The shock of COVID-19 has thrown our industry a curveball, but also an opportunity to stop, reflect and change.
Now, as state and federal governments pour billions into infrastructure and attempt to speed up the approval of other projects by streamlining the antiquated planning system in an effort to stimulate our struggling economy, we must ask the question, are these the right long-term projects for Australia’s future?
Things are rapidly changing, and in order to futureproof our cities and provide a sustainable country for our children and children’s children, it is essential that consideration be given to longer-term frameworks and country planning outside of government cycles and election promises. Does Australia have a master plan, similar to what a business would prepare, which takes into account factors such as growth in headcount, revenue and profit? where the income is being spent, and if that represents good value? Are we innovating, are our transportation systems suitable for how we will move in the coming decades, and is our technology up to scratch?
We could be a centre of excellence globally, and a world leader in renewables placing us prominently on the world stage. But is the evolution and long-term prospects of what Australia can offer the world being planned and executed? What are our smart city requirements, what will our future cities look like, how they will function and what do our future generations need?
What is required is a bold, innovative approach – it simply is not good sense, and not brave, to sit on our hands and stagnate. We need a long-term strategic plan, not one which is based on the election cycle and pork barrelling. Leaders independent of the government, such as CEOs across different industries could come together to produce such a plan, which takes into account the wider strategic direction of our country as a whole. This strategic plan would take politics out of politics and develop what’s best for the country.
At WT, we see so many reactionary projects come across our desk. The government is currently fast-tracking projects left right and centre, which is positive for the current situation – but it is not a solution in itself. We must ensure that the projects being given the green light consider the future needs of our cities, take into account technological transformation and will provide long-term benefit, rather than being selected for the sake of shiny new big-ticket items that keep the constituents happy. Big expenditure only seems to happen off the back of big events – we need a more active, considered approach, rather than costing like a patchwork quilt here and there.
Looking at our roads and transport systems today, it is clear that no one has thought 50 or more years ahead. If we had started a decade ago building future thinking transportation such as high-speed trains, we would have these things now. The same applies to renewables. The infrastructure associated with wind and solar requires a substantial long-term investment, but if we’d have considered this 20 years ago we would be well placed now to have the opportunity of being a major player on the world stage. We need to take the opportunities as they present themselves based on our “masterplan”. It is encouraging, however, to see that conversations have started in the area of renewables recently – let’s see this continue.
COVID-19: A Line in the Sand
We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history, with the coronavirus pandemic drawing a distinct line in the sand. Our oceans have never been cleaner, and our air has never been clearer. Australia’s carbon emissions have reportedly reduced by an impressive 28% over the past four months and global emissions have reduced by 8%. COVID-19 has risen like a tide, washing our existing plans away and leaving them redundant in the face of our next normal. We need a different way of thinking than we had pre-COVID, and now have a rare moment of clarity to stop, reflect and determine our masterplan for Australia. Opportunity knocks – so why then, are we still working to old paradigms?
In Australia, we have not taken advantage of the COVID-19 period to be agile and innovative – the government’s approach has been reactive, which does not serve us in the long term. We can look to San Francisco for a good example of a city that has used this downtime to its advantage – over there, the public transport network, routes and timetables have been overhauled and re-designed over the last few months, creating greater efficiencies, faster passenger movement, safer streets which are now dedicated to electric scooters and bikes, and a future-focused network. Meanwhile, Australia is encouraging its citizens to drive to work in lieu of using public transport. On top of that, we can’t even coordinate border openings and social distancing regulations within office buildings, parks, shopping malls and protest gatherings.
Our current plans, such as NSW’s Future Transport 2056 strategy, must be reviewed and evaluated in light of our next normal (which is now). Many have assumed that life will simply revert to the way things were before, believing that COVID-19 will have no considerable long-term impact. But things have changed. Looking ahead, we are likely looking at six more months before the majority of business and employees are given the ok to safely return to the cities. However, according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days to form a habit and change people’s behaviour. More people than ever are working from home (many will be for several months) and many more will be adopting this working style as their next normal, as businesses adapt to their people working remotely. Therefore, if fewer people are returning and many will never return to our cities, how can these planned projects, or our cities in their current form be appropriate for this new normal?
Our CBD’s are a key driver of GDP. It has been well researched that when you turn CBDs into a district of professional services providers, it pumps money into the economy and lifts the overall GDP. So, if people are not returning to our cities, what will this mean for our economy? What happens to the coffee shops, the sandwich bars, the retail outlets, the restaurants and bars? Will we need to transform our cities to become more urban and decentralised, and if so, how will this affect GDP? We need to be looking at our country as if it were a business and plan accordingly.
The same applies to how we plan and utilise commercial office space. COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider some features of the workplace that have always been seen as a given – for example, during the depths of the pandemic, elevators had two or three passenger limitations (depending upon lift car size) due to social distancing requirements. Should the office of the future have more lifts (carrying fewer passengers), resulting in reduced efficiency of the floor plate, campus-style office buildings have shown to be far more accessible for access as they may only contain three or four storeys and are not reliant of the elevators to get workers to the floors. No one saw this global situation coming, but now that we are living it, we should be far more focused on what the future looks like, how we move around, how we plan for another crisis and how we shift the thinking from what we know today to what we need to know tomorrow.
There is no clear answer about how cities will ultimately transform. Will commercial buildings require re-thinking, what will shopping centres look like, will we even be working in the CBD? Will we be travelling during rush hour, or will there be a rush hour at all? How will we travel, what does public transport look like, what do roads look like, will we be in flying cars? With the AFR Future briefing held on 21 July predicting that there will be “more room for robots in post virus workplaces”, how will robots and AI successfully integrate in the workplaces of the future?
It is clear that major disruption has occurred, and we have to adapt to a new way. Was there a masterplan in place before COVID-19? I don’t believe there was, and if there wasn’t one before, we should most certainly be preparing one now. The old thinking simply isn’t good enough today. For too long, Australia has sat back and reacted. Now, it’s time we took a pro-active stance. There is a gap opening on the world stage, and we could take that spot. Be forward-thinking, be brave, be a global leader in technology, renewable energy, lead the way in sustainable construction and reduced carbon emissions. This masterplan should consider growth to 50 million, geographic spread, service diversification, revenue increase, greater profitability and implementation of a digital strategy to enable the above to happen. Let’s look beyond the next election term!
The way forward now is not to turn around and go back where we were, but to completely rethink the way we approach planning, futureproofing and forward-thinking outside of election terms. We have a real opportunity now that such a dramatic change has occurred, and we have been so heavily disrupted. Governments on both sides need to step up and work alongside each other with state infrastructure bodies and independent planning experts to create a future plan, for long-term benefit and growth rather than short-term satisfaction.
Nick Deeks is Managing Director at WT Partnership (Australia and New Zealand). Nick is a highly talented, forward thinking leader who advocates for important real estate and infrastructure initiatives in Australia. With over 35 years in the property and construction industry, Nick is unafraid to say that the industry is in the dark ages and needs to change for the future our cities.