New Economy Journal

Reflecting on Four Years of Nomad Activism

Volume 1, Issue 2

May 5, 2019

By - Nilmini De Silva

Piece length: 1,267 words

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An Introduction to PolisPlan Who Are Living and Loving Life on the Road

In 2013, my partner Steven and I walked away from the security of our 40-hour work week and took a leap of faith to launch PolisPlan – a town planning and strategic engineering partnership. We exchanged our regular paychecks for the unsettling world of being consultants, partly because we wanted to be the architects of our future but also to develop a new paradigm for human settlements. We started by spending six months researching in Europe – volunteering in eco-villages, visiting transition towns and attending a conference in Findhorn, Scotland. This helped us forge new connections and understand the challenges of what had been tried before. We saw what worked and learnt a lot about the pitfalls of community-led, village-scale developments. We came back to Australia to digest our learnings and continued to run our consultancy from our home office, working at the intersection of flood risk management and town planning. In our spare time, we delivered presentations to Greens groups and other progressive audiences. People applauded, but were mostly too entrenched in their complex lives in the city to meaningfully respond to our ideas.

However, excited to be crafting our own destiny, we continued to thrive, finding time for our passions of reading, writing and photography. In 2014, we self-published two books. Steven’s 50th birthday celebration was an opportune time for the book launch in conjunction with my second photographic exhibition. Steven’s book Rethinking the City was a discourse on the evolution of cities and how they may be reshaped by the Internet. Mine was called Fate or Destiny, Living Life with Passion – a collection of photos and stories that aimed to inspire people to make conscious choices in life rather than to merely follow the well-trodden trail. But we felt restless. It was one year on and we were not getting much traction in the city. We realised that we needed to find audiences who were not just open to new paradigms but were actively developing them.

After a lot of soul searching, research and much discussion, we took another leap and became mobile consultants. It was the winter of 2015.

It is now almost four years since we left our comfortable home in Hornsby and launched into our nomadic life on the road. We knew then that the experience we had gained working for consultancies and local governments had given us skills that would be useful for influencing Councils from the outside. This was where we could add value. We also felt local government was the most appropriate level to seed grassroots change, and local government policy where the biggest gap in creating alternative housing models was.Our quest then was to find the magic ingredients of community, councillors and council staff who were all willing to think outside the box.

Of course this was always going to be easier said than done.

The experiences we had during our first year on the road helped fine tune our vision. At the heart of it is a desire to build a village for about 200 people integrating water, energy and food with the built environment. The village will be designed using the principles of the Circular Economy – zero waste, systems thinking and life-cycle planning. Our aim is to embody this new paradigm in local government strategy and policy, thus enabling the process to be replicated by others. The ultimate vision is a network of such villages, where sharing economy platforms and EV charging stations will enable connections in both the virtual and real worlds. While full self sufficiency might be difficult to achieve at the village scale – especially if your diet includes meat and grain – we can aim for this within a bio-region. Our vision of a connected network of villages has been inspired by how indigenous people lived on this continent for tens of thousands of years, meeting their basic needs while passing through a series of waterholes connected by songlines.

Our short term goal is to build a viable pilot project on 100 acres, enabling people to touch, feel and see a place that has been designed according to our vision. When we started out in 2015, we didn’t have a clear idea of how we were going to accomplish this task, so our journey has been quite organic -- leading us to places and experiences in a very serendipitous way.

Since becoming mobile we have now spent time in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT, work-shopping our ideas with communities, professionals, local government staff and councillors to sow the seeds of change. We have done author talks at libraries, held stalls at festivals, guest lectured at universities and been interviewed on many community radio stations. We have presented at conferences across the country and developed a fabulous network of connections, especially within the New Economy Network Australia (NENA) community. These connections have been invaluable in progressing the project. We have built relationships with a number of remarkable researchers across Australia, including at QUT, UQ, Uni SA, WSU and CSIRO, who will help with aspects of the project once a site has been identified. We have made formal submissions to growth management strategies (Bellingen), responded to a call for ideas on affordable housing options in Lismore, the Central Coast and Hornsby Shire. Through this journey we have changed our language and our website to reflect our objective of creating a viable housing option that might appeal to mainstream Australia. The vision is now called Circular Economy Innovation Hubs and our new website Beautility Developments has more information about it.

The Circular Economy Innovation Hubs model

The Circular Economy Innovation Hubs model

Along the way, we have had some highs and lows.

In Tasmania, our world café style facilitations helped kick-start Circular Economy Cygnet which has now broadened into Circular Economy Huon. In the Tweed (Northern New South Wales), Councillors gave us in-principle support, while in Cardinia Shire (Victoria) we received a letter from the CEO giving us similar support and encouragement to take the project further. Perhaps our biggest low was in South Australia, where after initial encouragement from the community and Council, the formal application was torn down by a councillor who thought we were harking back to the medieval era. We have started collaborating with other groups in NENA with whom our work is complementary, such as CoHousing Australia, ORICoop and Sustain. We have had initial conversations with architects, who will be key to drawing up a master plan once a site has been identified. Ethical investors and developers still remain elusive.

We continue to fine tune the ideas and work toward getting the ducks in order. Those ducks include a sympathetic local government, land, investors, professionals from many disciplines to refine the concept and ultimately a builder who will help construct the village.

We feel that the mood of the country is changing and that the tipping point of demand for more sustainable housing can’t be too far away. We have started a search for that 100 acres of land in places where we believe the pilot might be viable. The 100-acres might be on land that is held by a farmer who wants to leave a legacy and is looking for a transition plan for his retirement. Buckminster Fuller has taught us that we never change things by fighting the existing reality but rather by building a new model that makes the old model obsolete. It feels exciting to be on this journey, building a new model that will provide an option for those who wish to transition to a new economy.

Images are © Nilmini De Silva Photography 2016

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