Ecocity World Summit

Three Days of Sessions at Ecocity 2017

Photos: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute
Written by Dr. Paul James

Day One

We gathered at the Melbourne Convention Centre for the Ecocity World Summit in a place where for over the tens of thousand of years the Kulin First Peoples have lived as custodians of the land. The Honorable Lily D’Ambrosio, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, confirmed that the government had committed to zero net emissions for the city by 2050. As part of this, she announced, two-hundred trams will become solar powered over the coming months. Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood welcomed the thousand delegates to Melbourne, and emphasized the importance of cities in responding to the ecological challenges. Amelia Telford of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network talked of the importance of community, caring for country and opposing structures of greed that beset urban development.

The plenary speakers during the first morning framed the challenges. The Chair for the morning, John Wiseman linked these challenges to possible responses framed through the ‘Principles for Better Cities’ and underpinning the Summit. Aromar Revi from Delhi, India began by taking us back to 1968 and the first images of a fragile planet. More-recent satellite images depict an urban planet, lit up by cities. Demographic growth, intensifying urbanization and rapid economic development are part of a shift to the Anthropocene. By 2030 we expect a $90 trillion global economy. There is no mechanism, he said, for governing the global commons, the global financial system. This, he argued, can be developed through a series of responses, including working through the Sustainable Development Goals and formalizing the relationship of cities to the United Nations.

Debra Roberts from Durban, South Africa, attempted to unpack the complexity of turning cities into ecocities. Local governments, she argued, face many problems: procedural fetishism; a divide between different domains of knowledge (in particular between science and policy); and a North-South divide—with mega-urbanization concentrated in the Global South. Change requires all of us to be in the difficult conversations for the long term, where actions come to the fore. Ronan Dantec, Senator for the Loire Region in France, emphasized the role of non-state actors in responding to the challenges. This was confirmed, ironically, by the Honourable Ian Hunter from the State of South Australia, who described the state’s compact with the City of Adelaide on climate change. Adelaide seeks to become the world’s first climate neutral city. His Excellency Mr Yoga Punja, representing Fiji, turned to the other side of the response—if we do not act now, it will be the most vulnerable of the world who will be most effected.

Among the many inspiring parallel sessions on Day One was a series of presentations on museums and their role in both representing ecological change and providing a space for dialogue on sustainable futures. Ricardo Piquet and Luiz Oliveira from the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio, Brazil, talked of their relationship to the city and its communities—this requires a complete change of orientation to where engagement is now central. The Museum of Tomorrow is the most visited museum in Brazil. It does not rely on objects or compilations of facts, but seeks to engage the imagination, affirming the values of sustainability and conviviality. Miranda Massie from the Climate Museum in New York argued that making ecocities ‘requires a culture shift’. Importantly, a museum provides a physical embodied space for emotional engagement and social learning. She mentioned the work of Fiona Cameron from the Institute for Culture and Society, supporting her research that people want more action-oriented museums, moving solutions to the centre of shared life. Kate Phillips introduced us to the ‘Think Ahead’ exhibition Scienceworks Museum in Melbourne. Stephen Munro described how the National Museum, Australia, is developing a new permanent exhibition on the ecological history of Australia ‘to embed the human in the non-human’. The emphasis will be on the power of the non-human world. Michelle Isles from the City of Melbourne responded to all the presenters, talking of the importance of museums ‘to capture people’s imagination … and to call us to account’, particularly in relation to the great disrupters: sustainability challenges, including climate change.

Liam Magee from the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University opened a session on urban platform co-operatives outlining the changing definition of ‘platforms’, with the emphasis moving recently from software-oriented definitions to definitions that broaden to general underlying structures that support particular activities—including now what is called ‘platform capitalism’. Example of platform brands includes Facebook, Amazon and Uber. Platform co-operatives, by contrast with platform capitalism and the so-called ‘sharing economy’, are collectively owned peer-to-peer networks, most often based on Open Source software. David Sweeting from Save the Children described a project in the city of Dhaka, setting up a platform co-operative for listing locally available service in an informal settlement. The Kolorob project involved locals going door to door and enlisting 1,000 early adopters in early 2016, and gaining 10,000 users. Teresa Swist, also from the Institute for Culture and Society, emphasized the co-creation methodology that lay behind the project, including living labs and hackathons.

Day Two

Two thousand people came to the first session of the Ecocity Summit to be alternatively assaulted by a litany of depressive images of disaster, and then offered small signs of hope by the Honourable Al Gore. Among the many startling images presented by Mr Gore, was the figure that the amount of climate changing pollution currently being emitted into the atmosphere is the equivalent of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs per day. Global warming, he documented, is with us and consequential: 2016 was the hottest year in human recorded history; 2015 was the second hottest year; 2015 was the third hottest year. Image upon image of melting roads, mud slides, droughts, mega bushfires, extreme flood events, cyclones and multiple once-in-a-thousand-year events rebounded across the screen. The power of the images was reinforced by their immediacy. People in the auditorium were groaning. Some later admitted to crying. These were events across 2016 and 2017, and it showed a world in crisis. While scientists are still wary of attributing single-cause attribution to extreme events, said Mr Gore, now we can say that systemic cause-and-effect is changing the nature of events in general. Parts of the middle East and northern Africa will in the near future become uninhabitable. I was feeling devastated and depressed. ‘Yes, we must change. Can we change? The answer is also, yes’. Wind energy is being deployed at a rapidly growing rate. Batteries added to solar energy is going to revolutionize energy production and use. Mr Gore concluded with words from the poet Wallace Stevens: ‘After the final no comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends’.

