Canberra 2020: World Information Capital

By Tom Worthington

These items were posted to newsgroups, 6 June 1993. An edited version of the first appeared in Informatics Magazine, September 1993.


Canberra 2020: World Information Capital

Input to the ACT Government's 2020 Study

The following is a fictional history of Canberra in the year 2020. It is intended as a contribution to the ACT Government's 2020 study:

On the second of February 2020, United Nations headquarters was officially moved to the Australian Capital Territory and Canberra became the world capital. The date was chosen for symbolic reasons, being 0202-2020 in the new millennium date format. Real power had moved to Canberra many years before.

How did this quiet inland city, with a population of less than half a million, become the seat of world government? The origins can be traced back to the 1960's with the start of the information age and the computer. Australia's scientists were quick to grasp the power of the digital computer and it's bureaucrats were not far behind.

Trevor Pearcy House, built in the late 1980's and named in honour of one of Australia's computer pioneers, was declared Australia's first National Technology Shrine in 1999. However Trevor Pearcy House is now dwarfed by the adjacent Don Overhue Data Centre.

The Don Overhue Data Centre, only reaches Canberra's current building limit of 9 floors above ground, but extends fifty floors into the earth. The centre's name commemorates a contemporary of Trevor Pearcy, and one of the rare computer pioneers combining a distinguished career in academia, with innovative work in government computing.

The turning point for Canberra came in 1992, with two seemingly unrelated events: the selection of Australia for a world computer conference and its participation in a United Nations peace keeping operation in Cambodia. From the dawn of computing, Canberra had been the home of world class computer innovators. However until these two events their talents had gone largely unknown outside the closeted halls of the Canberra government.

In 1992 the Australian Computer Society, was selected to host the IFIP World Computer Congress for 1996. In 1993 the ACS made a bold announcement: the conference would not be held just in Canberra, but on a global data network. That is, while most delegates would still travel to Canberra, much of the actual conference would be held over a digital computer network.

The concept was at first met with horror from Canberra's tourist industry, which feared that the several thousand delegates, given a choice would stay home and participate by computer terminal. Much of the computer industry, while willing to sell the technology to customers, expressed scepticism about actually using it for a conference.

However within a few weeks a broad alliance of IT professionals, bureaucrats, industry and political leaders had formed a bold plan to vastly increase Canberra's telecommunications infrastructure. It was discovered that most of the gorundwork for the needed infrastructure was already in place, or planned for Canberra.

During 1993 Canberra's Universities had planned an increase in their data capacity on the Australian Academic Research Network (AARnet). It was found that these plans could be expanded, with a modest amount of extra government and industry funding, to provide the bandwidth needed for the conference.

The Australian National University at Fenner Hall in 1993, had already cabled each student room so it had direct access to AARnet, and through AARnet to the global computer network. This was used as the model for an ambitions plan which lead to all Canberra hotel rooms being equipped for network access by 1996.

The ACT Telecommunications Plan, proposed by the ACS in 1992, was finally introduced by the ACT Assembly on 1 January 1995. This was just in time to coordinate the one hundred-fold increase in local telecommunications capacity installed that year.

By 1996 the actual computer conference was somewhat of an anti-climax. The hastily convened "New-Religion" world conference had been held using the facilities the year before. With 6,000 local delegates and an estimated worldwide participation of 6,000,000 this was the first of many Canberra based network events.

The rise of Canberra as a location of UN administration was, in hindsight to be expected. With the success of the Cambodia elections the first commander of a permanent UN military force was appointed in 1995. The new UN commander's New York headquarters rapidly became overcrowded. The brisk rise of the Asian economies forced a shift of global power across the Pacific. Canberra's success as a world networking node made it the natural location for the new UN military headquarters.

Some concern was expressed that former UN Secretary General Gareth Evens and retired UN Supreme Commander, Field Marshall John Sanderson (both Australians) may have influenced the decision. However the costs projections were convincing. By using the existing telecommunications infrastructure, UN operations could be directed more efficiently from Canberra in 1996, than any other city on earth.

As the functions of the new UN grew, more were transferred to Canberra. The Don Overheu Data Centre at Fern Hill Technology Park, became the hub of all UN operations. Many staff elected to stay in their home country and "tele-commute" to Canberra. As a result there was only a moderate increase in Canberra's population and little change in the city's physical character.

By 2020 about the only obvious change in the nature of the city was the decrease in the use of private cars (by now mostly electric). Many commuted to work by electric tram (some built as replicas of Canberra's original trolley buses). However most people made a ten minute walk to their local suburban tele-commuting centre, like millions world wide. Few paused to thank Canberra's foresighted planners for the network of pedestrian paths linking each neighbourhood centre, or realised that they were originally designed for children to walk to school.

NOTE: The above is fictional, except for the following:

Tom Worthington
Director of the Community Affairs Board Fax: +61 6 2496419
Australian Computer Society Inc. Internet:
G.P.O. Box 446, Canberra A.C.T. 2601, Australia


Canberra in the Year 2020 Study: Call for IT Professionals to get Involved

In the following postings you will find an announcement of a public meeting: "What should Canberra be like in the year 2020" and two reports from the "Canberra in the Year 2020" Study. Also attached is my own version of Canberra's future history: "Canberra 2020: World Information Capital".

You will note from the preliminary 2020 report that the study is using the Australian made "Grouputer" groupware computer. This is an interesting device with one screen, but multiple keyboards.

The study could do with much more computer and telecommunications content. I urge all ACS members and other IT professionals, with an interest in Canberra and the future, to participate. I suspect the future is a lot closer than many people realise.

Tom Worthington (, Director of the Community Affairs Board, Australian Computer Society Inc.


Public meeting: "What should Canberra be like in the year 2020"

Canberra in the Year 2020 Study Meeting: Tuesday 8 June 1993, 6.00-8.00pm

Tuesday 8 June 1993, 6.00-8.00pm Lecture Room 2B11 (Building 2) University of Canberra.

The meeting, to be hosted by Matthew Abraham of radio station 2CN, will seek public comment about what Canberra should be like in 2020. The meeting follows a week of discussion on the topic on Matthew Abraham`s morning Show.

Comments and ideas put forward at the meeting will form important inputs to the ACT Government's 2020 Study. The Government intends to present a report on strategic directions for Canberra in August this year.

Present at the meeting will be Dr Peter Ellyard, the Chair of the 2020 Reference Group formed by the Government to seek community input to the study, and members of the Reference Group.

Members, of the public are invited to attend the meeting. Parking is available from the Ginninderra Drive entrance to the University.

For further details contact Rod Burgess, phone 06 2050619.
Posted by Tom Worthington (, Director of the Community Affairs Board, Australian Computer Society Inc.

Further Information

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2000.