“Hack” Fed Square

By Meg Hill

As Heritage Victoria deliberated on Federation Square and the state government worked on the public consultation process for its review, the square’s management invited the public to help co-design its future. 

Hack Fed Square was co-hosted by Federation Square and Marketing Entourage on May 24-25 as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. 

Interested members of the public were placed into teams and given eight hours to solve one of a few key questions, including: 

How can we ensure Fed Square remains one of Melbourne’s key cultural landmarks and iconic meeting places – a space where creativity, curiosity and inspiration collide?

At the end of the eight hours, the teams pitched ideas to a judging panel.

Criteria assessed civic and cultural value, brand alignment, engagement and financial sustainability.

“Essentially Fed Square isn’t funded, so what we’re looking for is the idea or experience to be financially viable, so people use their disposable income in the area,” the emcee said at the publicly accessible pitch event. 

Teams presented visions of augmented realities (AR), immersive AR experiences, interactive artistic solutions, giant walkways, event communications and more.

But for well over a year, in the dispute over a proposed Apple store in the square and the square’s future more broadly, the premise of private funding for a “public space” was criticised by community activists.

When it became clear that the Apple store was not going ahead, even Federation Square CEO Jonathon Tribe told The Age the square should receive government funding.

One of the reasons the Apple decision was so controversial was its surprise nature. There was no community consultation.

Announced at the beginning of the year when Apple abandoned its plans, the government is now putting together a community consultation process as part of the review of Federation Square.

The Federation Square Review project director Unni Menon said consultation would take place “with industry and community stakeholders” in the next few months, putting together recommendations for consideration by the government and square management.

“The review will focus on public attitudes towards the public space, ideas on how it might be used in the future to benefit Victorians and visitors, opinions on increasing public engagement and the precinct’s connectivity to other adjacent landscapes and precinct,” he said.

There are two key streams to the review. One focusing on finance and governance and the other on the use of the public space and buildings at Federation Square.

The government has said that the funding model will be considered as part of this, but what that will look like is still unclear. A tinkering of different commercial models? Or a dedication of public money for a public place?

Will the government’s community consultation mimic management’s "hack", asking members of the public to work with the premise of financial viability?

Our City Our Square, the community group that led public opposition to the Apple store, always rejected the premise. Its spokesperson Brett De Hoedt told CBD News in April that the idea of Federation Square losing money was false to begin with. 

“Federation Square runs at a deficit of four million dollars. That’s the cost of four average Melbourne homes,” he said. 

Mr De Hoedt compared the square to other public spaces; would we expect the Royal Botanic Gardens’ existence to rely on them making a profit on its own?

The gardens are mostly funded by the Victorian Government with other sources to supplement that funding, including grants, donations and fund-generating programs.

Heritage Victoria’s decision on Fed Square should be announced by August and all indications point towards a heritage approval, which could help with the push for government funding.

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