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Glass half full or half empty? Hello Tomorrowland!

Last week I had the privilege of playing MC at The Fifth Estate’s amazing Tomorrowland event.

Dozens of ever-too-clever individuals giving us mind-popping insights into the future of everything, from how you have your say in your democracy to how your pizza gets to your door.

All of which get me thinking, too. What’s the future going to be?

Utopia or dystopia? A stairway to heaven or a highway to hell?

You only have to look to movies to know that one future is the place to be. And one is definitely not.

On one hand the glass is half full. Perfect, green cities, flying cars, personalised health care and artificial intelligence in my pocket.

On the other hand the glass is half empty. Soylent green, ghetto high rises, Judge Dredd and megalomaniac machines taking charge of a flooded, dying planet.

So which will it be?

Don’t believe what investment ads tell you. Past performance is,by far, the best predictor of future outcomes.And, to quote the great Aussie band Skunkhour, “Today is the tomorrow they promised you yesterday”.

So is today the tomorrow we were promised yesterday?

I was promised video phone calls, maps to direct me anywhere from almost everywhere in the world. Free energy on the roof of my home. Cleaner air in my office. Ways to work from anywhere. The world’s libraries in my pocket.

Promises made, promises kept.

What no one told me was that I’d need a million dollar mortgage to live in my home city, that my cleaner, more efficient hybrid car would sit idle in ever worse traffic jams, and that the computer in my pocket would make me work more, not less.

Or that while 99 per cent of scientists agree climate change needs urgent action, around the same proportion of politicians would refuse to act.

Want in a peek into the future? Let this 3 minute Hollywood mash up take you there. Password: Tomorrowland. 

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

Will every apartment be Central Park, every shopping centre Burwood Brickworks, every workplace Barangaroo? My friends at the GBCA (The Green Building Council) tell me around 5 per cent of developments are Green Star, around 30 per cent more are influenced by it. This is wonderful news.

But what about the other 65 per cent? Will they catch up? If so, when?

Will every new home be powered by 100 per cent renewables? Will our suburbs be greener or greyer?

Right now urban forestry is booming. That’s good. Yet, on aggregate, greenfield destruction balances out every gain made. That’s bad.

These are the tensions.

Hope of better, fear of worse. Excitement meets trepidation.

Can I pick and choose? Or is tomorrow always a mix of the good and the bad.

Can I skip the Mad Max future, but still have one of those cars?

To quote Freddy Mercury, when it comes to the good parts of the future: “I want it all and I want it now”.

To quote Karl Wallinger, when it comes to climate change and grey, overpopulated cities, “I don’t want to sail with a ship of fools”.

We do, of course, have a choice. Anyone working today is a creator of Tomorrowland. Anyone working in sustainability or the built environment, doubly so.

The buildings, the places we bring to being, and the social fabric created within them, are defined by the decisions we make every day.

These decisions, in turn, define the future. Lots of little decisions leading to one big outcome, one way or the other.

So, what decisions are being made? What do the experts think?

That’s what Tomorrowland was all about.

Here are some of the thoughts and one liners that stood out for me on the day.

It all began with Jefa Greenaway, Greenaway Architects, who set the tone with the wonderful one liner, when you look after place, it looks after you.

Then James Murray-Parkes, Brookfield Scientific Solutions, showed us how nature, maths and creativity can solve pretty much any problem through biomimicry.

He reminded us that we have to be adaptable in our thinking – innovation is a journey not a destination.

And his T-shirt had almost as much to say, telling us loud and proud, in Helvetica Bold, that science doesn’t care what you believe in.

Cheryl Desha, Griffith University, made us rethink engineering, saying it should be nature loving and inspired.

While Samantha Hayes, Bioengineering Australia, gave us a pep-up, saying that, when it comes to changing the world, it can feel like you’re not getting anywhere when you’re in the middle of it, but there’s a lot going on.

Brian Haratsis, MacroPlan Dimasi, transported us to the future world of, well, transport, showing that low level of productivity in a city is always associated with low levels of mobility.

He had bad news: the next 10 years will see 30 per cent more cars on the road. He had good news too: the government has just given the go ahead for delivery drones that carry up to 4 kilograms.

So, while you might not be above to drive anywhere, you can stay home and get an awful lot of pizza delivered, fast.

Mind you, with half of adults in Western Sydney already overweight and obese and 75 per cent doing no exercise at all, you might want to think about getting off the couch and fetching it yourself.

