Maria Rampa: Hello, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined in which we discuss how COVID has potentially catalysed our move into a new era being dubbed ‘The Roaring 20s’.
When you picture the 1920s, what do you imagine? Great Gatsby-style beautiful dresses and jazz music comes to my mind, but it was also a decade of immense change. Following the end of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, the ‘roaring 20s’ was a period of economic prosperity, technological innovation and cultural advancement. Now, many are questioning, “Will a post-pandemic roaring 20s happen in the 21st century?”
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our communities, with people leaving capital cities in record numbers, and organisations adopting ‘work from anywhere’ policies, what does this mean for governments, urban planners, designers and developers in the decade ahead?
Can we make a leap towards the 20-minute neighbourhood, where people’s daily needs are met within a 20-minute walk from home?
In this episode, Lucinda Hartley, co-founder of global urban tech company Neighbourlytics, and Aurecon Futures Research Leader, Noriko Wynn, discuss using digital data to inform decision-making to create better places for people.
In the 2020s, how can we embrace trends like hyper-localism and digital communities to make our neighbourhoods more liveable? Let’s find out.
Noriko Wynn: Hi Lucinda. Thank you for joining us on the Engineering Reimagined podcast. You’ve had a really exciting career before founding Neighbourlytics. Can you tell us a bit about the work you've done with the UN?
Lucinda Hartley: Yeah, thanks, Noriko, it's really nice to chat today. I was really excited to have the opportunity to work on the Sustainable Development Goals with the UN now 10 years ago when they were being created. But I kind of almost fell into that position through a series of intersecting interests around how we create cities that are better for people. So that's a challenge that I've been exploring across my whole career.
And looking back in some ways, my whole life, I grew up in many different neighbourhoods around the world, including in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and South Africa, and various places in Europe. And I saw from an early age, the influence that your neighbourhood has on how you live and your culture and your opportunities in life, and became an urban designer, because I was really passionate about how, urban designers can play a role in shaping places that make places better for people. But also found working in that environment, quite challenging.
I spent three years of my life designing concrete specifications and aggregate mix. And that's part of the story, and the details are important, but I personally found that quite frustrating because I was more interested in the systems of cities, particularly the human systems of cities.
I originally went across to Vietnam as part of the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development program that the Australian government used to run, and through that, I got elected for a role with the United Nations and UN-Habitat at the time was looking at how we could advocate for cities being part of the global Urban Agenda. It wasn't a given that cities were going to have their own goal (they do have their own goal now, goal seven). But at the time, that was a question, and I had this incredible opportunity to work with young people around the world as a youth advocate to think about how young people could participate in the conversation around city-making.
And that got me interested in a couple of key things that really led to Neighbourlytics. One is how do we think about the goal? So you know, if you've got the right goal, you can change the outcome. So I saw that goals and measurement were going to be really critical in driving change in the agenda, but also collaboration, like how do we actually make information and data more accessible, particularly, in that case for young people so that more people can be a part of the conversation.
Noriko Wynn: What motivated you to launch Neighbourlytics?
Lucinda Hartley: Everyone's trying to ultimately create places for people, it's really what cities are for. But it's really hard to do that without any data about the people. And my co-founder, Jessica, and I personally experienced this pain point on many occasions when we were working on place-making projects where we would turn streets into parks or vacant lots into community centres. And many of these transformation projects, the outcomes that were created, were less about the bricks and mortar that were laid, or the milk crates and pallets, in the case of place-making. And it was much more about the social relationships or the fact that the neighbours across the street who didn't previously know each other now did and they were looking after each other's kids and wanted to find a way of capturing some of those intangible place values, which we all know make cities great.
And so coming back to that point, that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. If we can shift the goal, and actually have a goal around creating places that are better for people, and if we can provide evidence and data that suggests how you can get there, then it really does help create change in all of the everyday decisions that we need to make as city-makers in terms of prioritising places and infrastructure.
So, in the same way that the environmental sustainability sector has really created great advancements, particularly around green buildings, by being able to quantify what sustainability means, and then helping to chart a path for the property and planning sectors to get there, Neighbourlytics is doing the same, but around urban life and social sustainability where these elements of place are, intangibly, they seem quite fluffy. But there's lots of behavior and lifestyle factors that can be quantified. And if we can quantify them, we can measure them, we can compare them. And we can start to chart a path forward about what success looks like.
