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21 October 2019


Culture and Technology

The rise of technological advances over recent decades, in not only our everyday lives but also our professional vocation, is a trend which does not appear to be slowing. As the integration of electronic processes within knowledge-based professions becomes ever more prominent, the question of the need for a centralised workplace becomes progressively relevant.

How then, does strategic urban planning predict and adapt to innovation in this space? In part, the problem lies with the inability to understand technological changes that occur with advancements in real-time and adapting the policies to accommodate such growth. By definition, the ‘spatial planning’ of our cities is not something that can be reflexive in approach, and thus, future strategic initiatives are potentially unprepared to respond accordingly to such innovation.   

Spatial Planning

A common identifier within innovative workplaces is that of the ‘remote workforce’, which infers a decentralised function between employer and employee (e.g. working on a laptop from home). The associated word ‘telecommuting’ generally describes the process of “telecommunications and computer technology allowing the substitution for commuting by ’telecommuting’” or more succinctly “Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS)” [1].

Historically, planning policies have not considered  this as a function of strategic land-use thinking. The decentralisation of Melbourne’s central business district (CBD) into a poly-centric activity centre model (i.e. ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’) has been at the core of Victoria’s strategic vision for some time. This effort to minimise reliance on a singular central business district for a majority of the workforce, although a great initiative, still derives from a car-based mentality, that is to say, a priority to reduce congestion at peak periods within the CBD rather than a response to remote working.

Click here to view the image showcasing "A poly-centric approach to Melbourne - Metropolitan and Major Activity Centres"

The presiding strategic document for Melbourne (Plan Melbourne - 2017-2050 “the Plan”) includes ‘Outcomes’ which contain the over-arching strategic directives in relation to innovation/jobs and housing/jobs (among other things):

  • Melbourne is a productive city that attracts investment, supports innovation and creates jobs (Outcome 1).
  • Melbourne provides housing choice in locations close to jobs and services (Outcome 2).
  • Supplying new housing in the right locations is supported by Policy 2.1.2 to facilitate an increased percentage of new housing in established residential areas to support the creation of a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods (part of Outcome 2).

Within the Plan, there is an absence of technological influences in the sphere of workplace location. Whilst this is not the sole facilitator of flexibility in the workplace, as adaptable working arrangements are part of the picture, it is the factor most likely to generate a significant cultural shift.

If the reorientation of working patterns continues to occur, does it then call into question the historical application of land-use planning objectives? The poly-centric approach is not necessarily at odds with this mentality, but it may warrant further consideration of any potential flow-on effects as a result of emerging technological and workplace patterns.

Flexible Working Arrangements

In Australia, the right to request changes to working arrangements is one of the 10 National Employment Standards (NES). More broadly, the right for certain employees to request flexible working arrangements has been a feature of the Fair Work Act 2009 since 2010 [2]. This suggests that there is an appetite for flexibility and adaptability within the employment environment

Recent examples abroad, such as Finland’s Working Hours Act (due to come into force in 2020), will give the majority of full-time employees the right to decide when and where they work for at least half of their working hours. This will grant employees greater flexibility in managing their work/life balance (including commute times) and adapting to family or personal requirements.  

If the workforce continues to decentralise through the above combination of factors, it brings into question the relevance of communal office/working space. While this article doesn’t engage in the social and psychological debate as to the necessity of a centralised work environment, the modern world appears to be experiencing an unprecedented sociotechnical change, which is transforming the organisation of production, institutions, and everyday life; and therefore, having a consequential influence on the need to categorise appropriate land use classifications/operations to recognise this evolution of spatial outcomes.

Future Planning

Although this piece is largely theoretical, as evidenced above, the increasing flexibility in the modern workplace, due to cultural and technological evolution, poses challenges for policy makers in adapting to a cultural paradigm shift. Traditional spatial planning practices might become foreign in the not too distant future, and in that sense, planning should opt for a pro-active approach in understanding what a technological/cultural “flexible” utopia may look like.

Author: Mitch Seach, Senior Planner

[1]Nilles, J et. al. EEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics (Volume: SMC-6, Issue: 2, Feb. 1976)


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