In the following plenary session on ‘Imagining and Creating Sustainable and Resiient Cities’, Harriet Bulkeley from Durhan University, argued for a shift in governance of cities towards deep experimentation and learning by doing. She moved from acknowledging that we still do not know what actually is a good climate city, to suggesting that political will was key—the political will to experiment, adapt and respond to local differences and common climate challenges. Andy Merrifield, author of the New Urban Question, took on this question of political will, arguing that we needed a revolutionary change in the nature of citizenship based on the principle of right to the city, and an invigorated sense of a common destiny. Katherine Gibson, from the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, extended the theme of common destiny to the practice of commoning—developing a stronger practice of reclaiming public and private spaces through co-operative projects. In particular, we need to take back the economy, and challenge its tendency to privatize space and social value. This panel provided a well-founded counterbalance to one tendency through the Summit to treat technology—more solar panels, better energy-storage and green consumption—as the solution.

Of the many parallel sessions that followed across the day, the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment presented a session, chaired by Jenny Brown, called ‘Moving towards a Resilient New South Wales’. Rupa Nair talked about the OEH’s place-based approach to co-design as a basic principle of work. This, she said, involved lowering the barriers to entry for local people engaging in the program design. Every aspect of their program ‘Creating Sustainable Communities’ is used to support local leadership, capacity building, and learning by doing. People are trained in all aspects of project management, including capturing data through methods such as photovoice. Rachel Haley, who leads the Collaborative Sustainable Housing Initiative, uses the ‘Collective Impact’ approach (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011). It is long-term systems approach to having social impact: a common agenda; mutually reinforcing activities; a shared measurement system; continuous communication; and an organizing institution. First, they used visual tools to map the housing-supply system, and then set a common agenda. Sue Dunford who leads the climate adaptation initiative, spoke of one of their central projects called Climate Adaptation Public Shelters, shelters responsive to urban heat. It began with a design competition which attracted submissions from 40 teams, and involved about 400 people. Most provision of small-scale public infrastructure encourages the status quo. This process allowed for innovation.

Day Three

Kate Auty, Commissioner for Sustainability in the ACT, opened the day with an evocation to join what she called ‘the Holy Shit Committee’ drawing on the words of Amelia Telford from the Opening Plenary—the group of people who feel the urgency to act directly on sustainability issues. She spoke of key directions and priority actions that link the work in local places. Mark Twidell, Managing Director of Tesla, suggested that the definition of everyday objects and infrastructure will change—a roof will be defined as a building covering that gives shelter and provides energy. Energy-use will be characterized by renewable energy, peer-to-peer trading, distributed storage, self-driving cars, and self-monitoring our carbon footprint. Kristen Miller, Director of Ecocity Builders, suggested that the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by technological displacement of labour and economic globalization, brings new challenges. However, the move to resilience urban villages offers hope. She outlined the principles that are being tested and put into practice by Ecocity Builders. One question from the audience pointed to the contradictory outcomes of technological changes such as driverless cars—they could mean continuing privatization of transport, congestion, and longer trips as passengers withdrawal in a world of mediated movement. Kevin Austin Deputy Director of C40 responded that cities involved in C40 were deeply concerned about this counterproductive outcome, and were working to counter it.

Amongst the following sessions, Melbourne Water ran a masterclass on dialogue for ecocities. Tony Wong, from the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities argued that we needed to embrace complexity. He modestly described himself as an engineer, one of that profession of people who are second only to economists in reducing problems to singular issues and solution-outcomes. In the ensuing conversation, participants used the Millennium Melbourne drought as a key example of complexity. It was an emotionally charged period of destabilizing uncertainty during which many people came together to respond across very different spheres of social life. Suelin Haynes described the Melbourne Western Treatment Plant, with origins going back to 1897. The system, she said, largely works by gravity, which makes the process both sustainable and cheaper. Discharge of recycled water into Port Phillip Bay is closely monitored. Lagoon treatment was introduced, allowing sunlight to effect UV disinfection, and bringing a biodiversity of bird life. To this processing was added a biogas collection process. Radically, the WTP supplies Werribee farms with recycled water for food crops. However, there are constant pressures on land-use. Dan Besley introduced the Healthy Waterways Strategy concerning wholesale water supply, drainage and sewerage, including management of 8,500 kilometres of rivers and creeks. Threats to the waterways come from population growth, the paving of the catchment area, and climate change. In developing their strategy, Melbourne Water is seeking collaboration. Tashia Dixon put the work of Melbourne Water into the context of urban design and place-making.

About the author


Dr. Paul James

Paul James is Professor of Globalization and Cultural Diversity at Western Sydney University and Director of the Institute for Culture and Society where he has been since 2014. He is a writer on globalization, sustainability, and social theory.

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