Noriko Wynn: So Neighbourlytics uses a measure called social prosperity standard. Can you explain what that means?
Lucinda Hartley: So when we think about what makes neighbourhoods great, we talk about it in terms of hardware and software. So there's the hardware of the city, the buildings and the balconies and the roads and the parks.
And then there's all of the urban life that goes on, within and between those buildings, which is actually what makes a place great to live. It’s whether it has clubs and organisations to get involved with, whether you know your neighbours, whether there's activities going on.
So social prosperity, for us is a measure of urban life. It's a measure of capturing all of those everyday activities that go on that help us understand how a place functions, and also what makes it unique and special and great. We've been able to create a framework around that which looks at some of the social determinants of health and how they express in neighbourhoods as a way of being able to standardise the way that we look at neighbourhood measurement, in order to be able to compare neighbourhoods and understand what their strengths are.
Noriko Wynn: Have there been any surprising stories that have come out once you start to collect this data?
Lucinda Hartley: Yeah, there's so many surprising stories and the way that Neighbourlytics works, we harness a whole range of digital big data to describe the behaviour and lifestyle of a neighbourhood.
I'll give two examples. In a pre-COVID environment, we did a lot of analysis on greenfield residential developments. And there’s often an assumption of greenfield residential developments that these are perhaps dormitory suburbs, or oriented around families or people, they live there, but they might leave to work, and there's not a lot of life going on, necessarily. And what the data revealed was that there was loads of home-based businesses, like eyelash extensions and hairdressing and accounting and painters, and it really changed the assumptions of a lot of the developers that we were working with who had planned a lot of their amenities and assets around young families and parents groups, and certainly the playground in the community centre is absolutely fundamental and needed, but it did make them realise that these weren't really just parents at home. These were people who were working out of the garage or the front room, and that they were then able to think about how they invested in co-working and other amenities in that area, business meetups that would help foster that business community as well as the family. It just shows that our behavior and lifestyle are often different from our, say, demographics.
A different example that I think is interesting is we worked with the City of Darwin, and we did a city-wide analysis of looking at the different urban life characteristics of suburbs of Darwin. In one particular area, Karama, it's a suburb in the middle of Darwin, it's known to have some antisocial behaviour. When we looked at the way that our data presented, the scoring for Karama put it in the middle. I think there was an assumption that perhaps because it had some reported crime, that there was going to be all of these other factors that were terrible about this neighbourhood, and our data showed that there was these huge community strengths, that there were youth organisations and rugby clubs and other groups. They were informal groups that were contributing as a strength in our data set, but showed that there was all of this other life going on, which is a strength that could be leveraged for some of the problem solving in this neighbourhood, rather than just tackling the crime head-on in that way, it was looking at these other partnerships approaches. So, we're able to reframe our expectations of, perhaps, a stereotype of what neighbourhood is, versus the actual behaviour and lifestyle that goes on there, and how we can use that both to design programs or plan for assets and other infrastructure.
Noriko Wynn: Your data is showing that these communities are far more self-organising and vibrant than what we assume them to be. And with this data, are we seeing changes in how governments and developers are approaching how they interact and then design for these communities?
Lucinda Hartley: That's certainly the goal. I think the pathway from current status quo to evidence-based and data-led decision making is a behaviour change that decision makers are on and COVID has certainly accelerated that.
But certainly we are seeing that government and the property sector are developing new insights into the way that they understand place. What's particularly interesting to me is how it sometimes can challenge assumptions because the digital representation of a neighbourhood is not exactly the same as the physical nor should it be, but it offers a lens that we previously haven't even had access to. It's a totally different way of understanding place. We want to understand that digital layer, particularly, in a COVID environment with so much of our lives online, understanding how digital communities interact and work together and how that actually drives change in real world communities is a really interesting and insightful way to think about neighbourhood planning and investments.
Noriko Wynn: So COVID has undoubtedly been a big disruptor for how we interact with our cities and our neighbourhoods and our communities. What are you seeing in your data about what this might mean for the decade ahead?
Lucinda Hartley: It's a big question. It feels like there are so many unknowns. The most interesting thing that we're seeing, is being able to start to quantify the different behaviours that are going on. And being able to see that our assumptions of how we think neighbourhoods work isn't necessarily how they work in a post-COVID environment.
