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April 20, 2015

Moments in time #10: City of the far-flung Future

Our city has a history. Sure, it’s not especially long or hugely interesting history – but it has its moments. These are them.

  • Words and pictures: Owen Lindsay

Imagine looking out of your window right now and seeing a dense city landscape humming with reams of glowing neon signs, criss-crossed by bullet trains gliding silently from station to station, and inhabited by ramen bars on every corner.

No, you haven’t been teleported to faraway Tokyo: this is Adelaide as it may have been – if only we’d built the Multifunction Polis.


The awfully, awfully named Multifunction Polis was first dreamed up in the late 1980s. (‘Polis’ being the Greek term for ‘city’, and ‘multifunction’ the English term for ‘meaningless buzzword’.) A joint project between the Australian and Japanese governments, the basic idea was to build a ‘city of the future’ somewhere in our country. The Japanese would bring the smarts, experts, and technology, and the Australians would be in charge of telling everyone to watch out for kangaroos when it got to twilight.

The Polis was to be a village that not only showcased a vision of how far-flung 21st century cities would look, but was also to function as a regional hub of scientific innovation, education, and production. Eventually 250,000 people were to call themselves residents of the Multifunction Polis – or Polisfolk, as we speculate they may have dubbed themselves. There would almost definitely have been giant robots there too.

Nearly every state in Australia participated in the fierce competition to be the one chosen to host the Polis. This was an opportunity not only for the winning state to attract enormous investment, but also for the country as a whole to show that we were more than just Paul Hogan. Australia, we wanted to bellow out to the world, was a high-tech wonderland of the future. Naturally, the location eventually selected was a swamp 12km north of Adelaide.

It was an inauspicious start, and the project quickly ran into other troubles: There was great confusion as to what the Polis would actually do; there was domestic opposition from people who feared (with a cheery whiff of xenophobia) that the Japanese would fail to integrate socially; and there were concerns about the environmental impact that such a large-scale development would have upon our precious northern bog region.

Probably mercifully, the project ran into budgetary problems when in the early 1990s both Japan and Australia dipped into recession. It was quietly shelved alongside other harebrained projects beginning with M. For most of the 90s, the Multifunction Polis skulked about South Australia like the last, lingering guest at a party – before being declared officially kaput by Premier John Olsen in 1998. It had been a wild ride lasting just over a decade, and had cost Australian taxpayers about $150 million.

Still, if the experience taught us nothing else, it’s that ‘polis’ means ‘city’ in Greek. We are confident that this $150 million investment will come in handy in the very near future.

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