Melbourne owes its status as the world's most liveable city to its creative, adventurous culture and strong talent pool.

Melbourne boasts a cosmopolitan city centre, multicultural suburbs, great public transport and cutting-edge architecture. But it is the city's social assets that deserve the credit for its international reputation as a centre of design excellence, says one of its most respected architects.

Ian McDougall is a founding director of Melbourne's ARM Architecture. The firm was this year awarded the country's highest award for architecture, the Institute of Architects' gold medal, and is currently working on several prestigious projects around Australia, including the redesign of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

Cultural consciousness

"Melbourne architects are very knowledgeable and well educated, which is to do with quality of the city's universities and their teaching,'' says McDougall.

"But there's no point in having great architects if they can't get people to employ them.  Melbourne's big asset is a very highly developed cultural consciousness - a learned and cultural climate that sponsors architects to try things out.''

He cites Melbourne's visually striking new A$1 billion Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, designed by Melbourne architects McBride Charles Ryan, as a prime example.

"There you have a highly educated client and a very ambitious architect working together to create a really amazing outcome.''

Learning from mistakes

Ironically, the roots of Melbourne's architectural success may lie partly in its failures, says McDougall.

"In our experience at ARM, being able to experiment and to learn - to try projects that are buildable and affordable, yet really out there - comes from Melbourne's adventurous, confident architectural patronage.

"Not every building in Melbourne is great. People cut their teeth by experimenting, and learn from their mistakes. That is tolerated in Melbourne, whereas in other cities and parts of Southeast Asia there is not room for that learning process.''

Opera House

McDougall credits the foresight of the Melburnians who allowed ARM to work on technically challenging Melbourne projects such as Hamer Hall and the Recital Centre for the firm being selected to redesign national treasure, the Opera House.

"It was on the basis of that work that we were chosen to fix up this world icon, which has never performed properly. We weren't looking for the project, they contacted us and said will you come help us fix up the Opera House?"

Exporting excellence

McDougall lists a string of Melbourne firms – including Fender Katsalidis, McBride Charles Ryan, ARM and Lyons Architects – currently working on major projects elsewhere in the country.

"Internationally, the same thing happens. We have firms such as Denton Corker Marshall, which are recognised around the world.

"One of the big things now occurring is that these design studios are becoming exporters of design skill into Asia and the rest of the world as well. Not just tech skills but innovation in design at the widest level, and that is only going to grow.

"There is a next generation coming through, doing a lot of international work from Melbourne rather than just setting up an office in Asia. There is a big growth in studios broadcasting ideas into Asia from here.''

Big things ahead

McDougall is very proud of what ARM has achieved from humble beginnings in shared space in 1986, and he is just as excited about the future.

"We've just got some younger directors in. They've just come back from India, and we are looking to expand there. We're also working on the Opera House, the Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza, and the Commonwealth Games village and the Cultural Precinct on the Gold Coast.

"Seeing a project start to take shape is terrific. When I go onto site during construction I still think, 'Oh wow, this is actually working'."

Cities of the future

Property consultancy Urbis is leveraging Melbourne's talent pool to build the socially vibrant cities of the future.

The over-arching goal at Urbis, which plays a key role in shaping modern communities across the southern hemisphere, is to "expose clients to fresh ideas and thinking", says Peter Holland, Urbis director and a recognised global expert in the retail sector.

"The skills that exist in this country are incredibly high, and incredibly transferable," says Holland.

"There is something very pragmatic and respectful about how Australians operate, and that appeals to overseas clients."

Bright local minds with a global vision

Collecting bright minds to develop and innovate at a global level is a central tenet of how Urbis operates, which means quality recruitment and retention is a key priority for the firm.

Originally a land evaluation practice, Urbis has evolved through decades of growth to now offer a broader range of strategic and master planning services for cities and communities taking on projects of any size.

Skills exchange in Singapore

With projects in cities across the southern hemisphere that range from new residential to urban redesign, Urbis believes working together with the key stakeholders that shape these cities is vital to creating a strong society, says Peter Small, Urbis regional director

Government partnerships in particular have been strategically important.

"In Victoria, they've provided new design guidelines that respond to how our cities are growing, encouraging an evolution that will result in more economically, socially vibrant cities in the future."