Some of the things that we've seen from a data perspective validate what many of our lived experiences are, is that there's much more activity in middle ring and outer suburbs, a 70 to 80 per cent increase just in the volume of data collected in many different locations of Melbourne and Sydney particularly. And in the CBD we've conversely seen a decrease in 20 to 30 per cent of data in those locations, which would be those kinds of trends would be similar to our experience of people working from home and spending more time out of the city.
The broader trend, which we call the 'new local', which I think is the going to be one of the most significant things for the decade ahead, is this mix of hyper-localism and digital transformation. So what we call the new local isn't so much a return to the local or the neighbourhood, as we might have seen. Forty, fifty years ago, people lived more locally, they walk to the shops, that was the lived experience of most people in their neighbourhood. And while people are spending more time locally, now, typically because they're working from home, that's been the biggest disrupter or working from anywhere, it's not a return to localism.
It's a new local, because we're also seeing that combined with a digital transformation. And by that I don't just mean we're doing this call on online or other things like that. But you’re doing click and collect from the dry cleaners, you're interacting with your library digitally, governments have been forced to think about how they do service delivery digitally. And so that combined digital transformation means that we're not just living in a local neighbourhood anymore. We're living in a digital local neighbourhood as well.
And so that, to me, is one of the biggest opportunities for cities moving forward is thinking about how do we embrace hyper-localism and digital transformation.
Now, where will that go? We're still in the very early stages of trying to think about what this kind of big cultural disruption means. But it does have a big impact for the spatial equity and spatial layout of cities when we're thinking about that role of the neighbourhood, and the role of technology and technology access in the city.
Noriko Wynn: So it sounds like we don't have to just think about the physical place-making of cities and suburbs, but now the digital place-making and who identifies with those places, and what that means and how they interact in the virtual world and the physical world.
Lucinda Hartley: It's really important that we consider them both. And it brings up other issues like digital divide in terms of things like, some neighbourhoods and suburbs are better serviced with mobile and high speed broadband than others are and so those kinds of things. We think about having power and water is kind of like basic service to the home but are we also thinking about what level of mobile coverage that neighbourhood has?
Noriko Wynn: So, with these shifts that you're seeing, this puts the future of CBDs in an interesting place, because it's shifted how we interact with the economic and social centre of a lot of our states. What are the trends that you're seeing, and where do you think it could go over the next decade?
Lucinda Hartley: As an urbanist I'm really passionate about cities and it's so interesting, but very, very challenging to think about how cities around the world are thinking about the CBD as opposed to the greater city area.
So, we're seeing more people are spending less time in the CBD if the proximity to work is taken out of the equation. I think what that means is that cities will need to reinvent themselves as cultural hubs, places that people want to come and spend time, which is a very different kind of destination, than one where you happen to be there and so you happen to buy lunch and you happen to see someone else.
I believe that we still need cities as engines and powerhouses for culture and arts and commerce in different ways, but they're more likely to become collaboration hubs than they are more transactional places where we just come and sit in an office and put our headphones in for the day.
And so if employees now have the choice, and lots of companies have come out and said, we're not going back to the office, and you can work from anywhere forever. Certainly, we're seeing that with a lot of technology companies and we're asking ourselves the same question. But if we've got a work from anywhere policy and your employees can live anywhere in the world, then why are you going to choose to live in or near the Melbourne CBD or the Brisbane CBD? What is it that's going to attract you to either go there or potentially to live there?
And I think the big opportunity also for CBDs is to look at increasing residential and turning these into more liveable neighbourhoods. It's a different and higher density experience to one that you might have in the suburb, but if the idea that you live and work in the same neighbourhood is something that's likely to really influence our next decade, what does it look like if you live and work in the CBD? Do we need more schools? Do we need more community facilities? Do we need more other amenities that you perhaps may find in the suburbs, but in the CBDs, as well. So both that sort of attraction around arts and culture, as well as residential, I think are some core opportunities for CBDs.
Noriko Wynn: Do you think that means they need to really rethink how they design, plan and then think about the demographic of cities as well?
Lucinda Hartley: Completely. And one of the big demographics that's often overlooked in CBDs is children.
