Patton, the long-time former chief executive of Internet Australia and now the inaugural chief executive of ASCA, made his comments after the recent Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat conference which looked at the issue of how to deal with increasing urban density without destroying communities’ liveability, and how to increase people’s accessibility to their workplaces.
“One of the solutions proposed was to build more public transport systems within cities, and specifically in the case of Sydney to continue the current trend for building new metros. But does it makes sense for most of us to be jammed into a handful of overcrowded cities?” he asked.
“Improving 'liveability' is one of the key outcomes that can flow from the deployment of smart city technologies and concepts, along with more sustainable and more empowered communities.
“Four decades ago the Whitlam Government envisaged a more decentralised nation, establishing the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation. There are many reasons why the Albury-Wodonga decentralisation experiment failed to spur a dramatic shift of our population.
“Arguably, the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services at the time. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were habitually held face-to-face, and before we even had fax machines, this was an insurmountable hurdle.
“The question we need to consider now is: Has the internet provided the solution – people working with each other without necessarily having to be in the same room, or even the same city? We’ve already seen the creation of numerous internet-based jobs that can be carried out remotely. This is a trend only likely to continue,” Patton noted about the influence of technology.
Patton points to a paper by the authors of the recently released Greater Sydney Commission strategy who he says believe Australia can create more liveable communities within the existing city footprint.
“Under their scheme Sydney will morph into a 'tripartite metropolis' – with distinctly separate eastern, central and western cities. The core of the idea is that people are able to commute between home, work and other key locations within 30 minutes. However, critics of the plan point to the need to create a massive number of extremely high-rise apartment buildings, which may or may not be how people wish to live.
“The Greater Sydney Commission has said it will take 40 years to complete the transition. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades if we started working on an innovation-led decentralisation plan rather than continue with the current urban consolidation.”
Patton notes that one of Australia’s largest telcos has several high-rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy lunch. “Yet they all struggle with congested transport systems, which means hours spent getting to and from a workplace that could, in most cases, be located pretty much anywhere.”
“The US provides a case study worth considering,” says Patton.
“Rather than all fighting for space and labour in a handful of places, US businesses are spread across hundreds of regional centres. One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce that makes a city viable.
“As we envisage our future we need, more than ever, governments that listen to the people. More community engagement in decision-making processes might help us strike the right balance.
“Combining smart city concepts with greater community engagement will help create communities that are more liveable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered.”