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Sustaining Hope In Our Cities: Developing For The Future

Sustaining Hope In Our Cities: Developing For The Future

with Professor Peter Newman

Sustaining Hope In Our Cities: Developing For The Future

On 15 August, the winners of the Premier’s Science Awards 2018 were announced.

Scientist of the Year was awarded to Professor Peter Newman in recognition of his invaluable contribution to the sustainable development of West Australia.

Particle sat down with Peter to chat about his journey up until this point and why he uses Perth as an example of incredible sustainable development. Hear about the 40-year campaign that has seen him transform from naive university lecturer to media ratbag, and learn what exciting things he sees in our city’s future.

Read Transcript


I was journeying into territory that nobody had really gone into, which was now called sustainable cities. Um, but, uh, we were the first out there. So we, uh, we had to get out there and learn, um, and in politics, that’s always risky. Uh, you never quite know how to play that politics. You could ruin your life by being sidelined in the political game.

So they’re, they’re, um, some of the things that I’ve learnt, but in the end, the biggest thing is persistence. You just don’t get it quickly and easily. This is a 40-year campaign I’ve been on. Um, and yeah, fortunately I got in early, I was in my 20s when I started this, and now we’re delivering things that I would never have dreamed of, but you have to start and keep going and I’ve never, I’ve never given up.


Hello and welcome to the Particle podcast. My name is Kirsten Flint, and today we come to you with a very hopeful story. We’re joined by Professor Peter Newman from the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University who was very recently awarded Scientist of the Year at the 2018 Premier’s Science Awards, so congratulations to you Peter.


Thank you. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. I am generally seen as a bit of a ratbag who gets in the media rather than a scientist, but it’s lovely to be recognised as a scientist.


And you were actually recognised for a lot of the work that you’ve done in sustainable city development, but you didn’t start out that way did you?

No, I did a PhD in chemistry, so I am fundamentally a scientist, but I brought that scientific approach to understanding cities, and that was a bit of a journey. Uh, I certainly didn’t like just being a scientist, I always wanted to help change the world with it. And the environmental side of things began in the 70s when I was finishing that PhD. So I did environmental science in the Netherlands, which was the only place you could actually study it then, and I went to Stanford and worked there before coming back to help Murdoch begin environmental science, but I still really hadn’t applied it to cities.

Uh, that happened in 1979 when the state government closed the Fremantle railway. I was a Fremantle counsellor, a young lecturer at Murdoch University who knew everything, and I thought, hmm, there’s something wrong with this. It was in the year of the major oil crisis that had affected Australia. And we all thought, wow, we’re closing down a train that takes people, gives people an option for getting out of their cars? So I thought I’ve got to run this campaign to bring it back and create a better rail system in Perth. That’s when I began to try and understand cities and to get data on cities and to try and change them so that we could become more sustainable.


And so once you’ve understood the cities, you’ve got the data and you have a plan. How do you change those cities? How do you take that idea and that data and actually change it?


Hmm, well, I think the key thing is that you have to be more than a scientist.

The scientist is able to understand what is happening. You need to be curious to be a scientist and you get that and you’ve, you, you can then see what could be, but you never actually can bring that about unless you understand two other things. One, I call planning, which is really the way in which the whole government system works. How does it create the future or stop the future emerging as sometimes happens? Um, and you need to understand that, but then you’ve got to know the politics. So planning and politics are what you need to deliver a science-type vision of the future.

And that’s what I learnt from the first campaign about the railway, which we won, but we won it through the politics. The planning system couldn’t understand, well, why do you want a train? Well, we had a different vision, ah, about what Perth could be, and we couldn’t see how Perth could be a good city to live in without a train system. We just wanted to return a dingy, dirty old diesel railway system that it was very rundown. So we had to electrify it, and we did that through one election, and then we had to go to the northern suburbs, then to the southern suburbs, now Metronet. Each of them were political processes, and we had to get the politicians to run with it.

We got there, um, and uh, it certainly wasn’t just me, but I think I provided an edge of knowing the science and understanding the system and then knowing how to turn that into a political campaign that we could win, and we have won.


So obviously it’s been quite a long journey from that chemistry PhD back in the day. What makes you excited? What keeps you inspired?


Yeah, look, I think it, early on, I used to travel a lot to see the best practice that was going on in other parts of the world. I once dragged my wife and two kids to 42 cities in 6 months um as part of the data collection we were doing. But in that process you do get to see a lot of cities doing things differently. Like Portland, Oregon, where I first went to, and they’d taken money from a freeway and put it into a new light rail called MAX, which is still a terrific, ah, bonus for their city. And that was one of the first cities that said no to the automobile and yes to light rail, and I got very inspired by that.

But interestingly, in the more recent times, say the last decade, I mostly tell the world about what we’re doing in Perth. I can now be proud of the fact that we have rebuilt our city around a railway that is significantly better than what anyone would have imagined. We’ve gone from 7 million passengers a year to 70 million passengers a year in a short period. It’s a great story, uh, but we’ve also done amazing things like White Gum Valley, a zero-carbon new development with solar and batteries and blockchain that enable you to share solar energy. It’s the only place in the world that actually is doing that. Others talked about it. So I can now go around and talk about it. I, I took a professor from Portland to White Gum Valley yesterday. He was amazed. He said, oh, you’ve actually done it. This is fantastic. Well, that’s a great thrill to be able to say, yeah, we’re up there now


Yeah, certainly a tale of perseverance, and the sustainable cities field has obviously come such a long way. Where to next, especially for Perth?


