The fast pace of technological developments was extensively discussed at the 12th annual Green Cities conference held recently in Melbourne.

Organised by the Property Council of Australia and Green Building Council of Australia, Green Cities ‘Energising Communities’ provided a global platform for industry stakeholders, thought leaders, politicians and policy makers to discuss, dissect and debate some of the most compelling issues impacting the built environment.

While energy, emissions and a zero carbon future were obvious themes of the conference, the rapid pace of technological change came in for discussion, especially topics such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, drones and data analytics.

Lendlease’s Kylie Rampa, who had just returned from Silicon Valley, was “quite depressed” by the rapid progress of robotics and what that would mean for employment and “dislocation of communities”.

However, she was optimistic about the human ability to “adapt and repurpose”.

Multiplex’s John Flecker was more positive about the impact of these technological developments as he reminded the audience that artificial intelligence was unlikely to take over a complex construction supply chain that is dependent on human interaction.

Frasers Property Australia’s Rod Fehring pointed to the potential for excess capacity – identified through data analytics and enhanced through autonomous vehicles – to reinvent the way space is used.

The Green Cities conference audience heard about large-scale solar installations and LED lighting retrofits saving millions of dollars as well as social media and smart city innovations putting decision-making power in the hands of people, and social sustainability projects adding new layers of shared value.

Keynote speaker Professor Ross Garnaut argued that we are living through a “global energy revolution” driving a “great period of innovation”. He added that Australia will be the world’s natural home of low-cost energy if things are done right.

In a discussion on renewables, Stockland’s managing director Mark Steinert talked about the 31 Tesla charging stations between Melbourne and Cairns, which meant customers could plug in their electric vehicles on the journey without spending a cent.

Offsetting the focus on technology was a call to “bring the power of nature back to our cities”. Pascal Mittermaier, managing director of the cities unit at The Nature Conservancy observed that the average high schooler spent up to seven hours on a screen each day but less than 30 minutes outdoors in nature each week.

“What happens when people with little exposure to nature start making decisions about cities?” he wondered.

On the positive side, Dr Jacki Schirmer, an associate professor in health research at the University of Canberra, presented her findings into the efficacy of plants in workplaces.

Schirmer says she has found that workplaces that boast five ‘biophilic’ or natural elements – light, views and images of nature, plants and water – record 100 percent satisfaction from employees.

Summing up the two days, Property Council chief executive Ken Morrison said it was clear “there is no shortage of innovation in this industry, but we’ll need all that innovation and more to meet the challenges ahead”.