Can Sydney Surf the Digital Sunami?

These are my (rough) notes from a UTS Speaks presentation by Professor Tom Barker, 31 March 2009.

This is the second talk by Tom Barker that I’ve attended since joining UTS about 10 minutes ago. I am now beginning to understand more about his passion for “digital urbanism”.

Interestingly, the first thing I noticed in the University’s Great Hall was that the audience began and then continued to sit on the left hand side, in front of the screen that would carry his PowerPoint slides, not in front of Tom himself. What does that alone say about our preferred means of consuming information? Do we attach any importance to facial expression at all? Do we just ignore it and place it further down our list of priorities than whatever is served up on a screen? I just did what everyone else was doing: baaa, baaaaa.

Again, Tom started his talk with a movie clip, this time from Matrix, which featured the Sydney CBD. It was the segment that asked “what is real?”

Tom posed a few concepts that might be taken up once we are over the current credit crunch. He is all about creativity and innovation and he thinks that the new creative industries are now more resilient than many others and should survive the crunch pretty well. He also thinks Australia is well-positioned to be more “e-ready” than most of its neighbours, especially within our cultural environment. We do, however, lack decent Government policy and vision (compared with others like the UK and NZ), and business/consumer adoption. So let’s look at his concepts, many of which have some relevance to our future library (hence its place in the Forums):

e-with everything

Here he referred us to a newly proposed environment in Singapore which has been designed for new creative businesses, working from home, new office spaces, new business districts, etc. It would become a hub of work, living and entertainment in one environment, mixing green spaces with business, office, residential, industrial and entertainment uses. The e-uses are no longer a separate community or space, they are integrated with everything else we do and everywhere we go.

He also described “intelligence” as our ability to adapt to different and changing circumstances.

giant clouds

Here he referred to computing clouds; creative collaboration that harnesses and exploits the power of enormous networks. They offer a tool for collaborative working. He said that the first big city to offer such a cloud will steal the march on all of the others.

global universities

Apparently we are not there yet and there is much further to go, but a start has been made (I thought about MIT and their use of DSpace here). He said that hierarchies simply do not work and that it all depends on connectivity, eg. EVO. Connections can be made and exploited in many ways, eg. the joint lectures currently being facilitated between UTS and RMIT. Student and post-graduate travel was also important in this light and he referred to a UK program where students are helping facilitate e-commerce ventures in under-developed Ghana.
He also introduced a “creativity rose” which I think he suggested using to measure the success of such ventures: the four points on the rose being economic, creative, social welfare and knowledge benefits.

banks 2.0 – try again

He showed a graphic in which Australian banks were compared to the size and value of major Western banks. The Australian banks had retained more of their pre-crash value than many well known US and UK banks which had suffered heavily from collapsed current values.
He introduced a rather radical concept of banks “trading” in currencies other than traditional stores of value (like money). Again, he mentioned a conceptual idea for the future use of London’s derelict Battersea Power Station. Tom seems particularly keen on a proposal to set it up as the new home for the British Library (which is running out of space). But it would become much more than that, by becoming a “bank of culture”, moving the British Library and the British cultural digital space into it. (This idea is in many ways similar to what we want to do with the new UTS library of the future next to the tower.) So, the new British Library plus new media and creative industries would become a bank of culture; a trading bank with its currency being “creativity”. Perhaps we could apply a similar concept to the new UTS Library, our currency being knowledge?

gen-z kids

These guys are now under 16 years of age (so they are the clients of the library of the future). They are characterised by:

  • continual partial attention (multi-tasking);
  • always online or connected (but not always paying attention to any one feed);
    a social conscience;
  • an environmental conscience and awareness;
  • (something about the structure of their life, which I didn’t get fully); and
  • they are the first generation who have had parents completely familiar with web technologies.

“lymphatic systems”

These systems are important for waste disposal, energy and disease resistance. For the digital world I think he said something like “these systems are integrating when they are working and regenerating when they are not (starting from scratch)”, but I’m not sure I completely caught his meaning here. He cited the London Eye and Melbourne’s Federation Square as good public “urban” squares or spaces, but Sydney apparently has nothing like this in the open . . . yet. Another example is Berlin’s amazing Potsdamer Platz. He said that in these spaces, technology (screens made of pixels) was being used to bring the spaces alive and to make them interactive, particularly after hours. He showed an example of SmartSlab technology that will be used to broadcast live media for 40-50 UK public spaces.

outdoor media

He referred to the progression of broadcast outdoor media from simple live broadcast, to living media, to “autonomous pixels”, and finally to intelligent media (which is pro-active). UTS is involved in an autonomous pixels project for the Sydney Light Festival in May which will attempt to display uploaded facial expressions. I think their “face” will hang somewhere in the Rocks area. People will MMS photos of their face to the system and I think they will then be accumulated to show different expressions. The screen is made of pixels which are spherical, solar-powered eggs and the face itself will be shown in semi-3D. The same technology can provide a more interactive “2nd skin” for construction sites, so UTS could again lead in the use of such technology during its campus redevelopment.

Such technology is “esemplastic”, a word coined by S.T. Coleridge to convey the ability to shape diverse elements or concepts into a unified whole. (I once witnessed some amazing British minds doing this in the UK Cabinet Office, preparing complex intelligence briefs for the UK PM, but that is a whole other story.) This would be a worthy aim for the library of the future.


No, not Barbara & Bette. This section was his environmental and sustainability component. Energy is obviously a valuable commodity. Construction costs are also rising with the cost of production materials, but the cost of of digital pixels has fallen (recently) by over 95% and when used to provide digital lighting he said it was 90% more efficient than other forms of lighting. So, for Tom, the Internet has better environmental credentials. The downside of the Internet is that most people involved in it still do a lot more flying around the globe to make projects happen.

summing up

Tom said he was most interested in facilitating the ability for individuals to be collaboratively creative. He referred to the Renaissance model of the patron, master and apprentice as a good model for us to follow too. He spoke of technology as part of the urban fabric as opposed to a device we must attach to it. It has the potential to be more inclusive and therefore, accessibility issues should be able to be addressed. Its downsides can be balanced.

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