OnLine Opinion

by Edward Blakely

We are in the Post Copenhagen era. Copenhagen didn't result in any meaningful agreement and there is dwindling support for efforts to change energy use, reduce carbon production and make better more efficient cities. There is a public supported mood to make Australian cities better and more resilient.

One illustration of this public support is the broad acceptance of the Christie report on transportation an independent report sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald. The Christie report is an illustration of the connection between smart cities and a clean environment.

For Australia to meet any form of self imposed climate change target post Copenhagen is important. But, the real agenda isn't those targets. It is the target to build a new sustainable industrial base and to grow more and better jobs. Good jobs are the goals of Australia for the next several decades.

Building the rail systems the Christie report suggests isn't for convenience it is setting the framework for a totally new Australian economy based for building smart cities.

Building a new rail infrastructure presents the opportunity that building the Harbor Bridge, the Snowy River Scheme and later the Opera House did in opening new frontiers for Australia as a modern nation with smart exports.

If the world is going to use less coal, own fewer cars and use less water someone has to create new industries to build the urban forms and systems or to or re-create systems to meet this challenge.

We Australians have profited from high energy use. It is our mineral wealth that is driving the rapid Chinese city growth. It is our raw materials exports that are allowing the expansion of manufacturing in India and much of the Asian Pacific.

But cuts to energy consumption don't benefit Australia so we see little reason to be part of a drive to conserve energy or lower consumption, cutting our standard of living.

To counter this attitude we have to see this new thrust in sustainable and resilient living as a challenge and opportunity not as a loss.

Australia can create new jobs with a new focus of exporting material and technologies that build climate change resilient and sustainable cities.

Some of our current minerals can be transformed with smart engineering into better building products for city building.

Cities are already the fulcrum of national economic growth and prosperity of the nation. Increasingly as knowledge based industry become a larger part of economic exports our cities must be competitive places for people to come and build their ideas into economically competitive products and services.

Cities that build and retain and form human capital will be the strongest, most resilient and competitive in the world. The Government has established a Cities unit and a new program that requires all of our metropolitan areas to develop integrated urban plans in the next two years.

This is not just a good idea it is an idea to move us in the right direction for building a new economy. We must have great cities housing innovative knowledge producing environmental and design industries to both save our cities and create a new economic engine for the nation.

Our nation's export wealth flows through our cities and so are the real enduring resource to build wealth. So, as we improve the infrastructure of our cities, as the Christie report suggests with respect to transportation for Sydney, we are also positioning the nation to produce a new global export sector in city building.

For the first time in human history most people live in urban locations. The cities, especially in the developing world are expanding at an alarming rate. China will build more than 100 new cities of more than one million people each in the coming decades.

Throughout Africa, Latin America and the Middle East cities are being built or re-built to match the needs of the influx of people leaving farms or immigrating to urban squatter or legitimate dwelling systems. We have to make these places more livable and sustainable for a stable world.

As the world looks for solutions for growing population in an urban form to face climate change, and as it urbanizes, Australia is remarkably well-positioned to provide solutions for better communities across the world.

Australia (in coastal cities) is one of the most densely settled nations in the world except the City State's like Hong Kong and Singapore. Our capital cities are among the top 25 livable places on the planet. We have an enviable record in diversity and equity. So, we start the process to rebuild the nation's urban infrastructure with a good base.

We need to look at our resource base for city building.

First, we have every weather type and condition of the fastest growing part of the world like China, India and the Middle East and Africa.

Second, city building is a mature industry in Australia with world's best practice design engineering and construction firms. We generated most of this base since the World War II years and in the boom immigration years from 1970-2000.

Third, we have the world's most advanced and largest securtised real estate market in the world. Australian real estate, engineering and architecture firms are in an unusual position to export city building technologies and techniques to our neighbor nations and around the world.

Fourth, Australia is home to many world class development firms from finance like Macquarie to development such as Westfields to Lend Lease, Stockland, Mirvac, Multiplex and world leading design and engineering firms and many more.

Australian architecture and design firms are already Asian regional leader in formulating environmentally sensitive design. The Snowy-Mountain Scheme operates in large scale water purification efforts in India and other Asian nations. And, Aussie firms are leaders in solar power and renewable energy.

We have exceptional talent in environmental engineering that is producing new products for desert and tropical climates to do everything from retard erosion to purifying water. We are spawning new firms in areas as diverse as disaster resilient housing to wind power systems and new battery and bio-fuels.

For example, Australian technology is pioneering in design and engineering of green low energy buildings for sustainable city building in the Middle East and China. It is clear from the graph below that our skills, capacity and know how in building sustainable places is recognized globally.

Australians are becoming world leaders in new materials products and processes. So, as we build and re-new our cities we must use this as the opportunity to create new firms and new products that can compete globally. To meet the challenge of converting this diverse array of organizations and enterprises into a new export sector we have to nurture these firms and give them a platform to expand their global opportunities.

This calls for leadership from Austrade to form an international sustainable and disaster industries working group and for the national government to follow the lead of our European competitors like Sweden to make trading in sustainability a national endeavor with funding, national competitions for best firms and tax breaks for export firms in this new arena.

Why shouldn't Australia award the equivalent to the Global Sustainability Prizes every year? This would put a spotlight of the world on us for what we do in the world and what best practices are around the world.

We have another advantage in the global sustainability competition. We don't have immediate competitors among our global regional neighbors. This is the time, like in the "Great Depression", when re-building the nation with projects like the Sydney Harbor Bridge provide an opportunity to re-position the nation's economy for a new era.

Post Copenhagen is the new era, we can use our know-how to rebuild our cities using scheme like the Christie Report as models for the world class rebuilding. Let's view the re-building of our rails, roads and suburbs not as a crisis but the opportunity to build new jobs and a better future for all Australians.