“Every building and its setting is an expression of people’s decision making… and working back from that is fascinating.”
“The interesting outcome is that we all learn by sharing different perspectives.”
Marcel Colman is the facilitator of the U3APP Current Affairs class.
His background includes design, urban planning, and government policy development.
Marcel’s ongoing commitment and interest in current affairs led to him facilitating a group at U3APP about 4 years ago. Having retired, he was seeking a further outlet to pursue his interests in respect to “what factors influence decision making leading to outcomes – which is what current affairs is all about.”
Where did you spend your childhood years? Marcel’s parents individually migrated to Australia prior to the Second World War. His father from Berlin, his mother from Vienna. They met in Sydney, where Marcel and his brother spent their childhood years. Subsequent to Marcel’s father moving to Melbourne for business reasons, Marcel attended high school in Melbourne.
Did your school years in some way shape your future career? Not the school particularly but rather “a close friend at school who was also interested in the ‘built environment.’ He got me interested in looking at buildings, looking at urban form.” (used to describe a city’s physical characteristics)
So, you developed an interest in wandering around looking at buildings? “Yes. Why people built things in a particular way. My friend was also skilled at making models, so we crafted models of various buildings. Together we made a model of the South Porch of the Erechtheion (Acropolis) with those wonderful caryatids holding up the roof.
What was your particular fascination? “My own fascination was crafting and problem solving. Linking disparate things together in order to arrive at an understanding or a range of options.” Marcel and his friend would take photographs of buildings. “My father helped me buy my first camera and we would go out for hours photographing things in the environment, people, and buildings. I became more and more fascinated by the actual environment and how it is occupied and used.”
What are you referring to when you talk about the environment? “Well landscapes and buildings in particular.”
Marcel expounded his views further. “Everything you see in the built environment is a reflection of a process of decision making, by either individuals or groups. And the interesting thing is working backwards from there and coming to understand and appreciate what factors influenced those outcomes.”
Was there any particular building type that you and your friend considered particularly interesting? “We were both fascinated by Gothic style churches that operate at multi levels of influence, religious, structural, allegorical in some ways. Actually, all buildings do at some level.” Marcel makes the point that some of the well-known Gothic buildings in Europe were built and completed over a period of 500 years. “I also recall the corporate style of all those rather quirky ES&A banks that once populated our suburbs.”
“How that happened, what influences and decision making processes went on over such a long period is most interesting. When I travel, I spend much time in cities, absorbing the different granular feeling of the various cities.”
Can you describe that a little more, what do you mean by granular? “Granular embraces all the elements of what you see, feel, hear, and experience. The whole thing is a kaleidoscope of information. It adds dimensions.”
Marcel studied architecture at Melbourne University. He then completed three years of postgraduate studies in town/urban planning. Later over a period of years, Marcel pursued studies in public policy, also completing a course at RMIT in welfare economics and urban finance.
Public Policy? “Public policy is about understanding change, what are the influences and factors that lead to organisational and operational outcomes and decisions.” Marcel makes an interesting point, “what is the difference between that process and architecture? Very little… and that is what Current Affairs is all about… the process of how decisions come about and are made.”
Welfare and economics? “This involves looking at economics from a broader perspective. Looking at how intangibles can be considered in formulating an outcome. Mostly when we look at economic benefit, we limit our scope to solely focus on the dollars. But there are external factors outside of just the dollars. To really add benefit, you need to also consider impacts that are difficult to quantify. Such as what is the value of losing social connectivity if forced to relocate.”
Marcel provided an example of the Nepalese Government adopting an economic model that values units of happiness. This encompassed “a broader sense of how to define economic benefit. Welfare economics, in the same way, looks at how you put value on these difficult to quantify intangibles.”
How is this achieved? “Well, you can do a planning balance sheet and apportion value or importance to particular factors. For instance, factors and importance can be derived from interviews, what is valued and what degree of ‘trade-off’ is acceptable in proposing a particular course of action. For instance, here in Port Phillip we value the extensive infrastructure, accessibility but the trade-off is public open space, private space, visual oversight, parking, noise, etc”.
What about Housing Commission apartments, how might they get valued in this area? “At a base level you can view it as a shelter, for people in urgent need. But this can create a ‘vertical social ghetto’. It is important to appreciate the diversity of an area and the range of infrastructure that services that setting, relies on social diversity. Gentrification can be boring, we should not relocate the disadvantaged to the urban fringe!”
“I think the City of Port Phillip has done a very good job in fostering diversity. For instance, a mix of private and public developments are being considered for some housing estates. Providing low rise social housing over car parks fosters diversity and opportunity.”
Which aspect of your career have you most enjoyed, or feel you have contributed to? Marcel responded, “Well, I think it’s important to finish your career on a ‘high’ if you can. The last 6 years of my working life were a highlight. I was a manager for policy for the Victorian Government procurement reform process.”
Can you explain what that entailed? “Procurement reform had as its objective, to change the business model. For example, over the past one hundred years, the government procurement process was made on the basis of dollar value. In other words, if you bought $1,000,000 worth of gravel or widgets, you would apply set processes based on value.”
