Monday, March 20, 2006

Making Future History for Australian Cities

Ovlier Freeman, Phil McManaus and Richard Neville
On Saturday Leichhardt Council in Sydney held a public forum on expectations and future needs of the community over the next 15 to 20 plus years, with environmental, social and economic issues. This is part of a review of the Strategic Plan for the area:
"... Our futurist presenters include Oliver Freeman, scenario planner and facilitator for the session; Richard Neville, well known futurist and social commentator; and Dr Phil McManus of the Australian Conservation Foundation. After these presentations, we will then discuss some of the options for the future well being of our community. ...
From: Leichhardt 2020+ Public Forum, 18 March 2006

As I spend part of the time in Leichhardt, I went along to the Town Hall and contributed. This was not my first attempt at futurism, in 1993 I took part in a future study for Canberra and wrote "Canberra 2020: World Information Capital", which was in Informatics Magazine, September 1993. In this I had Gareth Evens as UN Secretary General (he wrote a note to me afterwards indicating he was mildly amused by it).

The forum had all the usual elements:

* CELEBRITY PRESENTERS: "Futurist" is an even more vague job description than "consultant". The main qualification seems to be to be well known and a bit odd. In the past I have been at an event where the futurist sang (badly) to the audience. So I was pleasantly surprised at how sensible and knowledgeable the three for this event turned out to be:

- Ovlier Freeman was described as a scenario and planning facilitator and trainer, but seemed to me to be the business brains behind the proceedings.

- Richard Neville is a "well known futurist and social comentator", but is also "that Richard Neville", editor of Oz magazine.

- Dr Phil McManaus is a geography lecturer from University of Sydney.
e might be almost ruled out as a futurist, as a genuine expert in a genuine scientific discipline, who has written a real book, and a scholarly paper about issues in Sydney:

"... This paper explores the complex interplay of scientific, organisational and community cultures in a proposed restoration project. In March 2004 the City of Sydney released the Glebe Foreshore Plan, which included the creation of a mangrove habitat in Bicentennial Park West. Despite widespread support of the mangrove concept, the associated plan generated significant opposition, including what one local newspaper dubbed ‘mangrove battlelines’. This paper develops a framework to analyse competing visions of nature in the mangrove conflict ..."

From: Mangrove Battlelines: culture/nature and ecological restoration, Phil McManus, Australian Geographer, March 2006

The event used the usual setup, with the presenters introducing a topic and then the participants discussing it at their tables, results tabulated onto butcher's paper, votes from the participants and the the promise Council would consider these in their planning deliberations.

A laptop computer and projector was used by the presenters, but this was the extent of computer support. This was curious given the presenters kept talking about how the Internet and communications were important to the city's future. There was a considerable delay while the topics from each table were transcribed to large sheets for voting. Perhaps there could have been a half dozen council staff with laptops to type the topics in and then project them on screens (or print them).

One good feature was an "other" board, where individuals could put up extra topics whenever they liked, which did not fit with the group think of their table. One idea I put up was to extend the discussion online. As an example the list of topics brought up at the day could be placed on the Council's web site and people could indicate the priority by clicking on them.

The Topics for the day were:
  • Community Wellbeing
  • Transport
  • Government
  • Natural Environment
  • Built Environment
One problem was that each question was phrased in terms of its effect on the Council, rather the on the community. The assumption seemed to be that the interests of the council and the community were one in the same. As an example under "government" I raised the issue as to if a Council was needed at all. If most people were living in some sort of collective housing, such as apartments run by a body corporate and that most services are privatized and under state government supervision (such as roads), there may not be any role for a council at all. This is an issue for the council as they would be out of business, but if done properly it may not be an issue for the citizens, who may get better democratic representation and better services.

The usual issues were raised, such as globalisation, sustainability, urbanization, energy use, oil shortages, public transport and the like. This got me thinking about Canberra, which recently had an effort to decide how to
celebrate Canberra's centenary in 2013. The ACT Government called for ideas for the celebration.

The ideas presented for Canberra's centenary look pretty lame. As an example one is to invite all the state symphony orchestras to perform in Canberra. This puts me in mind of the opening of Summer Olympics in Los. Angeles, where 84 pianists on 84 white pianos performed the solo part of the Gershwin's Rhapsody. No doubt the organizers thought this would show to the world the city's depth and sophistication of culture. Unfortunately for them this shallow, tasteless spectacle did just that. It would be unfortunate if the only thing Canberra could show after one hundred years were similar lame tricks.

So here are a few ideas for Canberra (and Sydney) I might develop further over the next few months:

  • eRoad: The Belconnen to Civic Electric Highway,
  • eTrain: Hybrid Fast Train from Canberra to Sydney,
  • eGov: Canberra Center for Advanced Government,
  • ePod: Cooperative Environmentally Sustainable Housing for the Disabled.

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