Investigating the Future of Urban Living: The Exchange at Knowledge Market

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The Exchange at Knowledge Market was an interdisciplinary living lab and a research partnership between and RMIT University in Melbourne and Lendlease, an international property and infrastructure group. For a period of 18 months, a team of designers, social scientists and students were embedded at Victoria Harbour in the Docklands, a major urban regeneration project at the edge of Melbourne’s central district, leading a series of design studios, research projects and public engagement activities. The area presented specific challenges: Melbourne’s Docklands had long suffered a poor reputation as a place to visit, especially in the evenings and on the weekends, when it was perceived as lacking liveliness and character. Lendlease had been running the Knowledge Market as a dedicated learning hub for Melbourne’s growing knowledge sector, connecting the precinct’s residents, workers and visitors with ideas and experiences.

Activating Victoria Harbour

The Exchange at Knowledge Market project (henceforth: The Exchange) began in 2017 with the goal to activate Victoria Harbour. Industry partner Lendlease wanted to draw people to the area, give them a reason to visit and explore: they wanted to enliven the precinct in ways that extended beyond the existing retail and restaurant outlets. Victoria Harbour is furthermore characterised by its distinctive built form which houses corporate headquarters and high-rise apartment complexes. These forms of contemporary architecture are defined by the creation of complete interior environments that provide a range of amenities within the building itself. This sets up a clearly defined barrier between the activities of the occupants within the buildings and their engagement with the surrounding street life.

The team from RMIT University saw a valuable opportunity to offer a unique, real-world learning experience for their students. It also wanted to bring design and ethnographic research about this area of Melbourne directly into design studio teaching that responded to the Victoria Harbour precinct. Located in an 80m2 shopfront facing a local park, The Exchange was envisioned as an attempt to draw people to Victoria Harbour by creating more activity at different times of day and night. It took a unique approach to activating the urban area, combining design ethnographic research with talks, public events, and design studios focusing on designing urban futures that were based in the everyday lived experiences of people occupying the area.

Design Ethnographic Research Informing Living Lab Activities

A series of linked design ethnographicresearchprojects focused on the view and aspirations of the local community, with particular attention to how they made use of and understood their relationship with its buildings and places. In this way, the team were able to consider propositions for intervention or change that worked with what people were already doing or what they valued, rather than trying to impose completely new ways of behaving or unfamiliar understandings of the city. Ethnographic research then informed the design of all activities delivered at The Exchange, which were thus based in the concrete lived experiences of people in Victoria Harbour.

The activities included a full year of RMIT student design studios that investigated and designed for urban futures, using Victoria Harbour as a living lab for their work: this meant taking the learning and teaching process outside of the University lecture halls.  Public workshops, forums and other events engaged directly with the community, and that brought a range of experts to speak on some of the challenges facing cities today. Through the public lecture series, prominent design practitioners shared their insights with an audience made up of students, residents and professional practitioners, while the exhibition program, associated with various Melbourne festivals, attracted diverse crowds to The Exchange and brought their unique outlook to ideas concerning the development of the city.

Collaborating across Sectors and Disciplinary Boundaries

As it developed, The Exchange took shape as an adaptable venue that could cater for a multitude of events: the program of activities clearly demonstrated what is possible when the activation of an urban area grows from the specific conditions of a place without overly strict constraints. To allow for an organic, bottom-up development and growth of the living lab, the project team developed an embedded and site-specific model, where the research, teaching, and design studios were taken outside of academia and students and researches were able to immerse themselves in the precinct and understand it as “insiders”. The project also took an inherently interdisciplinary approach, relying on close collaboration amongst project leaders with disciplinary strengths in design, creative practice and social science, which led to a creative and innovation-oriented working culture. The Exchange also differed from more conventional ways of conducting ‘commissioned’ research, which often includes outcomes determined from the beginning of a contractual relationship. Because the project’s suite of outcomes were not all entirely predictable, the university and industry partners had to rely on the development of trust and a strong spirit of collaboration.

The concluding event at the Exchange took place in June 2019, with the launch of the project’s book The Exchange at Knowledge Market: An Urban Living Lab (Ross McLeod, Shanti Sumartojo, Charles Anderson, Natasha Sutila, Sean Hogan, 2019) and short film The Exchange at Knowledge Market (Sirap Motion Lab) in June 2019. These outputs explain the project’s living lab model for others to adopt and take forward.

This blog article is written with reference to a good practice case study report prepared as part of the Erasmus+ University City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) Project and with reference to the project’s recently published book The Exchange at Konwledge Market: An Urban Living Lab (Ross McLeod, Shanti Sumartojo, Charles Anderson, Natasha Sutila, Sean Hogan, 2019).

Featured image by: Tobias Titz