Tim Horton is an architect and former founding CEO of the Committee of Adelaide. He is also former commissioner for Integrated Design based in Adelaide, South Australia with the Integrated Design Commission SA.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about landscape sustainability, why working together doesn’t come naturally and why Australia’s design, technology and innovation policies are poor by global standards.

You recently spoke at Forecast about regenerative landscapes. How can landscape architecture be more integrated into landscapes? 

Well, I think the real question is how architecture, planning, engineering and landscape architecture can all make more impact here. The Forecast Festival invited archaeologists, anthropologists, broadcasters and a whole range of different skillsets to pitch landscape architecture back in to play at a time it’s really needed. We all agree that Australia has an infrastructure shortfall but not all of us share the same definition on what infrastructure is.

How hard or easy is it to incorporate sustainable landscapes with these type of projects?

Right now, we hear the Australian government is putting the finishing touches to a 15-year infrastructure plan. Done well, this could set us up for the next generation of infrastructure that does more with less and make it easier to green up our cities. Like the major rail and road corridors that could regenerate underdeveloped or derelict parts of our cities and suburbs if we choose to integrate housing, pedestrian and cycling networks and green open space alongside. The brief and the funding need to be set to do this, and that requires three levels of government to agree and work together.

The truth is, getting the most from a project is hard because we separate the brief writing and funding from the design process. So the potential that designers see in a project is too often met with resistance because we didn’t take a design-led view when we set the brief in the first place. We write the brief, set the budget and make the announcement. Then we start designing and engaging local communities. It’s 100 per cent the wrong sequence. So not surprisingly, no one wins.

What is the most difficult project you've been involved in? Why was it difficult?

The most difficult but rewarding ‘project’ was the Integrated Design Commission project in South Australia. The then Premier Mike Rann set up a ‘start-up’ unit inside the Department of Premier and Cabinet to bring design thinking and design excellence across government. It remains a remarkable period that still resonates in South Australia – methods and ideas we developed are still visible, great people who were part of it are still embedded in agencies carrying on the work.

It was a really valuable apprenticeship in how government works (and often doesn’t work). But it was also really difficult as an entrenched risk-based culture of the bureaucracy came to terms with design process that will always jump to a prototype – the ‘launch and learn’ language that healthy organisations now see as the basis for survival and innovation. It was an experience that taught me a lot about communicating design in a world that sees it as decoration and the enormous change that is made possible through good public policy.

You're interested in design, technology and innovation in creating planning policies. How well do you think these aspects are currently incorporated into policy around Australia?

I’m not sure there’s a single response to that. It varies, but is generally poor by global standards. Initial positive signs from South Australia were quietly euthanised by a change in leadership. Some work in the Queensland public sector is promising and some large national research offers a glimmer too.

The CRC for Low Carbon Living brings architects, planners and engineers together with researchers and computer scientists, builders and material suppliers. However, it still needs a more assertive industry that can look beyond mere survival and invest in some long-term collaborative research. It doesn’t help that the tax incentives for business to invest in keep changing – making it a risk to invest in innovation. Some more long-term policy consistency is needed.

On the policy front, we don’t practice what we preach. We ask industry to do the design thinking, but it’s rare for a government to see planning or infrastructure as a means to build capacity in our manufacturing, design or in smart construction. For example, we never think of embedding targets for construction innovation in a planning framework like Vancouver did with its laneway housing policy that gave rise to a new generation of smaller scale, more affordable development.

Manufacturers interested in moving to modular fabrication can see the link between a local forestry market, regional skills development and the need for healthy housing as the platform for local prefabricated timber housing. However, governments find it hard to link up multiple portfolios of forestry, industry, education and planning so the potential to develop these new value chains goes begging (and often, goes offshore).

You're a board member of the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, which brings together government, industries and universities. What are some of the challenges of all of those sectors working together?

The biggest challenge lies in the assumption that working together is something that comes naturally. It doesn’t. There’s a mix of skillsets and mindsets needed to comprehend the dialect of the other. It doesn’t help that the only way to get a CRC funded is to fully prescribe the outputs of the next five years before you even start.

So while all the evidence is that true innovation is a non-linear meander, we ask our innovators to map out a dead straight linear trajectory validated by the scientific method. Is there any wonder Australian research is finding it hard to connect with industry?

There is an alternative model, and that’s MIT’s Media Lab. Here, research is done by making things – applying existing knowledge in new ways on the workbench and pushing the existing until it blows up or produces the first folding electric motorbike or LEDs controlled by breath and paintwork. The likelihood of a product increases. Research is developed along the way, and this is all made possible by a different (and more flexible) funding model sourced primarily from the private sector.

Are there any areas in Australia that you think needs a big overhaul in terms of its design policy?

Having one would be a start (a design policy). Australia wants to compete in the Asian century, but look around. Korea and Singapore are just two economies in our region with serious work in design policy and design promotion. The Australian Design Alliance has been a solid voice on this point but with limited success.

A few universities get this, like Roy Green from UTS. Maybe if one city is positioned to lead, it’s Sydney. With the huge growth and confidence ahead, Sydney has a highly developed sense of good design and can turn it on when it wants. Just look at the transformation of apartment design in the last 10 years since some ‘soft policy’ was designed to promote quality in apartment living.

The state’s policy on apartment design is the benchmark on how you develop policy and measure the results, but Sydney needs to work on its next stretch target. Talk of a metro-wide green grid may be the next big leap. Designing to cool the city, slow the runoff of water lost offshore and making it easier to walk whatever age you are – these are the things that might define Sydney in the next 10-20 years. Now the challenge is to take this beyond the city walls to the middle ring where new urban growth can make a difference.

Aside from what you're doing now, what would be your dream job and why?

Cleaner at MIT’s media lab to rummage through the bins.