Can Canberra Become an Experimental City?

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Canberra really has it all, even the OECD agrees. Now this land of milk and honey is experiencing attempts at the codification and betterment of perfection. It is no secret that Canberra is one of the best cities in the country to live, not just for regular people but the innovative and entrepreneurial as well. ThinkPlace and Craft ACT through their collaborative, city wide symposium the Design Canberra Festival of 2014 are asking some seemingly scary and absurd questions. My favourite of which was whether or not Canberra could become an experimental city. I describe such questions as seemingly scary and absurd because simply, I hate change. Most people have an uncontrollable internal gut reaction to change, well aside from the innovative and the entrepreneurial. That’s one of the great benefits of living in comparative paradise; there is always someone smart enough to deal with the risks associated with progress barely a kilometre away.

ThinkPlace is a Canberra based strategic design consultancy firm and Craft ACT is an ACT government funded Craft and Design Centre. They have come together to offer Canberra’s public the Design Canberra Festival 2014. Both in a collaborative effort are offering a welcoming, truly inclusive alternative to previous Canberra discussions such as the Australian Forum and the recent GovInnovate 2014.  The inclusive nature of the Design Canberra Festival discussions was evidenced by the temporary opening of a shop front in Garema Place, Canberra CBD in which public discussions were held. Lasting four days, November 20th to 23rd 2014, the festival involved a series of discussions and events concerning innovation in Canberra and the potential applications of creative thought in the city.

The topic of discussions covered the width and breadth of life in the nation’s capital. I was kicking myself particularly hard for missing the ‘FUSION: the art of eating’ event in which designers and artists worked with local restaurants to “produce a fusion of fabulous food and inspiring design.” Other notable events included the ‘Capital of CULTURE Tours’ a tour of the capital through the eyes of designers and architects. As well as ‘MODERN market’ – a mark of preferable business conditions – the event featured the agglomeration of “high end, innovative designers and makers from Canberra and from across the nation” selling their wares in person.

The main event, at least for me was Sunday’s ‘Conversations with ThinkPlace’ “…conversations about Canberra’s innovation ecosystem.” Held at the National Museum, the conversations illuminated design concepts and terms for this naïve individual and allowed more able others the opportunity to express their views regarding Canberra’s future. On arriving guests found sheets with several discussions topics upon their seats. Topics such as “How do we make being an active citizen contagious?” and “We have a small population but strong networks and ideas.” I was told later, in conversation with Cate Shaw, Executive Designer and “event mastermind” that the term ‘active citizen’ arose out of conversations during Design Canberra festival events. Aptly Cate choose to include the term and in doing so showed the almost instantaneous nature of innovation in the nation’s capital. Innovation of an almost fluid evolution, arising from some several points simultaneously, a work of creative spark and deliberate planning.

The event was opened by Darren Menachemson of ThinkPlace, who acknowledged the traditional custodians of the land the Ngunnawal people, before asking how Canberra could become an UNESCO design city. A city featuring the design principles of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, not on the UNESCO published World Heritage List.

Darren spoke on the amazing local opportunities and possibilities offered by simply locking diverse characters in a room “… might (sic) change the world.” Cate than took the stage and a detailed the innovation possible through reflecting on ‘interesting conversations’. Conversations are beneficial in being not formally constructed or contrived and allowing a free flow and exchange of ideas. The resulting ideas and innovation arising out of the Design Canberra festival conversations were shown through the use of a mind map projected on the stage screen. Again showing how innovation and its evolution are almost instantaneous in the nation’s capital. The map’s colour coded sections consisted of: distribution; commerce; infrastructure; governance; environment and culture. As Cate rightly noted, the vast majority of other cities inherit their culture, Canberra has the opportunity to create one.

For interactive and illustrative purposes Cate later proceeded to pull printed questions from an ingenuous prop. Rolls of paper were suspended below the projection screen with printed questions, which were featured in the Design Canberra festival conversations. Aside from interesting questions and props there were wonderful observations from Cate, such as “…affluence is our freedom; there are parts of our affluence which limit us.” As well as comments on the beneficial allowances to fail early in entrepreneurial endeavours in Canberra.

The audience participation component began shortly after and produced interesting results. Audience members answered the questions and discussion topics left on their seats, passing the microphone in a chain like fashion. Everyone in attendance seemed clearly knowledgeable and educated regarding the needs and wants of innovation and progression in Canberra. Throughout the audience participation I found Cate’s prior mention of the term ‘innovative ecosystem’ brilliantly illustrative of the collaborative and innovative processes occurring through the simple instigation of conversation.

In a seemingly well thought out conjecture to a previous audience member’s expressed thoughts, I added to my set question response, an observation. To the effect that innovative ideas and designs arising would likely be best met with considerations of profitability and commercial viability. The following speaker saw fit to inform me in a polite fashion, that if I wanted to live in a metropolis or larger city, I should move to one. Whilst I attempted to find a witty retort, I realised how understandable and correct the man’s sentiment had been. Canberra has fantastic innovation, entrepreneurial and design opportunities. These opportunities seemingly present themselves through comparatively little investigation and instigation. They are also in terms of global location, some of the best funded. Profitability constraints still apply but they are augmented by Canberra’s comparatively preferable conditions and small population.

In the end “…what’s good for me is good for you.” To quote Cate in discussion with the Canberra Entrepreneur following the event. Agglomeration combined with self and collective agency is an amazing combination. Once again Canberra is not only providing world class innovation and design but its perfection is to be streamlined and built upon, through the fantastic efforts of likeminded individuals. The festival’s organisers will soon be producing a document detailing the ideas and conclusions arriving out the festival’s discussions. I for one will definitely be downloading a copy.

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