Amy Child, Arup, had the final say on autonomous vehicles, calling them the band aid on bad planning. And the only thing the crowd agreed on more is that when it comes to these interconnected new challenges, the government has neither the answers nor the agility to deal with pretty much any of them.

Speaking of driving, David Wilson, Transport NSW, took us back to autonomous vehicles, questioning whether claims of reduction in accidents by 90 per cent are, like so many predictions, overstated. Then asked if our systems of road signage and exists are really ready for them anyway.

Haico Schepers showed us that to change a system, you must think about the whole system.

ThenFlow’s Terry Leckie proved that there’s money in sustainability and that getting your paws on it starts with capturing resources already available to you instead of paying to ship them in from far away places.

Lauren Kajewski, Landcom, got everyone to stand up and only stay standing if they were 100% with the amenities and fabric of the place they live in. Within moments we were all back on our tooshes, with a few notable exceptions, including Caroline Pidcock who had to take the long way home lest we all try and move into her (no doubt) architecturally designed oasis.

Lauren also told us of her year in a wheelchair and how all urban planers might want to take one for a spin to understand how poorly designed the world is when you’re on two wheels – and how unkind some people can be.

Matt Allen, Bates Smart, wrapped up that thought, saying cities can’t provide for everyone if they aren’t designed with everyone in mind. And introduced me to my favourite new word, Hominess,to describe that snuggly, warm feeling of arriving back at a place you really love living.

But enough touchy feely stuff, next it was time to show me the money.

Investa’s Michael Cook’s crystal ball told us commercial property is set to boom, defined sustainability as being the art of doing more with less – but said it can’t reach it’s goals if people don’t invest in it.

Chris Wade from the CEFC agreed and urged us all to be open in investing in deploying many technologies to help get us there.

While Campbell Hanan, Mirvac, backed him up, saying today’s technology won’t get us to Net Zero, so trusting in innovation and being open to new ideas is the best hope we have. One example? Solar facades. Coming soon to a building near you.

The day ended with a super panel where almost everyone got a say, and a good thing they did too because the quotable quotes were just starting to fly thick and fast.

We heard from Angie Abdilla, Old Ways, New, that Indigenous reconciliation needs people to involve themselves in the culture and that 65,000 years of history takes a long time to learn.

We heard that redesigning cities so all their parts work together starts by redesigning the regulations that drive them.

Jorge Chapa, GBCA, urged us to reframe sustainability as a question of quality.

Davina Rooney, Stockland, told us that, in residential new builds, people do value sustainability – but not until a year after they move in.

Then we all scratched our heads for clever incentives to overcome this.

Jennifer Hughes, Baker McKenzie, reinforced the need for consumer demand for sustainability in a world where the building code can weak and compliance slow to be enforced.

Then Iain Walker, newDemocracy, brought it all back to people and democracy, urging us to stop selling people answers and, instead, ask them the future they want and how they plan to get there.

He said that, when people feel planning is out of their control, they want more rules and nothing new in their back yard. But when they are involved in the process they choose less rules and density done well.

John Austen, formerly Infrastructure Australia, brought us back to government, using Western Sydney as an example of how getting three levels of government to agree whose responsibility the big issues are – let alone act on them – is the infrastructure equivalent of a triple backflip with pike

John Brockoff, Planning Institute of Australia, used Dubai as an example to warn that city-scale desal plants lead to oceans so salty suddenly everyone can do the 100m butterfly.

His point? Technology is fine, but at some point, we need to start living within our means.

Finally, just as we’d given up on government, tennis legend and Hon. Member for Benelong, John Alexander, served up a few aces, saying that, even in Canberra, it is recognised that the destructiveness of the last 10 years has got no one anywhere and that politics needs to go back to being a contest of ideas.

And, when it does, We The People have a duty to inform ourselves, then vote for the best of them – wherever they come from.

I was left thinking maybe he should be PM, but then again, maybe not. He probably wants a more permanent position than that.

All in all, it was one hell of a show. It had fire, it had funny, it had challenges but it also had a whole lot of hope. And, as the next generation of intergalactic heroes, Jyn, said, “Rebellions are built on hope”.

As I left the venue with my head full, I was reassured that, while some days it feels like we are on the pathway to dystopia, the road to utopia is still there if we just get the right minds in the room and right people in charge.

Or, in the words of my good friend Scott:

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Depends whose shout it is.

Republic of Everyone is Australia’s leading sustainability communications agency. It develops strategies, programs and engagement that “do good for the world while providing a return for business”. 

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