ACT News


Vision of our second century

What will Canberra be like in our bicentennial year? David Ellery travels forward in time to 2113 to explore the national city of the 22nd century.

Stardate Canberra July 13, 2113: Miserable and half-starved survivors eke out pitiful lives in the rubble-filled basement levels of a ruined Parliament House. Outside deadly killer robots, modelled on Guy Pearce and directed by the evil intelligence of the Defence Materiel Organisation's suddenly self-aware accounts reconciliation program, roam the hostile environs of the Parliamentary Triangle. It has taken the name ''Mr Smith''.

Beyond the sheltering walls of the underground car parks daytime temperatures are 50 degrees plus and humidity is zero. The bed of Lake Burley Griffin is a barren brown wasteland. All the ozone has disappeared, ultraviolet rays fluoresce across exposed metal and glass surfaces and rain is just a half-remembered myth passed down from generation to generation.

The Brindabellas are the only natural barrier that keeps the giant sandworms roaming the dunes of the south-western plains at bay.

Humanity's last hope, a radioactive priesthood cloned from the fugitive victims of Labor's final purge, takes time out from a ritual Rudd-burning to dispatch a small band of dwarves, elves and hobbits in search of the Questacon time machine.

Their mission? Go back 100 years and assassinate Tony Abbott on the eve of the 2013 election. It's a tough call but the past has to die so the future can live. The death squad drops the ball and, in the melee that follows, it is Malcolm Turnbull who goes down. Abbott lives and darkness falls.

George Orwell was half-right. The future is a bicycle clip stamping on a human face forever. ''We should never have brought Swanny,'' the Gillard ghola is heard to mutter as she discorporates. (with apologies to H.G. Wells, Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Sprague de Camp and others)


If, as so many people love to say around these parts, a week is a long time in politics, then what will the next 5200 of them bring for Canberra? While our dark vision is extremely unlikely to come true, there is no doubt Australia's only city state will be a very different place in 2113 to what it is today.

Petrol stations will have gone the way of the corner blacksmiths, electricity will be the dominant power source and almost all of it will come from renewable sources.

Canberrans of the future will live in smaller, much more energy-efficient homes; usually in apartment blocks. Their jobs may involve interacting with people across town or across continents using highly sophisticated virtual-reality technology that turns video-conferencing into a full-on visual, auditory and, possibly, tactile experience.

Despite this parliamentarians will insist on physically coming together to discuss the nation's affairs; partly due to every politician's well-developed sense of theatre and partly because there is nothing like looking into a ''frenemy's'' eyes to discern what they are really thinking.

Future ''Terrigal'' factions aren't likely to give themselves away by meeting in beach houses and ski lodges; well-secured chat rooms with very select memberships will become the preferred haunts for cabals of ''faceless'' men, cyborgs, clones, avatars and Klingons.

As buildings Parliament House and its companion icons, the National Gallery and the High Court, will be giving much less trouble than their counterparts in older cities around the world. Thanks to modern materials and design lives of 200 years they are barely middle-aged. Scurrilous claims of concrete cancer have long since been discredited by a report from the Galvanised Rebar Resource Centre, which found no evidence of ''rusting, cracking or spalling'' after more than a quarter century of service.

While Canberra's airport will be one of the busiest in the southern hemisphere with flights carrying passengers for Melbourne and Sydney landing every few minutes, travel between the two Australian megacities and the national capital will mainly be by bullet trains travelling at near supersonic speeds.

Field trips by bureaucrats, select committee members and the like could well be a thing of the past with researchers and consultants able to work through avatars. This will reduce motel bills, expense claims, carbon footprints and opportunities for infidelity (which, by now, will be a mainly online activity also conducted through avatars in any case).

Broadband-based remote-area health diagnostic and treatment services, already being trialled in 2013 as part of the NBN rollout, will be so orthodox as to arouse no comment at all. Life-saving operations will be the province of surgical robots working under human supervision and preventative medicine will have reached new heights. At least some cancers, Alzheimer's disease and AIDS will likely have joined cholera and tuberculosis in the history books.

Australia's largest exercise in planned urbanisation (only Griffith and Leeton came into being in the same way), Canberra was the product of the technology, values and beliefs of its time. The city was created as the home for a Commonwealth Parliament and a national public service. Electronic communications were in their infancy, information technology was confined to text on paper and steam trains were the fastest way to get from one place to another. Heavier-than-air flight was only a decade old. Parliamentary democracy, and the administrative services necessary to implement its decisions, demanded a central point at which to congregate.

Professor Shirley Gregor, the director of the National Centre for Information Research at the Australian National University's College of Business and Economics, says this is already changing and by 2113 will almost certainly not be the case. It is almost a given that MPs, senators and public servants will interact in ''virtual environments'' 100 years from now without the need to meet in person.