So we tend to think of these as work environments. The commercial real estate sector is probably asking the biggest questions right now around, if I was renting six floors, and now I only need one for my part-time workforce, and I actually don't need desks for everyone, I just think collaboration spaces. That is a very, very different profile. But the workforce, particularly the white collar workforce, who have been perhaps, used to coming in and out of the city, if that's happening less, there are many others who may be attracted to the city if it was planned differently.
And I think often our CBDs are not particularly child friendly, if you've ever had to walk around and try to find a public bathroom or tried to find a play space. Or even having streets that are safer, and don't feel like they're clogged with traffic and cars, and they're more places where you can play in the streets, as well as amenities such as, schools and childcare and things like that. Catering for a broader demographic in the city and enabling that residential opportunity with the type of housing stock that might facilitate a broader more neighbourhood kind of amenity, is a real opportunity.
Noriko Wynn: What do you think about the term 'the roaring 20s'?
Lucinda Hartley: It's such an interesting concept to think about, and reflect on the post war environment from 100 years ago now, which is quite surprising. It sounds like such a big opportunity, how do we actually catalyse this huge change after this big disruption that we've had with COVID? And think about the roaring 20s again.
Noriko Wynn: It was very much 100 years ago, characterised by really big restructuring along social, economic, and even global political scales, which unlocked so much in terms of new products, new services, shifting what it means to be a citizen to a certain extent as well. Do you see that unleashing happening for the next set of 20s that we face ourselves in?
Lucinda Hartley: In lots of ways let's hope so. From what I know of the roaring 20s, rather than the roaring 2020s, there was that sense of peace after the wartime that led to this incredible innovation and creativity and counter-culture, and like you said, the social disruptions that come with that. So what I hope that we've had enough disruption to lead to the kind of leap that we need to make. And the challenge that I can see is that in our efforts to build back better and respond to COVID very quickly, we're dusting off plans that actually existed pre-COVID. And we're accelerating funding for getting them built and created without critically thinking, 'the world has changed, our behaviour and lifestyles have changed', and what we should be building in 2021 is very different from what we planned to build in 2015.
Noriko Wynn: You mentioned that we need to make a great leap. What does that look like? Describe say 2030. And what has happened, because we've created that great leap.
Lucinda Hartley: I want to think about some of the other really big disasters or pandemics and how they've led to really catalytic change for infrastructure and cities. And if you look at the cholera outbreaks of the late 19th century, that led to the establishment of large parks and open spaces such as Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London. There were not big urban parks before that, nor were they even really planned. It was a response to getting rid of the bad air in cities and essentially creating space for social distancing at the time, but has left this legacy of large format city parks, which has lasted for hundreds of years now.
And many Australian cities, which were planned around that time have adopted that similar approach to large parks. So sometimes it takes those big lifestyle shifts to create very bold moves, like dedicating that much prime space to public space would have been a very gutsy move at the time. But one that's created incredible value over time.
The big changes that I think we need to really think about are the spatial equity of our cities, that we have got into a mindset of almost having two cities like an inner urban environment where there's well serviced and access to a lot of amenity and, as you move out, the access to services and amenity decreases. So in order for us to have a 'live from anywhere, work from home' kind of environment, all neighbourhoods will need to have a minimum access to level of amenity and parks and services and community facilities.
And that's a reasonable investment to make, to have everyone to have that locally and by locally, I really think the 20-minute neighbourhood model, everything within walking distance is a superior model to thinking about whether you have broad access to those things. So if everywhere is to become a 20-minute neighbourhood, that's going to require a lot of strategic investment and planning ahead.
Noriko Wynn: So, the roaring 20s should be about the 20-minute neighbourhood. What are some examples of emerging communities? What are they like? What are the pros and cons? And what do we need to make them happen?
Lucinda Hartley: We're just starting to see what that looks like, but there's a couple of trends that we have all been observing. One is perhaps a return to community, spending more time locally.
Another would be making that sea change, tree change, other regional move that previously didn't seem possible because of proximity to work now, perhaps is possible if you're working online.
So certainly there's been huge uptick in regional areas around the world, particularly in Australia as a result of COVID. So that is a different type of community, and I think about where some of my family live in regional areas and the influx that they have seen of new residents, which they very much welcome. But it's a dynamic that perhaps hasn't been experienced in the last 50 years where there's been a real rural decline. And so that's something to really be thinking about. What does that mean for communities which have been in a mode of decline and now they're in growth?
