David Ellery May 22, 2012
Canberra's status as a rich, smart and intellectually vibrant city state makes it an ideal social laboratory for the rest of Australia and the world, an ANU academic believes.
''Canberra is not as weird as it used to be,'' Professor Stephen Dovers said. ''Canberra could be a test bed for innovation in sustainable urban development.''
Professor Dovers, who heads the ANU's Fenner School of Environment and Society, said criticism of the city as ''boring'' by Guy Pearce highlighted the negative perception of the ''bush capital'' outside the ACT. ''The word Canberra has become an insult, conveying fault and resentment. I live in Queanbeyan, to avoid having ACT number plates so I don't get mistaken for a Treasury official when travelling in rural Australia,'' he said.
The professor told guests at a talk at the ANU yesterday Canberra had a remarkable - but largely unexploited - capacity to integrate research across a range of fields to drive evidence-based policy development on a diversity of issues.
''We are a medium-sized city with state and local functions in one jurisdiction, a diversity of land uses, a rich capacity for research with CSIRO, four universities and ACT and Commonwealth agencies, and a community that engages with issues of future planning,'' he said.
Issues that could be investigated in a more integrated manner included social policy, energy and water efficiency, climate adaptation, planning, public transport and conserving biodiversity.
Moves to abolish plastic bags, sanction same-sex civil unions, conduct drug-injecting trials and a willingness to trial gambling-control technology were all examples of a willingness to accept innovation in the social sphere. Professor Dovers said it was time to reclaim Canberra's once positive image. ''From 1913 and for decades afterwards, Canberra conveyed a shared sense of nationhood, a place of pride, interest and shared symbols.''
Populist commentary from politicians and the media had undermined national pride in a shared capital. ''I wonder if that could change? Apart from thoroughly endorsing [Canberra Centenary creative director] Robyn Archer's latest salvo in a long history of trying to correct media and political denigration of Canberra, I would venture that such a resurrection might be helped, in the longer term, in our interests, through achievement rather than argument.''
He said while considerable research was already being carried out in the territory by virtue of the institutions and organisations that exist here, much more could be done to build on that. ''Some things are in place but not [yet] connected,'' he said. One of the territory's biggest assets is its people who have, in the past, shown a willingness to give innovation a go.
''We have a city population who are prepared to try something new,'' he said. ''A population which is willing to debate [issues such as] transport and urban density - and at a well-informed level.''
This is at least partly due to the fact Canberra's relative small size means suburban loyalties do not overshadow a greater identification with the ''the bush capital'' and ''the national capital''.
''Canberra is already a true city state where the same government that runs the courts also handles the rubbish collection service,'' he said. ''But it is potentially a much smarter and more sophisticated city state than it already is.''