Future vision for Victoria

What is it?

The State Government released a media statement a couple of weeks ago announcing a new metropolitan planning strategy for Melbourne and Victoria. According to the statement, it “will be focused on land use and transport options that respond to and integrate social, economic and environmental issues facing the metropolitan region. The strategy will take a long-term view of growth and change across Melbourne and its influence on and relationship with regional Victoria, other Australian capital cities and internationally.” Sound familiar, anyone?

As part of the lead-in to the new strategy, Planning Minister Matthew Guy has launched a dedicated website whose aim will be to seek community feedback and discussion around ten broad themes including people, housing, transport, economy, communities, infrastructure and environment.

The website provides fact sheets for the ten themes as well as discussion forums on each. We urge our readers to contribute to the latter – the more voices dreaming of a socially and environmentally sustainable future, the better. Let us know if you do, and we’ll post your comments here.

What do we think?

Despite its grand aspirations, the last State Government’s future planning strategy, Melbourne 2030, has proved itself an unremarkable failure. Receiving significant impediment from local councils and NIMBY residential action groups, it has not even come close to achieving the planning and environmental reforms contained within its agenda.

In predictable political fashion, the new State Government has elected to start afresh rather than adapt or update the existing strategy. Positioned as we are at the very forefront of this new political arc, with many many months of community consultation, discussion papers and advisory panels ahead of us, we will reserve our judgement until a clear vision for the strategy emerges.

We dearly hope that this vision champions a sustainable future for Melbourne and Victoria, that it acknowledges the truths that roads do not make for liveable cities and that an ever-expanding suburban growth boundary disadvantages both the individuals that live on the fringe and the community at large. We hope that Melbourne instead continues to develop as an egalitarian city well-serviced by high-quality public infrastructure with diverse, accessible suburbs.

So in the meantime, what is our future vision for Victoria?

Transport

Investment into transport is directed towards public infrastructure: trains and trams primarily. A commitment is made to ensure every single residence in the metropolitan area is within a 10 minute walk of a train or tram stop. Services run 24 hours a day with never more than an 8 minute interval between.

The existing spiderwebbed train network is augmented by new strands filling the gaps between established lines, as well as successive radial connections between stations: an inner city radial line connecting South Yarra, Clifton Hill, North Melbourne and Newport; a suburban line connecting Elsternwick, Caulfield, Camberwell, Ivanhoe, Thornbury, Brunswick, Essendon and Footscray. An outer suburban line connecting Sandringham, Mordialloc, Dandenong, Glenwaverly, Ringwood, Greensborough, Reservoir, Upfield, Broadmeadows, Sunshine, Laverton and Williamstown. The radial and linear lines are isolated from one another: no more city loop timetable clashes.

With the greater density of train lines, the tram network is retooled as a high-volume, short trip facilitator. Trams are restricted to local municipalities, looping around train stations and commercial hubs.

Both train and tram networks are separated entirely from roads. Level crossings are replaced with tunnels and overpasses. Trams are given dedicated lanes throughout the metropolitan area. Every train and tram stop provides equal access for all.

Public transport users still pay to use the service, however prices are kept low through taxation income generated by levies applied to car registration and petrol. The frequency, reliability and high quality of public transport achieve a remarkable reduction in fare evaders, down from 10 – 20% of all users in days past to almost zero.

Housing

The metropolitan growth boundary ceases to expand, even beginning to contract back in on itself along corridors with high landscape or farming importance. To handle the housing needs of an ever-increasing population within this contracted boundary, the entire city undergoes significant densification, achieving minimum densities similar to those that already exist in inner-city areas like Carlton North, with high density zones clustered around well-serviced public transport hubs.

The average house size is drastically reduced, from the world’s largest at 284sqm to an area less than half that. Smart design compensates for compact dimensions with multifunctional rooms well connected to outdoor spaces. Finally acknowledging Melbourne’s temperate climate, all houses are oriented appropriately and well-insulated, with highly efficient appliances powered by roof-mounted photovoltaic panels. Each and every house achieves at least a net zero energy demand.

