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The Year in Sustainable Cities and Regions

Enabling thriving places and communities.

An important part of creating change is imagining a different future. The last two years have shown us that we can be flexible in how we organise our cities. As we emerge from the pandemic the question is, will we go back or will we change for the better?

We need bold visionaries to shape vibrant cities and spaces that can evolve sustainably. And we need opportunities for nexus thinking to find solutions that sit at the intersection of waste, water, energy and food.

At MSDI, we make sure our work includes a range of perspectives, from community to industry, institutions and government, to find richer and more impactful solutions. Living labs are an important way to drive the imagination and listen to the citizen voice in order to make place-based decisions that are supported by long-term strategic planning.

At MSDI, as we learn, we connect our initiatives to others, and scale it to new places so that we can continue to change and share the benefits.

Living laboratories

We are helping cities and urban areas reach net zero emissions and proving how cities around the world can decarbonise.

Our Net Zero Precincts project is part of Monash’s Net Zero Initiative, a $135 million program that is transforming Monash University’s four Australian campuses to become net zero by 2030. Our project is drawing together two areas of scholarship – transition management and design anthropology – to pioneer a new approach to creating net zero cities. The project is being led by an interdisciplinary team from MSDI and Faculties of Art, Design and Architecture, Information Technology, and Arts. In 2021, to prepare for fieldwork, the project built collaborative teams and relationships across industry, students, staff, academia and local residents including renewable energy company ENGIE, the City of Monash, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and CSIRO. The project also recruited five PhD students to conduct the research.

Learn more about our work in this space:

Net Zero Initiative

Net Zero Precincts

Research and education drive sustainable societies

We are collaborating with communities that were hit by devastating bushfires, supporting them to lead their recovery and broader resilience building.

Launched in 2021, Fire to Flourish is a five-year transdisciplinary program working with communities in four Local Government Areas in New South Wales and Victoria who were affected by the 2019/20 Australian bushfire season. Working at the intersection of bushfire recovery, disaster resilience and community development, Fire to Flourish is building a strong network of partnerships with government, philanthropic, not-for-profit and private sector to advance community-led recovery and resilience in practice. Over 2021, the program has convened local leaders in Clarence Valley to create a shared vision for their community, and begin to identify ideas for bringing this vision to life. The program has received over $50 million in philanthropic funding so far to achieve its outcomes.

We are also taking our cutting-edge research into the classroom by bringing our world-leading expertise in net zero emissions and water sensitive cities to tomorrow’s leaders. The ‘Transforming Cities for Sustainability’ unit uses an innovative, story-centred approach to education in the Master of Environment and Sustainability. Running for the first time in 2021, thirty-three students from faculties across the university participated in this elective unit which featured live-streamed field trips, gamified simulations, a design challenge, and an innovative 'personal learning portfolio' approach which encouraged learners to visualise and relate theories and concepts back to their own lives and emerging careers. The students learned to develop positive visions of the future that draw on rich and unconventional thinking grounded in evidence based expertise.

Learn more about our work in this space:

Fire to Flourish
Transforming Cities for Sustainability unit

Thinking and acting at the nexus of water, waste, food and energy

In 2021, the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC) returned to MSDI as Water Sensitive Cities Australia (WSC Australia).

As part of MSDI Water, WSC Australia is building on the legacy of the CRCWSC by mainstreaming the practices, policies and tools that support water sensitive cities. For instance, more than 60 cities have already used the Water Sensitive Cities Index across Australia and internationally.

In 2021, our WSC Australia team was further developing the software and a training framework to scale the tool up to reach a wider global audience and to spread its impact. The team was also developing industry partnerships and work programs in multiple Australian states and internationally. For example, they worked with the international agencies and in-country partners in Vietnam to develop ways to manage urban flooding and create climate resilient cities. Some of the solutions proposed for Phu Quoc Island are being incorporated into the World Bank’s Sustainable Water Management Project for the island.

Learn more about our work in this space:

Water Sensitive Cities Australia

Case studies

Multi City Challenge in Mexico

City: Hermosillo - Project Tactic Urbanism in Hermosillo.

Collaborative communities find innovative solutions to local urban problems.

The Multi City Challenge is a community-led program that brings together key players around a common goal, from government to community and private sector representatives. The participants include local public servants, activists, civil society leaders, university students, high school students, business people, and independent professionals such as urban architects.

In 2020, our Policy and Impact team, in collaboration with The Governance Lab (The GovLab) helped five cities in Northern Mexico identify a public problem that could be solved in collaboration with the community. And while participants were working together to transform their cities, they were changing too. Public servants became more aware of the value of collaborative problem-solving and citizens became more confident community leaders.

"This experience that I, as a citizen, can come and I can propose something, I can design something and that they listen to me is a very different exercise of democracy we had not had and that I think is important that we disseminate." – Participating citizen

"Changing the city really is in the hands of citizens and you don't have to wait for someone else to do things when you yourself can have the initiative, involve more people, create a connection and together make a real change." – Participating citizen

People across all groups learnt the power of collaboration, innovation and change.

