Decentralise or die: NBN should digitally bring communities to life

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'A metropolis of three cities' plan for Sydney, (image via Greater Sydney Commission).

The National Broadband Network is back in the news, with the revelation three out of four premises being connected via Telstra’s old copper wires will be unable to receive what most people these days regard as fast broadband.

It‘s also emerged that many of those worst affected are living in regional areas. This is bad news for those of us who believe the best way to deal with overcrowding and excessive house prices in capital cities is to encourage decentralisation.

What’s more, vacant office space in Sydney’s CBD is the lowest it’s been in a decade, with office rents in Sydney and Melbourne expected to rise significantly in coming years.

Last year, I met a bloke who was introduced as the person responsible for planning for a time when Melbourne has a population of seven million. My immediate response was to ponder whether or not it might be smarter to have someone in charge of ensuring we never cram that many people into one city. The prognosis is for eight million people in Sydney.

40 years ago, the Whitlam Government created the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation in a decentralisation move that failed for one big reason — communications. Back then, we didn’t even have fax machines. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were habitually held face-to-face and before the Internet arrived, this was an insurmountable hurdle. Fast forward to 2018 and we’ve well and truly solved that problem. People are now able to work together without necessarily having to be in the same room, or even the same city. We’ve seen the creation of numerous internet-based jobs that can be carried out remotely. This is a global trend only likely to continue.

One of our largest telcos has several high rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne, each filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy their lunch. Yet they all struggle with congested transport services and spend hours getting to and from a workplace that could, in most cases, be located pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, there are regional cities and towns dying economically because legacy industries have closed down.

America provides a useful case study. U.S. businesses are spread across hundreds of regional cities. One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce and the service industries that make a community economically viable.

Economic incentives, subsidised relocation expenses and the like will need to be considered of course. If this happens in collaboration with appropriate stakeholders, including community groups, the business sector, trade unions and so forth, then surely it is not beyond us? In fact, it’s already occurring, but more by accident than by design.

The Greater Sydney Commission proposes we morph that city into a “tripartite metropolis” — with distinctly separate eastern, central and western zones. The underlying concept is that people are able to commute between home, work and other key locations within 30 minutes. The Commission says it will take 40 years to complete the transition. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades if we developed an innovation-led decentralisation plan based around modern smart cities and communities thinking.

Around the world, they’re using very fast trains to create satellite cities. Why not do this between Sydney and Newcastle and from Melbourne to Ballarat, Bendigo or Geelong? Qantas wouldn’t need to fly people to the nation’s capital in old prop-jets if there was a fast train to Canberra too.

The digitally-enabled world we’re now entering will be full of avenues to rethink how we build a better Australia. As we make plans for the future, we need governments that listen to the people — and the ultimate "unity ticket", every level of government and both sides of politics agreeing on a bipartisan strategy for making our future cities and communities smarter.

Laurie Patton is the inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities AssociationYou can follow Laurie on Twitter @LJPatton.

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