input on what services and features are most important to retain. They created a rating system assessing the safety, economic wellbeing, productivity, community feel and environmental quality of an area.

Team E: EV phone home

With an increasing uptake of electric vehicles this team wanted to create a way to help people manage their EV if there’s a huge spike in the demand for electricity. To get around this, the group wants to make it easier for people to manage the electricity in and out of their car.

A particularly interesting aspect of this idea was in relation to driverless vehicles. They said the EV app could operate a personal kind of “Uber” taxi service, where car owners could rent their driverless car out at night while they were sleeping, as an extra income.

Team F: Reshaping the Great Australian Dream

This group addressed the housing affordability crisis in Melbourne and the fact that many dwellings are unsuitably designed for the needs of the inhabitants. Instead of developers and investors dictating what gets built, they suggested a community driven model. For example, a single retiree on a large block who no longer wanted so much space could join forces with the two neighbours on either side who have young children. They could put their blocks together and build town houses with a large green space in the middle. Alternatively several families with similar design needs could band together to buy an old building or unused block in an otherwise unaffordable suburb, build multiple dwellings on it and sell off a few. The group proposed an online service to help connect like-minded people – a kind of “Tinder” for aspiring home owners.

The winners

With slick Powerpoint slides, videos, music, costumes and props, the presentation standard was high.

The judges were Environmental Protection Authority president Nial Finegan, Yarra Valley Water managing director Pat McCafferty, Committee for Melbourne chief executive Kate Roffey and RACV general manager public policy Brian Negus.

They gave the judges’ award to “Re-shaping the Australian Dream”.

Committee for Melbourne chief executive Kate Roffey said the idea was a different take on what had been done with “mixed zoning” by developers and councils.

“Why we found it quite innovative was that it was actually four, five, six individuals getting together and saying, ‘We all want the same sort of dwelling with the same amenity around it so how do we go through the process of creating our own community.’

“It’s dealing with an issue which is really pressing, which is our sprawling urban growth boundary, but also this concept of very uni-dimensional-style suburbs where you have the quarter-acre block.”

The audience voted online and the people’s choice award went to “Banishing the Boom Gates”.

The “Closed Loop Precinct” team – or perhaps more memorably “the hair group” – attracted a bit of attention with their unusual idea.

The EPA’s Nial Finegan said the group’s presentation exercised his mind.

“First I thought, ‘That won’t work,’ then flipped to ‘why not’ – a great mix of creative and critical thinking which is often the catalyst for innovation,” Mr Finegan said.

“I also like the return to the use of an age old material [hair], which is not in common use, and the very sustainable nature of the idea.”

He said the scoring across all the teams was very close but judging was not only based on bright ideas.

“Ideas without application or implementation are just that – ideas – so the ability to execute an idea is of course a key factor.

“However, having said that, President John F Kennedy in setting the challenge to go to the moon said: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.’”

Mr Finegan said the competition disproved a common stereotype outside the engineering world – that engineers are not creative.

“Most of the greatest innovation that support life and the modern lifestyle and levels of wealth we enjoy are down to engineers,” he said.

“Innovation is a core part of an engineer’s skill base and needs to be nurtured.”

A key aim of Smart Seeds is for companies to pick up innovative ideas and run with them.

Ms Roffey said she would introduce some of the ideas in her meetings.