Parramatta, where we're heading for our ferry event, the Green Rebellion Goes West

There is nothing like a few public facing engagements to sharply focus the mind.

Two of these events are ours:

  • Visit Tomorrowland, on the big trends driving building design, development and investment on 19 September
  • The Green Rebellion Goes West, 29 September, a collaboration with Sydney Architecture Festival that turns a spotlight on the west of Sydney for the launch of the festival at Parramatta

They are going to be brilliant.

Come along.

Another two events are external.

Last Thursday The Fifth Estate was part of a debate for the FutureNet arm of Consult Australia on whether Sydney will be ready for 10 million people by 2050.

And next week (Thursday) we’ve been asked to step in for a keynote address to the Future of HVAC conference by AIRAH.

It’s no surprise how connected the focus of these events are: population growth, major trends in the built environment and the future of buildings themselves.

Sydney might be expecting 10 million people by 2050 (or eight, if you listen to the Greater Sydney Commission), but Melbourne expects eight million and Brisbane five. And we bet Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Canberra and Hobart aren’t exactly planning for population losses. No matter what Dick Smith says.

And in Australia and globally climate change is already baring its teeth. There’s no time to spare.

But what is surprising is how good the news is.

We have huge challenges but the creativity we’re discovering on a daily basis is immense.

Tomorrowland for instance

On buildings there is some really exciting thinking going on as we work out how to plan for the unknown.

Also tension.

On one side is amazing new technology and digital capacity blended with increasingly demanding expectations for workplaces and buildings of all types to be flexible, unique, healthy and creative.

Make Architects’ Ian Lomas, for instance, will talk about highly flexible buildings. In London, his studio is working on a large trading floor building but it must also be flexible so that if the market changes it can be quickly be turned into something as different as a Bollywood studio, if needs be.

Then there is the idea of moveable buildings that can shift around as climate change has impact, or sadly, refugee need.

On the other side is the clunky heavy nature of real estate itself with its big materials appetite that presupposes a long-term inflexible solution.

With this nature comes the matching lugubrious type of property investment that suits property, real estate investment trusts (REITS), which own most of our big property assets but offer the opposite of flexible, exciting changeable options.

Liam Timms from Lendlease in our recent briefing ahead of his panel appearance at Tomorrowland said the very nature of the trust structure for owning buildings leads to the opposite of flexibility.

Investors in REITs want steady, low-risk returns, which means a stable, predictable product.

ISPT’s Michelle McNally, who is also on our investor panel, has similar concerns.

Western Sydney and the Green Rebellion

On our Green Rebellion event, the picture suddenly jumps out to full screen. What’s happening there – with the likelihood that the west will handle most of Sydney’s growth – is scalable to all the other big cities.

The challenge of big population growth is like being handed a blank canvas and asking our leaders, thinkers, shape shifters – and pollies – if they would be happy with business as usual.

Clearly the answer is no. And when you start to draw the threads of stories together, you can see some good moves under way.

Rod Simpson, environment commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission, who will be on our panel for the Green Rebellion was especially inspiring and optimistic in our briefing.

As an architect, urban designer and Associate Professor in the Urbanism Program at the University of Sydney, Simpson is insightful, especially now with his access to the top-level thinking and plans.

There are some highly talented people working away in state government to deliver better connected thinking and outcomes, he says.

Has systems thinking finally arrived? Have we learned from the dismal mistakes of the past and are moving on?

The opportunities are immense but we need to constantly remind ourselves that governments are leaders, not followers, and need us to make them understand it’s okay to be brave and radical.

Urban planning for a start. Simpson used a simple example: Coles and Woolworths are in the habit of setting up alongside each other, in centres well spaced apart, so that you generally need a car to get to reach them.

Result: smaller retailers fade away and pretty much the only things that remains are petrol stations and fast food outlets that set up alongside the must-have petrol stations.

Can we do anything about this?

“Well, we could get brave and limit the size of supermarkets,” Simpson says, pointing out that the ACT and Ireland have done exactly that.

This is radical thinking and exactly the kind that can spread and scale up. Especially if someone else has done it first.

The notion that health, obesity, diabetes, social isolation and access to jobs can be influenced through urban planning is working its way up the hierarchy.

Even parts of the NSW health department, we’ve heard from other sources, have introduced the notion of systems thinking and that liaising with urban planners is a good idea.

How do you reach and influence a community? A good place to start is where people naturally congregate.

Simpson again: you can look at urbanity, by either looking at the notion of the big city attraction (“I live in New York in case I meet someone more intelligent and creative than I am”) or by observing naturally forming social groupings, say around primary schools, and asking if you this is where you might introduce a fresh food outlet, or a work opportunity.

The message that things need to change is all around

There is an overall sense in the broader community – and economy – that the age of entitlement is finally fading.

And this will help deliver more sustainable outcomes in the broader sense of the word.

For instance, the days of $10 million+ annual salaries for chief executives are likely over; there are increasingly angry calls for the big overseas corporations to pay their taxes; and anger over the sense of entitlement some big corporates that think they have the right to pollute our water with fracking, or load our environment up with polluting chemical and dodgy building products.

In property, a sense of developers’ free for all might still exist, but it’s no longer okay (it was never okay). But the smart ones are starting to respond to the need for more ethical and sustainable outcomes. Beyond the greenwash.

The spirit of radical housing models such as Nightingale and Baugruppen are spreading to new groups and new iterations.

Governments (even Canberra) are starting to tinker with ways to making housing more affordable.

There are good public transport programs appearing in the capital cities and so much lampooning of projects such as WestConnex that it’s hard to believe another will ever see the light of day (Besides, Utopia is now watching all of us, even sustainable development conferences.)

It’s as if people are waking up to the challenges of what lies ahead with big population surges and climate change and some good hard-working and talented people have infiltrated interesting places.

Maybe that’s what happens when you, the nation, gets unshackled from the crazy reign of terror of a few year’s back.

It’s all scaling up.

Affirmative team, enjoy the loss. Left to right- James Rosenwax, AECOM; Tina Perinotto, The Fifth Estate; Chris Maher, James Sharley

So how did we go on the debate?

It was a great start. After research and meetings with the affirmative team mates, James Rosenwax of Aecom and Chris Maher of Hames Sharley, we felt a bit sorry for our opponents, stuck in negativity and the patterns of the past.

We thought we’d romp it in.

But no.

Secret weapon on the night was the completely hilarious Nicholas Bandounas from Warren and Mahoney, the New Zealand architectural firm now making its mark in Australia.

Unfair, we shouted, way too funny. You can’t compete with bellyaching laughter.

The positive story is actually great (we were robbed).