The recent package of draft plans for metro Sydney’s future include a 40-year vision for the whole city and 20-year District Plans for five key areas of the metropolis.

While there are many good statements in the plans, there are also a number of absolutes that appear to restrict innovation.

The plans are produced by the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) so it is interesting to read them through the ideas of the GSC’s Environmental Commissioner, Rod Simpson, who recently outlined his views on city planning in an article in the online magazine Foreground. In the interview, titled “Uncertain Future: Why Our Cities Need More Options and Less Codes,” Simpson came down very solidly on the side of innovation rather than regulation.

“There is a profound tension between innovation, in building, social behaviour or technology and codification,” he said. “The more highly codified things are, the less room there is for innovation. Rigid codes lock in current practice and stultify innovation. The better model is to regulate for higher performance, but leave it open as to how we might achieve it. This model stimulates innovation.”

This call to arms seems to be a signal to the marketplace to come with the latest ideas on how to house people or provide for places to work. It does seem to reflect a bottom-up approach to planning cities from the development industry rather than a top down approach from the regulators, who are generally public servants working as planners in government or in councils.

The same attitude is promoted in the January 2017 edition of a United Kingdom magazine called The Architectural Review. In a special edition to celebrate 120 years of commenting on architecture, a feature article by the head of Zaha Hadid’s innovative architectural practice, Patrik Schumacher (Hadid died a year ago) outlined his version of innovation in city making.  Schumacher’s words seem to echo those of Rod Simpson.

“Architecture’s unique and enduring societal function is the communicative spatial framing of social interaction. It is only now that the most profound contribution and societal function of architecture has been distilled from the profession’s traditionally more-encompassing responsibilities as its core competency.” he said.

“This conception and the prospect of a market-based urban order clearly indicates the conceptual congeniality of Parametricism with a market-based socio-economic order that relies on bottom-up processes of self-organisation and self-regulation rather than on top-down command and control.”

The parametricism referred to is about the ability of supercomputers to create complex forms from complex briefs. The rise of dramatically improved computer abilities along with the increasing amount of data available to decision makers is opening multiple options for how solutions can emerge. As Schumacher concludes, it is bottom-up processes of self-organisation that are likely to lead to more innovative solutions.

So we have two leaders in the area of architecture and city planning questioning the dominance of codes and regulation to provide the best solutions for the future of cities. Both seem to want to open planning systems to innovation and new ideas. They both seem to be moving away from ‘command and control’ or ‘top-down’ approaches to how cities evolve towards encouraging the market, the private sector to innovate.

As Simpson says, there may need to be some definition of higher performance, but this would not define how this was achieved. The future of urban planning in Australia could learn from the conceptual ideas of Rod Simpson and Patrik Schumacher.