Marcel explained further, “But that approach can lead to poor outcomes. You need to align processes to the level of risk and complexity. For example, The level of risk to the government in, say, buying computer software for $100,000 that manages all the government salaries, is a much higher risk than buying $1,000,000 of widgets.”
“You need to look at your capability to undertake the process and also the risk that goes with it. So, I worked on approaches to change the mindset of how government departments engage with the market and the different processes that should come into play.”
“It was fascinating developing that methodology and working with committed staff across many departments. The change would not have come to fruition without that contribution. In a way, as I said earlier, it is no different to architectural outcomes, in identifying interrelationships, their value, and how you go about arriving at an outcome by engaging with your client, your builder, the council officer, your electrician, your carpenter, etc. I enjoyed that period in government immensely.”
You retired after that? “Well, I thought it was time to stop and do something else, but I haven’t really retired. With a friend I met at university, I continue to provide some design input on various building projects.”
Your views on architecture, buildings, in terms of renewables and sustainability? “This is a very difficult question. The complexity of how to respond to climate change, what are the low hanging branches that people immediately go for, versus the longer term aspects. Related to that issue is what responsibility does society have to assist and fund that longer term transition? That is the tricky bit. It is both an environmental question, but also a social question.”
In further discussion over progress being made in some Scandinavian countries and the importance of informing and engaging with society, Marcel noted that Vietnam has a reported “amazing education system.” He provided a favourite quote by Ho Chi Minh. “For the sake of ten years’ benefit we must plant trees. For the sake of a hundred years’ benefit we must cultivate the people.”
Let’s talk about your Current Affairs group with U3APP. “Well, my opening line is that I have learnt so much from the participants in the course. We have a group of people who bring to the table different points of view and provide material which we circulate prior to and during the session.”
Marcel describes Current Affairs as follows: “We all scan different sources, we bring that information together, we ask ourselves to consider what are the factors that influence particular outcomes or decisions.”
Which information sources are used? “There are so many information sources used by members of the group. If you assume that every person in the group has four or five information sources, then there is a potential for 50 different information sources to be considered. There is no way that I, as an individual can facilitate that. We cover a range of topics, global, national, local, that leads to informative and interesting discussions.”
How do you deal with any controversies that may arise from the discussion? Marcel clarifies this: Everyone who commits to Current Affairs 1) agrees to listen. 2) to respect everyone else’s opinion. 3) what is said in the forum, stays in the forum, confidentiality is respected.
Marcel explains that “the reason we have these three principles is that it allows people to talk, it encourages discussion, and thereby brings disparate points of view to the table. If you don’t have those three operating principles, you limit what is discussed and shared.”
“We continue to learn by sharing different perspectives.”
What are some examples of topics the group has discussed? “We have discussed issues relating to China, Ukraine, Brexit, the Middle East, social justice, politics, the Voice, We recently looked at the factors that gave prominence to the five people who died in the submersible compared to the low coverage of news of the 500 children who drowned in a boat off the Greek coast. We look at the way things are reported and why they are not reported.”
The Australian Indigenous Voice Referendum? “Well, this should not be a difficult question. However, there is some divergence of views within the group which we all respect.”
Have you observed that people change their views as a result of the discussion? “Quite often, but interestingly not necessarily at the time of the discussion. But when topics arise again, as they do, like the Ukrainian situation, Taiwan, or the American election for instance, there is a longitudinal perspective. People do modify their views and I am part of that process as well.”
Your plans for the future? “We all have to think about health, about the next generation. We should leave a better environment for them, in all the various dimensions. Contributing as best I can, is important to me, talking with others, ‘pushing the envelope’. We should all have an ethical view of life, where everyone counts.”
Where did you go on your recent travels? “Julie (Julie Butcher, Marcel’s wife) and I travelled to Lyon in France then on to Madrid and Porto, also to fascinating places outside of these main centres. Segovia is a wonderful university town outside of Madrid. Salamanca, by the border of Portugal and Spain, is also a wonderful university town, with a real buzz about it.”
“One of the highlights was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The scenery is wonderful, the town is very pedestrian interspersed by a number of art nouveau buildings. This is a country that has only been independent for 50+ years. One can feel how proud the locals are.”
“A travel tip; seek out the university city or district, whether it be in Berlin, Budapest or Ljubljana. It is there that the urban setting is enriched by the social texture.”
Your other interests? Marcel laughed as he noted, “I am married to a family that has golf in their genes! I also play golf badly, but one of the nice things about golf is that they have a system called Handicap, which allows one to continue playing and not having to sell one’s clubs on eBay!”
Your views on U3A, in general? “I think the U3A operates on two important levels. It is a social collective, which has an educational component to it. These two aspects work together very well.”
Marcel has also facilitated a number of recent U3APP Saturday Seminars.
Marcel is committed to facilitating discussion with others, and to examining the various processes which underpin final outcomes. His fascination with “working backwards” then forwards, with a longitudinal perspective is refreshing. In that it relates to, Current Affairs, urban planning and unequivocally, to the iconic beauty of Gothic Cathedrals, envisioned and completed over a period of 500 years.
Felicity May interviewed Marcel Colman