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Walter Burley Griffin 1913 plan for Canberra

Canberra as a global City of Design

At ThinkPlace, we believe that Canberra is Australia’s natural home of design. Our city is the perfect size for prototyping social innovations. We have strengths in art, industrial design, music and architecture. Our environment blends natural and manufactured elements in deliberate patterns.

We want to see these strengths recognised globally. One way to achieve this recognition is for Canberra to become a UNESCO Creative City of Design. 

UNESCO devised the Creative Cities Network to foster collaboration and shared learning across the world. Cities in the network use their creative powers in innovative and inclusive ways, to strengthen communities and work towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Creative Cities Network covers 116 cities across seven creative fields: Crafts & Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music and Media Arts. We are promoting Canberra as a Creative City of Design, to join members such as Shanghai, Montreal and Singapore.

Bill Bannear's profile'
Bill Bannear
Canberra city seen from the Canberra Arboretum
Canberra has a unique blend of natural and built environments

Over several DESIGN Canberra festivals, we have discussed this topic with a wide range of people. We have asked how we can capitalise on Canberra’s unique features to be an ecosystem of innovation. Here are some of the things we have heard.

What makes Canberra a natural design city?

  • Canberra is a small, young city, with a unique combination of built and natural environments. It is still evolving and offers many opportunities for experimentation.
  • Canberra has a high number of creative institutions relative to its population. For example, it is home to five universities, the CSIRO, the School of Art and Design, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Library of Australia.
  • The nation’s capital is the centre of Australia’s government. It is the logical place to introduce innovation from other fields into the delivery of public services.
  • Canberra is Australia’s most educated city, with a third of its citizens holding a bachelor degree or higher. It also has the highest average income among capital cities. These features give Canberrans the privilege to participate and invest in good design.

The people we’ve spoken to also identified barriers to creativity and design in Canberra. What might prevent Canberra becoming a City of Design?

  • Lack of leadership, sponsorship and a common vision could limit how Canberra embraces its strengths in design.
  • We need to overcome an aversion to risk. While being the centre of government has advantages for innovation in social systems, it can also bind us in bureaucracy and the natural political hesitation to accept risk. We need to encourage experimentation and feel safe to fail.
  • Canberra has a fluid population. As some people arrive to join our creative institutions, others leave. The smallness of Canberra limits some of its possibilities—finance gurus may leave for Sydney or talented musos escape to Melbourne. We need to encourage these people to stay or, if they leave, retain some of the knowledge and experience they have developed here.
  • Affluence and a lack of limitations can be enemies of innovation. Constraints found in other cities such as an over-stressed infrastructure, a lack of opportunities or unemployment may drive creativity. Sometimes Canberra can feel too comfortable.

To apply to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, Canberra has to demonstrate its willingness, commitment and capacity to contribute to the network’s objectives. As part of the application, we will have to present a plan with specific projects, initiatives or policies to weave sustainable and inclusive creativity into the city’s fabric.

Developing this plan might just be the impetus we need. It could overcome the barriers to Canberra embracing its design personality, making us more aligned, united and focussed on harnessing the natural capability of the city.