"The whole team plays an important role and we are both equal partners. The [public] officials bring all their experience and we, young people, provide a very different perspective. This [allows us] to take action against a problem in a unique way and it is what has helped us most to function as a team.” – Participating citizen

After the open challenge and prototyping phase in 2020, the project teams worked on developing their prototypes into implementable pilots from January to May 2021. MSDI designed and delivered online training and coaching for the teams to develop their theories of change, implementation and monitoring plans.

"Being part of this experience is very cool because it means moving from theory to practice and it opens our eyes to the fact that our theories and our work systems are not the only ones but that there are other ways and methods." – Participating civil servant

At the end of the coaching program, four teams were on track to implement pilots. In October, they presented their pilots and the preliminary results.

"What's so exciting is that it is no longer an idea, but after a year, it is real. The project now does not belong to us anymore, it belongs to the city." – Participating citizen in project Vive tu Acera

MSDI Capability: Developing and refining new methods and integrated approaches for complex problem-solving.

Transforming cities by starting with Monash

Monash Clayton campus

Students transform the Monash precinct through radical thinking and creative ideas.

As part of the ‘Transforming Cities for Sustainability unit’ in the Master of Environment and Sustainability, the students perceived Monash University campus as a microcosm of a city where people, places, stories and ideas intersect.

By considering Monash as a living laboratory, students could think experimentally and deeply about the possibilities of sustainable transformation and visionary change. The students embraced the chance to think through bold challenges and unconventional ideas.

"I thought that the ways in which the educators sought to engage the class with the content was really refreshing and really effective. Some examples include visualisations, games, creating a sense of fun, challenging questions and discussions, and the sharing of portfolio reflections to what other students are making of the content." – 2021 student feedback

As part of a visioning exercise, one student group considered how Monash might build a different connection with water. Students imagined what life might look like if we had rain rituals instead of running from the rain. So instead of considering rain as ‘bad’ weather, the purpose of the rituals was to embrace and appreciate water in cities. The students started to think through the proposal in a detailed way. They led the entire class in a rich, detailed visualisation to picture how Monash could change in this way. What would that look like? What would need to change in the infrastructure? What are the opportunities that no one has ever considered?

MSDI Capability: Build capacity and empower leadership to build the skillsets and mindsets for effective action, enabling people to lead from where they are.

Water Sensitive Cities Index tool

melbourne city scape from the yarra river

Supporting cities on their water sensitive journey.

MSDI’s Water Sensitive Cities Australia trains consultants, like Lindsey Brown at GHD, to use the Water Sensitive Cities Index and help cities make sense of where they are and give them confidence to make decisions about which path to take.

The process gathers together organisations with a water management responsibility including local governments, state government departments and agencies, water utilities and even developers and other private industry representatives. They work together to define the city’s current water sensitive position.

Lindsey says, “The beauty of the tool is that it forces holistic thinking irrespective of political boundaries. If you want to create a benchmark you need a range of people. The tool allows them to have a common language to understand the problems.

“The process gives them the ability to have the most impact. They identify the shared gaps and together they plan what to do.”

As a facilitator, Lindsey recognises the value of different perspectives. She says, “One of the challenges is getting to a single answer. The tool tests how things are, it tests your assumptions. That's part of the richness of the conversation.

“The conversation is the most valuable thing. Invariably, people share data which we require to rank scores and give us a robust measure of confidence in our results. It’s a data sharing love-in!

“The process provides a way to build relationships and networks. I love facilitating the discussion. I love watching the walls come down between people which brings us to a clear and tangible conclusion.”

MSDI Capability: Experiment and innovate to develop and refine new methods and integrated approaches for complex problem-solving.

New Normal Ways of Working

Melbourne Water is embedding new ways of working in order to build back better.

They are learning from the pandemic and looking at ways to effectively integrate blended and flexible work conditions across the organisation.

Paula Jeffs, Melbourne Water’s General Manager of People & Capability says, “We want flexible and blended work to shift from what was previously seen as an entitlement to be accessed, to being the normal way that that everyone goes about their work.  We believe that there are multiple benefits from thinking about configuring ourselves around the work to be done, instead of thinking about work as a place to go, including for individuals, the organisation, our customers and community and the environment.”

This organisation-wide transformation can impact on a number of SDGs. It can improve both physical and mental health. It can improve gender equity, with men able to take up a greater role in family care. There can be environmental impact with having fewer commuters on the road. And creating thriving communities as more people engage with their local neighbourhood through the working day.

Paula says, “By demonstrating that flexible and blended work is better for our team, customers and community, we can contribute to Melbourne Water’s purpose of enhancing liveability, by influencing how and where people choose to live.”

In 2021, MSDI worked with Melbourne Water office workers to look at what work can effectively be done at home and what can purposefully be done together in office spaces. The approach was to find ways to adapt that supports both the business goals and the individuals’ needs.

Academic outputs will be published to share the learnings and approach for the benefit of other institutions.

MSDI Capability: Shaping Institutions, Policy and Practice by shaping and creating policy, agenda setting and narrative building to inform practice change.