Though the quarter acre block and large back gardens are both ideals sacrificed to achieve increased housing densities, they are replaced by communal parks of every scale: street reserves, playgrounds, sporting grounds, parks. With the water-intensive, under-utilised private garden a thing of the past, and public green spaces under popular demand, the streets are revitalised and made safe by the presence of families at all hours of the day.

Environment

With the metropolitan boundary firmly restricted, more state and national parks are implemented than ever before. The already extensive tracts of preserved landscapes are augmented by additional old growth forests and sacred Aboriginal sites, to be protected and nourished indefinitely.

Within the city, day-to-day car usage is reduced from 80% of all trips to less than 20%, replaced by environmentally friendly alternatives, including public transport, cycling and walking. This statistical exchange is assisted by the implementation of expensive tolls for cars entering the central business district and an uninterrupted, city-wide network of cycling lanes.

The environment in and around Melbourne is substantially improved, with noticeably cleaner air and waterways. Thanks to the reduction in pollution and further softscaping water treatment initiatives, the Yarra River is now so clean it attracts year round swimming and fishing activities.

These changes, together with high levels of public transport patronage and walking-friendly urban design, have the unintended side effect of enhancing the health and general wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants. Obesity is significantly reduced as a health issue, as are heart disease and diabetes.

Melbourne is healthier, more environmentally friendly, better connected, more accessible and more liveable than ever before.

Evolution of the cyborg

Cathy Hutchinson controls a robotic arm and takes a sip of coffee. She is directing the arm via signals transmitted directly from the motor cortex section of her brain

What is it?

A team at Brown University in the United States, led by Professor John Donoghue, has developed an electronic device, called BrainGate, that is surgically implanted into a patient’s brain where it detects the electrical impulses of adjacent neurons. The device links to an external computer that deciphers patterns in the impulses and converts them into commands that can be used to control a mouse pointer on a computer screen or even a robotic arm.

Recalling our article from June last year, Kevin Warwick, the world’s first cyborg, we are pleased to discover that research into this sophisticated area of neuroscience is continuing apace.

The astonishing characteristic of the BrainGate study that takes Warwick’s research a significant step forwards is that it utilises patients who have suffered spinal trauma resulting in quadriplegia. Hutchinson (above) has not possessed control over her body for fifteen years, yet the study shows that her motor cortex still functions. For fifteen years her brain has been trying to send signals to her body, but up until now they have had nowhere to go.

Moving from controlling a mouse in two-dimensional space to the complexities of three dimensions is a substantial jump in complexity requiring fine depth perception and spatial co-ordination. Professor Donoghue says that an important success of the study is the ability of the team’s software to differentiate between detailed neural signals controlling position, speed of movement and whether a patient wants to open or close her hand.

Though more research is required into both the neuroscience and robotics, including the establishment of a wireless interface between BrainGate and computer, we can’t get over the radiant smile that spreads across Hutchinson’s face after she takes her sip of coffee. The article that caught our attention, and a video of the experiments, can be viewed on The Age, here.

What do we think?

We feel like this research, and the extraordinary nature of its successes, lies at the frontier of an exciting new advancement for all of humankind. The medical possibilities are easy to imagine: we will be able to replace lost limbs with robotic prostheses wired directly into the brain; we will even be able to install implants that skip broken segments of nerve tissue and overcome paralysis.

The possibilities extend even further: trade, mining, construction, telecommunications, social media, travel, space exploration… All are ready to be transformed by the next revolution in computing: from powerful microprocessors in our bags and pockets, to even smaller chips inside our bodies:

  • Hard drives that record every moment of every experience of every sense.
  • Photographic lenses behind our eyes.
  • Phone and email inside our conscious minds.
  • The vast knowledge of the internet accessible by a thought.

It may only be the beginning, but it seems that this brave new world is already here.

Blow Job

Predator

What is it?

A photographic series by Lithuanian artist and former architect, Tadas Černiauskas, who invited a hundred friends and strangers to his studio during Design Week in Vilnius last Friday where he blasted their faces with gale-force air currents and captured the hilarious, creepy and downright unnerving results.

In spectacular modern fashion, this photographic shoot has exploded across the digital world, appearing in countless photography and design blogs within days.

What do we think?