I guess the third one of those is the digital community. I think that we have embraced in different ways, what our digital communities look like through COVID. There's a whole lot of different apps and tools that have emerged, but us learning that behaviour of, albeit differently, but engaging digitally with our community, is a real opportunity to strengthen also what our physical world communities look like.
Noriko Wynn: And you've lived all over the world and worked on all sorts of different communities. What can we learn from different types of communities, from different types of economic groupings from people we don't tend to look to when we think about how we innovate and how we change, how we live?
Lucinda Hartley: One of the things that I draw a lot of inspiration from is looking at slums and informal settlements around the world, and there's enormous challenges that come with those, not the least of which the economic situation that forces people to live on the fringe or, on reclaimed land and different parts of cities. But in many ways, what we can learn is, that's the ultimate self-made city, that there's often no planning and the lack of services and amenities is a massive issue.
But we do see in many of those environments, that there are very strong, organised social communities, there is clear hierarchies and leadership and programs and events. And there are hairdressers and tradespeople, and other youth organisations that are all self-organised. And to me, that shows the creativity of what people can do in a completely unstructured, unfunded situation. This is what people can do with no land and no money, they can create a local economy, they can create a local social infrastructure.
The human kind of resilience in that context is amazing. And something that we lose, when we over plan and over engineer and over design and over specify everything that we're going to do in the future. And we look 50 years out, and we design the fence color and the concrete aggregate and everything like that, rather than actually allowing some space for human creativity to emerge.
So, while the explosion of slums and informal settlements is a massive challenge to address, there is a lot to be learned as well. And some of the projects that I worked on in Cambodia and Vietnam, were looking at slum upgrading and resettlement and some of the lessons from that, that I observed were, in environments where they were able to upgrade in-situ, so provide water and footpaths and mitigate flooding, but essentially keep the social and economic fabric intact, those communities did very well.
Our tendency is to relocate into a new apartment block, and it looks so fancy, and it's great. But actually, that sort of resettlement approach tends to then break down or destroy the social and economic livelihoods of many people and they often end up much worse off a few years down the track in those environments than if they're upgraded in-situ.
What I love about looking at those communities through the lens of Neighbourlytics, and I've done some work with UN Habitat in Nairobi, looking at informal settlements, and how they show up in the digital data is that you see all of that informal economy expressed in Google and Facebook pages. And that's information that can be tapped into and understood and looked at and valued differently as well. There's lots of places we can look for inspiration. And we should be broad minded about where that comes from.
Noriko Wynn: What kind of leaders and systems do we need in the next decade for better communities and better living?
Lucinda Hartley: So much leadership is needed right now and I think for anyone in leadership, it's unchartered territory, which makes it challenging. If I think about what city leaders need, it’s to be more agile, and flexible and human-centered in their approach to their systems and delivery.
And something that I've really learned, coming into tech later in my career, not being from a software or technology background, is that the systems that many startups and software companies have around agile and scrum and other iteration processes, design thinking is another that's more broadly adopted now, is this idea that, you have a Northstar, you have a goal, but rather than planning every step in between, which is what urban planners tend to do, they'll plan everything that needs to happen for 50 years out, and who knows what life will be like, in 50 years time, we absolutely need plans and goals, but then our first steps can be much more experimental.
And what we've seen during COVID, is instead of building new parks, we've done parklets and street dining and these other very agile experimental approaches to creating cities. There's a lot that we can learn from all of those experiments that help them fuel our longer-term strategies.
My takeaway for leadership in an environment that's uncertain is rather than trying to create certainty by planning everything, that we create certainty by experimentation, and being agile and learning and then taking one step at a time. The big challenge of cities is that there are some things that need to have long term mindsets, like we don't want to be agile with a railway. So there are some sort of large moves that do need a lot of foresight. But in between those large moves, there's a lot of small moves that can benefit from a lot of experimentation.
Noriko Wynn: Brilliant. Thank you so much for joining me today. It's been really wonderful to talk with you.
Lucinda Hartley: Great to talk to you too, and thanks for having me. It's very exciting times that we live in.
Maria Rampa: That was such a fascinating conversation about the future of neighbourhoods and the power of data to make places better for people. If you’re new to Engineering Reimagined, hit the subscribe button on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. We’d love to hear your feedback so give us a review. For updates about the podcast, follow Aurecon on social. Until next time, thanks for listening.