Robert Harley: a personal takeaway from Tomorrowland19 – I, human

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The Fifth Estate’s annual Tomorrowland Symposium offers me a glimpse into the future.

Not the future of prices, or housing starts or the latest gadgetry. Others can do that.

Rather, Tomorrowland points to the intellectual and structural changes that will impact this sector, including construction, real estate technology, and the cities, for years to come.

Clarence Slockee gives the Tomorrowland19 audience a fabulous introduction

This year I took away a new way of thinking about Indigenous engagement, about the longer term challenges for development, and a different perspective on the so-called Smart City.

The Fifth Estate editor, Tina Perinotto, started with an Indigenous perspective to shake up the thinking. 

“You cannot take the Aboriginal knowledge without the Aboriginal.”

Australians are turning to Indigenous culture for insight to challenges like sustainability, fire management, water and agriculture. But in too many cases, 21st century Australia consults but does not listen, or wants answers without understanding.

“We are the most consulted people,” said the chief executive of Old Ways New, Angie Abdillia. “But consulting is not engaging.”

Virginia Marshall, the Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow ANU put it another way. 

“You cannot take the Aboriginal knowledge without the Aboriginal,” she said. “People want knowledge for nothing…and that is a problem for us.”

Lauren Kajewski, Landcom

Moving on, a Tomorrowland regular, Landcom’s director of sustainability & learning, Lauren Kajewski, presented on a recent visit to a number of flagship European projects to address the question, what makes a great community?

“Australia is so focused on land as an investment vehicle.”

Sure, they had lots of design, with lots of colour, greenery, and clever use of space. In one a childcare centre by day transforms into a bar by night.

But the big difference with Australia is the philosophy. The penthouse space is retained for the community, not alienated and sold to the highest bidder.

“There is a strong focus on not selling government land but leasing it to communities,” she said. “Australia is so focused on land as an investment vehicle.”

Rod Simpson, the environment commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission, spoke of creating the “equitable city.”

“In the past we have made an efficient planning system that has delivered the opposite to the things we need,” he said. 

Fred Holt, 3XN Tomorrowland19
Fred Holt, 3XN

Fred Holt, the partner in charge of the Sydney projects of the Denmark-based architecture practice, 3XN, AMP’s Quay Quarter Tower and the new Fish Markets in Sydney – talked of humanising the high rise.

“The views are great (at Quay Quarter) but humanising the high rise is more important,” he said.

Holt also reminded us that the new national building code, and its focus on sustainable design, would spell the end of the full height glass façade.

“Modern construction customers are becoming modern construction guinea pigs.”

The new NSW Building Commissioner – and a long time supporter of The Fifth Estate David Chandler took a look back at the NSW construction industry and the 27,000 apartments it created every year of the boom.

“We are paying a high price for trading off, just getting it done, against getting it done right,” he said.

“Modern construction customers are becoming modern construction guinea pigs,” he warned. 

And he challenged the current ambitions regarding off-site manufacture. “Don’t manufacture something you are not doing right,” he said.

Jeremy McLeod, Nightingale Housing

The way housing may be financed in the future came into focus with Jeremy McLeod, the founder of Breathe Architecture, and the innovative Nightingale Housing, arguing that the biggest challenge in delivering affordable housing has “always been the finance.”

Hanna Ebeling, the chief investment officer at Social Enterprise Finance Australia, noted that affordable housing was on the radar of social impact investors and Caryn Kakas, the head of Housing Strategy at the ANZ, spoke about the challenge of addressing the way the big banks thought about risk.

Tomorrowland finished, as it had to, with a panel on tech, AI, big data and the big city. But as you would expect, it was not about gee whizzery.

“We are not building smart cities, we are building captive cities….captured by the software and captured by particular groups.”

The head of building technology at DEXUS, Alex Fuerschke, said real estate was starting to catch up with technological innovation but warned that “a lot of technology was technology for technology’s sake”.

“Let’s look at what we are actually creating,” he said, pointing out how we still need to understand how humans occupy a building.

Alex Fuerschke,, Jathan Sadowski,
L-R: Daniella Traino, Jathan Sadowski, Alex Fuerschke, Ariel Bogle, Luke Briscoe

Ariel Bogle, the ABC’s technology reporter, warned that from a renter’s perspective, the process of residential letting was becoming more high tech but not necessarily better or faster. The technology was being created for the landlords and tenants were sharing data they did not want to, with little knowledge of how it might be used, or where it might be stored.

And that opened the way for Jathan Sadowski, a postdoctoral fellow in smart cities at the University of Sydney, to warn about the enthusiasm for smart cities.

“We are not building smart cities, we are building captive cities….captured by the software and captured by particular groups,” he said.

Sadowski’s new book, TOO SMART: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives and Taking Over the World is due to be published next March.

1 comment
  1. Some very good points here. Jathan’s comments on the ‘Smart City’ is spot on. In reality perhaps there are two Smart Cities (to borrow from Richard Sennett) the co-operative smart city where technology serves the citizen (like the Opal Card etc), and the controlling Smart City where large corporations mine data to serve them. That’s the real debate, not EV vehicles and the other relatively minor distracting issues

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