On Green Design with Jess Miller

On Green Design with Jess Miller

Jess Miller works hard for Sydney. If being the city's youngest ever Deputy Lord Mayor isn't enough, she's also a Program Director at the Republic of Everyone, connecting businesses and governments to create a future worth living in. Her achievements are many*, her insights valuable, and her impact strong...

*Activist, writer and public speaker. Curated TEDxSydney's Food Program for three years running. Co-founded GreenUp Sustainability Drinks, Grow It Local and the Elizabeth Street Gallery. Is a Weleda Biodiversity Ambassador. Sits on the Parents Advisory Group of The Parenthood. Was voted Sydney Electorate's woman of the year in 2014. Award winner from Good Design and Australian Event Awards. Once grew a veggie patch outside Melbourne Town Hall. Tired yet?

On the catalyst for activism...

Getting involved in things is often a symptom of who you hang out with, and when I first moved to Sydney I didn't know anyone. I'd been living in Sao Paulo in Brazil which is epic and dirty and polluted, so the one thing I wanted to do when I moved here was gardening.

I grew up on a herb farm and just needed to connect with like-minded people. I found these lovely hippies and we made some permaculture gardens. A girl in particular I knew from Sydney was a radical activist – I was like 'I need some friends and this seems fun', and so I got into it too. It started from stopping coal mining in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley and progressed from there, where I learned some really valuable organisation and communication skills. This was around the same time as the social media boom, where it was freely available and no one knew how to use it, but we didn't have any money so I got pretty good at using that. This eventually got me a job with some ad guys who hated making ads to sell people more stuff, so we teamed up and have been working with each other ever since... that's the Republic of Everyone.

The smart brands who 'get it' are saying 'the writing is on the wall and we need to understand or adapt or we'll no longer be relevant'. 

Jess Miller
Left: Melbourne rooftop garden project. Right: Photo by Toby Peet

On being the youngest ever Councillor for the City of Sydney...

It wasn't something I had expected or thought 'that's the thing I'm going to do'. I'd worked with the city on quite a few projects; some of them were creative endeavours (like the Elizabeth Street Gallery), others had more to do with sustainability (like the Garage Sale Trail). There was an alignment of values with a lot of what Clover Moore had done with the city, so I got to know the team, they asked if I'd like to help out with the campaign (I was like 'yeah sure I'm happy to help out with flyers') and it sort of progressed from there. I was at the bottom of the ticket, which is a good place to be if you're not heavily politically ambitious, but we had an incredible majority win so I think everyone on the ticket got in on their quotas...so here I am.

I've definitely been thrown in the deep end. You have to learn a little about everything because you're making decisions about everything. You find yourself reading budgets and understanding development processes and grants and homelessness and young people and old people and the environment...but the most interesting thing is understanding how things work and meeting people

We know how to build green walls up to 100 stories, we know that biophilia can decrease depression and has strong learning results in children, but without the glue to stick everyone's experiences together and make it understandable, we're kind of stuffed.

Jess Miller

On the 202020* vision...

*An initiative by Horticulture Innovation Australia and The Republic of Everyone to make Sydney urban areas 20% greener by 2020. 

This one is my favourite. It was a brief designed for me because it's about selling more plants and trees. We have an amazing team of people working on that project, and an amazing client in Horticulture Innovation Australia. They aggregate funds from the nursery and garden industry, so every time you sell a tree there's a 'pot levy' that is pulled together.

The brief was to understand the context by which plants and trees are sold and sell more of them. One of the first things we realised is that it's really difficult to do that without a benchmark, so we mapped out urban canopy and permeability back in 2013. Since then we've lost about 2.1% (or 180,000 MCGs worth) of our canopy. We also discovered Sydney's hottest areas are populated by our most vulnerable (over 65s, or those who don't have the means to keep the air conditioning on all week, for example). This is a legacy design flaw and something we'll have to get used to in the future.

My dad thinks it's hilarious because I used to kick and scream when he dragged me to sell plants at the market on the weekends, and he'll ask 'what are you doing now' and I'll say 'selling plants and trees'. He's like 'well...sucked in'.

Jess Miller

The response to the brief was to adopt a 'collective impact' or 'shared value' program, which involves communicating the benefits, benchmarking, working with a lot of researchers to understand how canopy and green space is tracking over time. We forged a collaboration with 400 network partners all over the country, we've been running a really successful B2B government stream, and we're about to move into the consumer space, so that's going to be really exciting to start talking to people (as opposed to just businesses and governments). 

On convincing governments that green is best...

The bigger the company, the longer it takes. It's hard because the bigger you are the more vertical the structure and the harder it is to make those changes. But when you are at a point where there is really strong leadership, the changes can happen quickly. The innovation and companies/organisations who are more nimble are the ones doing the more interesting stuff, it's really at the cafe/retail/startup level where we're seeing new ideas coming, and I suppose what we do as an agency is try and foster those connections and look for ways they can support each other for really good outcomes.

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