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Chance Encounters, Collaboration and Connection – How our places and spaces can create impact in a post-COVID world

by Rachel Wells

In 2007, The Age published an article which described how the growing number of international students, living and studying in the City of Melbourne, was driving a “seismic sartorial shift” in Melbourne’s long-standing European (and predominantly black) fashion sensibility.

RMIT’s former Deputy Head of Fashion and Textiles and Melbourne Fashion Festival Director, Karen Webster, was among those who attributed the growing injection of “bright colours” and “quirky prints” into Melbourne’s famously black wardrobes, to the city’s ever-increasing international student population, largely from Asian countries.

The changing dress code and its impact on the city’s retail landscape, she said, was most obvious as you walked along “the stretch of Swanston Street between RMIT on La Trobe Street and the Bourke Street Mall,” but also in nearby suburbs like Brunswick.

While knowledge, ideas, research and innovation are far more difficult to spot than someone walking down the street in a “mini skirt, thigh-high socks and neon, Chuck Taylor high-tops”, the article highlights how RMIT’s unique position as a truly urban institution in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD, cannot just influence, but infiltrate and transform, the people, places, landscapes, communities and industries it interacts with on a daily basis.

Brock Hogan, Placemaking Strategist for Innovation Precincts at RMIT, says developing programs and places that encourage both formal interactions and chance encounters between the University – its students, academic staff, and researchers – and the communities in which it operates, including businesses and industry, is key to it making an impact in the locations in which it operates, including helping to create sustainable and resilient cities.

“When you think about university campuses, they are typically stand-alone, fenced-off campuses, on the edges of cities, and within their perimeter is where this idea of learning and teaching takes place, away from the rest of the city.”

“RMIT, on the other hand, established itself as a uniquely urban institution and when you look at the city campus, for example, we are very much ingrained within the fabric of the city,” Hogan explains.

“We have education interfacing with both complimentary and contrasting urban activity and that’s a really powerful condition because we have this opportunity to provide forums for serendipitous connection, of people bumping into one another and seeing the unexpected or the new that you would otherwise miss.

Hogan points to RMIT’s Social Innovation Hub, as an example of how our physical and virtual places – our buildings, locations and programs – can create impact, particularly as the state recovers from the far-reaching social and economic impacts of COVID-19.

As part of the Melbourne Innovation Districts (MID) – a partnership between the City of Melbourne, RMIT and the University of Melbourne – RMIT’s Social Innovation Hub has the potential to scale it’s activity to the size of a city block and provide a place for the city’s knowledge workers, researchers, students and organisations to come together and collaborate on shared projects that aim to achieve positive community impact and inclusive, equitable futures.

“This is a really great example of how we’re trying to reverse engineer precinct creation,” Hogan explains.

“There’s a trend when developing precincts to build unconventional facilities and hope that others will rally behind the cause. But really what we believe is that if we can define the wicked problems that we are trying to solve, then we can connect in purposeful ways with partners and later, propose and build the spaces that will deliberately amplify that effort.

He also singles out the Brunswick Design District – a partnership between RMIT, Moreland City Council and Creative Victoria to further evolve the suburb as a creative hub – as another example of how the University can leverage its unique locations, in this instance, a fashion design and textiles school embedded in a suburb with a long and celebrated connection to clothing and footwear design, retail and manufacturing.

“The Brunswick Design District is a great example of that symbiotic nature that RMIT can leverage while also contributing to a sense of place – providing education, industry engagement, skill-building and space for collaboration and discussion to occur, operating as the beating heart of the district.

“Whilst career days, or inviting industry players to visit campus a couple of times a year is useful, what we’re really trying to accomplish, is to make sure that those connections are happening every day in meaningful and productive ways.”

“In the same way that retail takes advantage of foot traffic, we can take advantage of concentrated industry activity in our urban locations, not just through our spaces but also through our programming, and act as the glue that convenes people, bringing them together in conductive ways, with fresh ideas and new perspectives. I think that opportunity for collaboration and co-creation is where some of our greatest potential for impact can come from.”