Yeah. Well, when I was given this award, uh, I had a speech ready and, uh, I just thought there were three things that I’m working on at the moment that this gives me a platform to, to pursue, and these are all about sustainable cities, but there at different levels. So the first one is the trackless tram, uh, then theres Lithium Valley and the third one is songlines and sustainability.

Now these three issues I’ll quickly go through.

The trackless tram is an innovation that’s come out of China where they’ve taken six incredible technologies from the autonomous high-speed rail and put it into a bus and converted it into a train-like creature that carries 300 people quickly down a corridor. It’s electric, it’s quiet, the rideability quality is like a train and, um, it costs a 10th of what a light rail would cost. And that’s transformative. We can bring it in quickly. You don’t have to dig up the road. There’s no overhead catenary. It’s beautiful. And I, I think that, um, it’s the next phase for Perth

Metronet’s going into the vast outer suburbs. We need that, but we also need the inner and middle suburbs to have opportunities to get people out of cars, and this, uh, I think we’ll be able to take this through Cabinet sometime in the next 6 months to get something going on that.

The second one is Lithium Valley, and this is about the power system, uh, and also transport because the world is rapidly changing to a new energy system. And the winner in it is solar. Rooftop solar is now the cheapest form of energy. Um, it, it, it has completely outstripped all other forms, but you need batteries to go with it.

And lithium ion batteries have won the race to be the cheapest and best battery. Now lithium ion batteries have about 12 metals in them that are quite rare, but all of them can be found in Western Australia. So we have an opportunity to not just help the world provide clean energy metals for the clean energy future. And they do need it—to get off fossil fuels, they’re going to need our metals and particularly lithium, and we’re the biggest producer in the world of lithium. Um, we need to be able to provide this, but we also need to be able to say to the rest of the world we’re going to give you these metals but we want you to invest back into Perth and the regional centres and create businesses, industries that are processing the metals that are making the batteries, that are using the batteries, that are recycling the batteries.

We’re calling that Lithium Valley. Silicon Valley was what California did in the last economic boom. They’re still hugely economically important. We want to be part of this new economy in a big way. We want to be the California of the new energy economy.


And is that in the near future?


Well, it’s, if we don’t act in the next few years, other places will take the battery metals and the opportunity will be gone. The businesses in Western Australia are up for it. The state government’s now up for it. They’ve got a lithium taskforce. Uh, the Chief Scientist is helping to drive that. We’ve now got a federal government committee on it as well. And I think they’re starting to talk to some of the big manufacturers saying please come to Western Australia, this is where we’re going to create the new opportunities in this new energy economy. So I think we can do it. We have to believe in it though. Essentially, Western Australians have dug up and exported and that’s it. We need to now process and be clever with it.

The third thing is songlines and sustainability. It’s a deeper thing. A songline is what was passed on in oral tradition for 60,000 years. We need to understand our landscape, and we’re starting to realise that the Noongar perspectives, which are held in their songlines, they describe the landscape. They’re maps, but they’re more than that. They help you understand the way it works and fits together. Those songlines are dying out. We need to record them, and we need to understand them and work them through so that we see how we should be managing the soil, the water, the fire, the wildlife.

Um, we’ve got natural resource management processes going on, but whenever we do it, we, we realise we don’t understand the landscape as well as we should. And people like Steve Hopper, the professor down at Albany, is understanding landscape by talking a lot to Noongar people. We’ve started a process of talking with Kim Scott and Ezzard Flowers and a number of other Noongar people who are happy to share the songlines and to enable us to learn from them. That’s a partnership we’ve not made in our past. It’s time we did.

So let’s, um, let’s pursue those three. That’s a good start, um, and they give you an indication of the kind of things that I see that will help us have a longer-term future in our city.


Wonderful. And I think I’ve just got one question to finish up with. Um, these three initiatives that you’ve told us about today, obviously all of them have quite a strong science core. Can you speak to the importance of scientists working hard to have that impact in society?


Yeah, I think that, um, I couldn’t have done the things that I’ve done unless I had been a scientist. It, if I had just been an architect or planner where I drew things and said, look, this is a better drawing than yours, um, I wouldn’t have had the same impact. They do wonderful work, I’m not, you know, every discipline has their contribution, but science is much more about getting numbers on things and helping to understand the underlying processes. Uh, so I’ve done that. I’ve taken that from chemistry and applied it to cities in ways that helped me to understand them, and so it was important to maintain my scientific approach. Um, but it’s also about being a curious person. Curiosity is fundamental to science, and science is constantly evolving because of very curious people who get in there and try to understand better. And um, I have applied that outside the laboratory and in the daily lives of people in cities.

But I think it applies in every area of, of the economy, uh, of, of culture that science can enable us to understand things better and make a better future. So let me finish with one key idea. When you add curiosity and science into a planning process, which is understanding the, uh, the government and then the politics, which is how you understand you can deliver things, you create hope, and hope is what drives us.

If, we’re not going to be able to survive the enormous challenges that we’ve got globally, locally, unless we have hope, because if we’re full of fear about the future, we don’t actually act or we just say just fix it, bring in the troops and fix it, have get rid of democracy because we can’t afford to, to have, um, uh, we can’t wait, and there’s a lot of people do that and it’s, it’s actually destroying hope when you have that fear. So I constantly talk to people about the importance of generating hope in any of the issues that you’re on. And it’s hard to find that hope sometimes, but once you start winning and showing that, by applying all of those factors together, you can actually make things better, then you can tell you grandchildren, yes, there is hope for you too.


This has been the Particle podcast. To get more science stories, you can check out our website, which will be in the show notes. You can also reach out to us with any questions you have via social media using our social media handle @ParticleWA. The Particle podcast is supported by Scitech, empowering West Australians by increasing awareness, interest, capability and participation in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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