In Adelaide we’re good at inspiring each other . Heather Smith’s post last week on Adelaide as a carbon neutral city has inspired me to write this post.

At the moment there’s so much interest around the world in cities.   If plotted on the Gartner Hype Cycle, cities may be  up there with the ‘Internet of Things’. Right at the top of the Hype Cycle curve.

Yet this passion for cities is still a relatively recent phenomenon across the world. In Adelaide, in 2001, only  planners, architects and city councillors cared about cities.  But in 2001, under the stewardship of Peter Dungey from the then Planning SA, a few people came together to organise the City as a Stage.

The 3 day symposium drew inspiration from the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. Most sessions were free and aimed at a general audience.  Jan Gehl was the keynote.  Speakers included city sustainability expert Herbert Girardet;  creative city expert Charles Landry;  Bill Mitchell from MIT Media Lab; Hassell’s Chairman Ken Maher;  architecture and city commentator Elizabeth Farrelly and many others.

The event was moderated by the ABC’s Alan Saunders (now sadly deceased). It was fantastic and inspirational.

In his closing presentation Girardet wondered why, with all our great sunshine, there was so little interest in solar energy in SA.

As always happens at these events, people mused about where it might all lead.

Well it sewed the seeds for change in Adelaide.  We  now lead Australia, and possibly the world, in our uptake of solar energy.

Jan Gehl returned to examine Adelaide with his immense insight and good cheer.  London and New York implemented his ideas, transforming Trafalgar Square and Times Square.  Adelaide had concerns with his initial report and the impact on Victoria Square.

Council was inspired to back a free bike scheme in Adelaide.  But concerns with risk meant it’s smaller than originally envisaged. (What if we’d been bold and created a scheme like Paris did a few years later?).

Charles Landry returned as a Thinker in Residence to imagine creative possibilities for Adelaide.

A plan to create a branch of MIT Media Lab in Adelaide was hatched and got a long way toward realisation (but didn’t happen).

You can also trace to that event a commitment for ‘Adelaide Green City’.  The idea was for the city to showcase innovation in environmental sustainability and create economic opportunities. . After initial scoping work the State Government committed budget and agreed shared governance arrangements with the Adelaide City Council.

To help create a plan for Adelaide, Herbert Girardet returned as one of the first Thinkers in Residence in 2003.  He met hundreds of people. Gathering all the statistics he could find he created a sort of blue print for the next stage of the program.

Back in 2003 being a green city was still novel and interesting. There was so much still to know. All sorts of things had to be experimental.

One area of interest was improving the energy and water use of office buildings. That program, the ‘building tune-ups’ program, got taken up by Melbourne.

The idea of a big wind turbine in Adelaide – now seen in cities across the world – was then seen as too radical.  North Terrace was to be a ‘solar power station’. Solar panels were installed on North Terrace institutions . Display panels in the foyers showed the green energy produced.

To help shift the culture, a broad based networking group met monthly. Arts related projects aimed to make the idea of a green city visible. We were looking to best practice across the world and trying to beat it.

Separately, but connected, the government banned plastic bags. New green rated office buildings were developed, along with green star rated housing in the city

There were plenty of creative ideas. What about a ‘grand prix’ for electric cars? That  exists now, just not here. What about our car factories producing hybrid cars? That looks less than bold when at the time people thought it was insane.

Herbert Girardet recommended that a ‘feed-in’ tariff would  accelerate the take-up of solar panels. By 2006 the government introduced it and became the first Australian state to do so. Renewable energy now contributes more than 30% of power production.

Girardet argued that South Australia was doing the most interesting work in city transformation of any he knew

However, after a few years the green city program was shelved. It was a victim of the things that go on in any city, in any government, across the world. The truth is that it’s hard to maintain commitment to programs of this type.

Cities need to have great ambitions. They need to be places for innovation and problem solving. However, with any program with big ideas, some will support it and others won’t.

Some officials refuse to take an interest if they don’t control the program.  Some are not interested because it wasn’t their idea. Others just don’t believe in it. There can also be unproductive schisms between individuals based on personal conflicts  – both inside and outside government.

It’s difficult to keep people motivated and committed to something started a year or so ago. Collaboration requires ongoing conversations and joint action – and that’s hard to make happen. There’s cynicism in and around new ideas – within government and with the media. The list goes on.

Projects exploring the new will always make mistakes. I’m not arguing that Adelaide Green City was perfect – but it was interesting.

It could have been a powerful tool for economic and environmental transformation. And now it’s potentially being reimagined.

At the opening of Parliament last week the Governor announced that Adelaide would become the world’s first ‘carbon neutral’ city. While this aim is not original, other cities are in the race, it’s still a positive aspiration. All cities in the world need to tackle climate change.

An ambitious goal can spark innovation creating new business opportunities.  But there’s a lot  more competition these days.

Cities, like companies, compete on ‘first mover advantage’.  With the great commitment, tenacity and courage of which the city is capable – Adelaide needs to create something other cities are not yet doing.  Or not doing in an interesting ‘Adelaide’ way.

The trouble is our short attention span. Will our commitment last continue beyond the electoral cycle? What happens when it gets hard, or when other ideas compete? Are we courageous enough to make it an organising principle?  How could it change the way the city and greater Adelaide (because the city centre is not enough) looks, feels, operates or invests?

Great ideas abandoned too early may be worse than no ideas. They sap energy, they induce cynicism, they squander political and social capital.

Perhaps Adelaide needs to look to Melbourne –a city that made a commitment in 2002 to becoming a carbon neutral city by 2020. In 2002 we created Adelaide Green City, then cancelled it and now have created Carbon Neutral Adelaide.  Melbourne has stuck with their original commitment. Melbourne has an increasing reputation as a forward looking city.

Melbourne steals ideas and our Grand Prix from us.  But then it executes our ideas with a confidence and commitment we sometimes lack.

So along with a commitment to be carbon neutral – can we make a commitment to see it through?

One thought on “Adelaide as a carbon neutral city? Good idea. But can we really commit?

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