But that does not mean that Parliament House will be obsolete, with politicians debating issues in cyberspace. ''They will still want to press the flesh,'' she said. ''The basic human instinct to huddle will remain. Even the suggestion that whole departments could be decentralised to the Northern Territory caused quite a stir.''

Professor Gregor said it would be easy to underestimate the scope for technological change. She warns that while IT has an excellent track record of increasing liberty and prosperity globally, there is also a downside.

''I have been an information technology person since 1971 and one thing I have learnt is that nothing is impossible. The only thing you can guarantee is that what we will have (technology wise) 100 years from now will be very different from today.'' The downside is that as systems become more complex they become more vulnerable and the consequences of failure more dire. While a bridge collapse makes more headlines, the failure of an IT system will affect many more lives.


s people's electronic horizons expand their physical environments, the homes in which they live are likely to shrink.

Ross Taylor, a 30-year building industry veteran who works with builders and bodies corporate on some of the ACT's biggest residential developments, says that 100 years from now the quarter-acre block ethos that underpinned Canberra's original ''garden city'' concept would have gone the way of the dodo.

''Life in a suburb was originally the aspiration of all middle-class Canberrans,'' he said. ''You had the block, you built the house and you spent your weekends and holidays cleaning gutters, mowing lawns and painting the home. That has already changed. For young people today that is living death. They want to live in the city in a high-rise unit where they can enjoy the nightlife, the restaurants and the entertainment.''

Suburban life would probably become a brief part of the life cycle for people who chose it as a good way to raise children and then moved back into units once they were grown so they could escape the time-consuming property maintenance demands of suburban life.

Mr Taylor, who consults on faulty building construction and design, says apartment dwellers are already discovering they are simply swapping one set of maintenance challenges for another.

''If you live in a smaller block it will be hard to avoid taking your turn on the body corporate or management committee,'' he said, ''There will also be, thanks to the fact that defects in new complexes are so widespread, a much less predictable maintenance role than if you owned a free-standing house. I know of cases where people have had water dripping from their ceiling for three years while a dispute was resolved or who haven't been able to rent out their investment apartment because of faults.''

Problems with property maintenance are likely to be exacerbated by the other big change expected to unfold over the next century: climate change. The worst-case scenario is grim, with one ACT government report warning of possible average temperature rises of from one to five degrees by 2070 if action is not taken on CO2 emissions on a global scale.

Barbara Norman, the foundation chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Department at the University of Canberra, says there is no doubt that Canberra will get hotter and drier in the years to come.

''This has implications for the built environment, for transport, water and the provision of shade and the consequent increase in the risk of bushfires,'' she said. Professor Norman said the health implications of climate change were dramatic given that during the 2009 Victorian bushfire emergency more people died of heatstroke than in the fires themselves. With its rapidly ageing population the number of people at risk in Canberra is on the increase.

She agreed that Canberra's status as a ''city-state'' did seem to place it in a good position to meet future challenges.

''We have a climate change council which has a vision and a climate change plan,'' Professor Norman said. ''The ACT does have an unusual political and administrative structure compared to, say, central Sydney, where you would have to deal with 20 separate councils to get something done.'' But there is a need for ACT authorities to think beyond the boundaries in the decades to come.

''Issues such as water, transport and energy don't respect borders,'' she said. ''We need to have a regional spatial plan.'' This was demonstrated by the NSW government's decision to offer incentives for people to move to Cooma, a town whose population has declined despite its proximity to Canberra.

''There is a shortage of housing in Canberra and unused housing in Cooma - but the railway that links the two communities is closed,'' she said. ''It doesn't make sense.''

Historians revisiting the files of The Canberra Times from a century before will almost certainly be amazed to find 15 ''centenarians'' were presented with special medallions because they had been born in the same year the city was named. Even at that time ACT residents were the longest lived people in Australia.

And, perhaps surprisingly, Canberra could be a gentler, kinder and more spiritual city, with church leaders saying a growing realisation that the materialism of the past 40 years has failed is driving renewed interest in the search for meaning.

''People are getting a sense of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of secular materialism,'' Father Ken Barker of the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and a member of the Missionaries of God's Love, said. ''They realise that a life dedicated to just acquiring things is not satisfying; that is actually very unfulfilling and they go on the search.''

Father Barker said that while church attendances were falling the nature of those attending was changing.

''We are seeing people who have not grown up in the faith; who have not inherited church attendance from their parents,'' he said. ''There is a move to intentional discipleship and church attendance is a choice people are making in their adult life. Canberra is the heart of the nation; if the spirit is going to move in Australia it will certainly move in Canberra.''