Aside from the cheeky name, this series offers nothing more and nothing less than simple, honest pleasure. We giggled uncontrollably at the overwhelming amount of skin attached to the front of participants’ faces, the unexpected flexibility of their noses and the grotesquery of their gums. Černiauskas himself told the Huffington Post that “this series doesn’t have any hidden meanings. It was meant to give some good laughter to the viewers and participants. It turned out to be better than I expected and that is why I like what I do today – every day is full of pleasant surprises.”

Kudos to a simple idea executed with bizarre aplomb.

Mr. Ed


Davy Jones

Gamma testing

What is it?

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of medical researchers developing a new drug. To make sure the drug cured what it was supposed to cure, and was safe while doing so, the team subjected it to a battery of tests, first on animals then on humans. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the drug was both effective and safe. The drug was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of car designers developing a new car. To make sure the car performed powerfully and was durable, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They tested it while driving down cobblestone roads, they tested it in wind tunnels and they tested it in car ovens. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the car performed powerfully and was durable. The car was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of software designers developing a new computer game. To make sure the game played smoothly and was free of glitches, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They undertook alpha tests in-house, assessing the game against a long list of performance objectives. Then they undertook beta tests, nudging the game out into the world, where it was required to survive the handling of its first batch of strangers, and live or die based on their criticism. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the game played smoothly and was free of glitches. The game was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

But recently, something strange happened. A game was released onto the market, though it was not quite perfectly formed. There were features yet to be added, expansions to the game world yet to be designed, balances between characters yet to be tweaked. The core product was complete, but its future shape had not yet been determined.

What followed next, we call the gamma test.

What do we think?

The gamma test is a new approach to software design that is changing the way we, as consumers, engage with our products. Facilitated by widely accessible, high speed internet and online software markets like Apple‘s App Store, the release of a program onto the market no longer necessitates that it be complete.

The previously distinct phases of development and use are significantly blurred. Bug fixes, patches, entirely new features can all be incorporated into a program after it is already in use. Technically, this is achieved via centralised control – a game whose software resides not on users’ computers but online on the developer’s own servers; an online App Store that acts as a gateway between users and regular software updates. Experientially, this blurring is in fact integrating development and use with hitherto unachievable interactivity.

For example:

Version 1.0 of a game is released and users start to play. Within days, the first discussions about bugs and glitches appear on online forums. Version 1.1 is released, correcting the imperfections of its predecessor. As users rack up more game time, they discover imbalances in character strengths – more discussions appear, not only identifying the imbalances, but suggesting myriad ways of rectifying them. Version 1.2 is released, following some of the more creative proposals. Users running unusual hardware come across a few more bugs. Versions 1.2.1 fixes those. Yet more discussions appear as users begin to imagine all manner of improvements to the game and expansions to its gameplay. Version 2.0 responds to the most popular ideas, improving the user experience and adding many more months to its longevity.

The gamma test moves beyond the traditional boundaries of development, shedding discrete objectives and deadlines in favour of a crowd-sourced approach that allows the users of a program to dictate its future development.

This process provides access not just to the hardcore enthusiasts willing to sign up for the controlled environment of a beta test, but to every user every day. The user reviews on the App Store not only furnish potential customers with previous users’ opinions, they are a mechanism via which developers can obtain free and honest feedback from their users. The gamma test is ongoing, limited only by the preparedness of a developer to follow its customers’ suggestions.

What should we learn?

We would love to see this approach find its way into our practice of architecture. As the creators of one-off projects, we are almost never presented with the opportunity to tweak an element of our design to align with unexpected usage patterns. Our designs must emerge from the page and into the world complete, perfectly formed.

Only through the adoption of prefabricated processes and repetitive detailing are we able to challenge this paradigm. Through prefabrication, we force a continuous feedback between design, production and use. Similarly, though more subtly, repetitive detailing from project to project enables us to refine an aspect of a project – a typical handrail for instance, or a bathroom vanity – gradually improving upon it across decades of design.

Compared to software development, compared really to almost anything, architecture is a slow undertaking. Any incremental changes will be similarly slow. We must learn to be more proactive in seeking feedback from our clients, even when that feedback might be negative. Only an architect prepared to risk hearing his design is terrible can possibly learn how good his work really is.