The Sustainable Digital Cities Forum, at UTS on 1 August, discussed the digital economy future on its way and in many ways already here. So where are the issues and how do we proceed?

The first speaker, Committee for Sydney chief executive officer Tim Williams, stated digital disruption and metropolitan IQ were linked together. Smart buildings, smart cities are words we have begun hearing over and over. Basically “smart” are systems that talk to each other, but how do we manage this in our cities?

The city is the new computer. It is the platform, the network, the space, and the interface, states Mr Williams. His major point is that we lack smart government (at least in Sydney) not smart technology. Here I would disagree. I equate smart technology also to responsible technology, which I am not sure we have achieved yet on a global scale.

Building on Mr William’s governance point, Martin Stewart-Weeks, director of CISCO International Business Solutions Group, used three “data” to explain. Commerce. Creativity. Community.  The digital dimension is disrupting each of them and the way they interact.

“Digital disrupts and deep digital disrupts deeply,” he said. “We have failed to urbanism technology”, that is, integrate technology into urban structure. Yes, we have smart buildings but how do we integrate them into spaces and fabric around the building?  His second point was how difficult it was to convince decision makers that what is happening outside their building is really happening.

Policy is having a hard time translating this into producing the high metro IQ desired.  We are fundamentally seeing the way digital disrupts work, learning, services, and governments. The life of work and way it impacts cities (office, home, and 600 other permutations of where you can work), distributed learning centres, the rise of nukes and online courses (what are cities doing to foster), services being controlled digitally (for example street lighting as a service or the apps using 3rd part data to find way around London) and government using innovation and creative hubs to solve city problems (San Francisco or Boston, for example).

In the end, the art and practice of connectedness has become a new civic capability, Ms Stewart-Weeks says. We need the people bit, to put innovation and productivity at centre, with the real outcome of making cities more resilient.

Brad Krauskopf, chief executive officer and founder of Third Spaces Group, made the compelling business case of the benefits to these “third spaces” (for example telework and hot desking).

Megan Sharkey

In the 20th century countries and institutions which leveraged their financial capital made the big money. Mr Krauskopf’s prediction is that in the 21st century leverage social capital will be where the money lies. Leveraging the knowledge capital and collaborative boom will be key. Generation Y, the me me me generation, have been “unwired” since birth, they are open to ideas that previous generations were note. If they don’t like their boss they will find a new one, job, city…they will find a new one. Mobility of talent is much easier.

By chopping up time and not space companies can save money and free space in the city for additional enterprises. The travel space of that employee frees up and dollars can be spent locally. His estimates stated that you can spend $20 a day on a space for a transient employee, but over $200 a day on a permanent place for an employee.

Mr Krauskopf believes that we can provide these third spaces effectively with affordable, key infrastructure. To this end, Sam Nickless, of GPT and board member of Liquid Space, suggested spaces above shopping centres, which may not be viable for large leasing, for an in-between home and office.

The digitisation of work place trend is changing the way we lease space and use space within the office. A lot of space can be freed by activity based working, creating disruption (that is, more space to lease) but a huge opportunity creating space for other tenants. The main issue, he says, with activity based working and the digital work age are managers finding it hard to deal with the human capital side of the equation, knowing where their employees are, if their team is doing the right work, etcetera.  He adds it is more about trust and delivering outcomes. Now spaces are 80 per cent desk/20 per cent meeting spaces but, he predicts, in the future will be reversed – 20 per cent desks/80 per cent meeting. This opens up the technology land platform – finding the right place to work.  We don’t need more office buildings, rather, finding the office space and bringing it in to trade.

So, what does this all mean for sustainability and cities. Will the digital age bring more sustainable cities? The power needed for the internet, rare earth metals, the privacy concerns over data, and what role the government should play are major concerns to discuss and navigate.

My questions are:

  • How, as sustainability professionals, do we engage in the digital revolution to maximise its benefits without creating more waste? And will this occur naturally?
  • Is technology that is smart inherently responsible (environmentally and socially, we can assume it is economically viable in general)?
  • As urban planners, what symbiosis between government and private sector is needed?  (This appears to be so much different than the past because of data sharing, privacy). How do we drive governments to keep up with technology?
  • Will digital make cities more resilient or less resilient to climate change adaptation and environmental issues?
  • What role will physical connections play in the workspace? Will physical connections become more personal whilst work connections more digital? Do we have a balance? What is sustainable?
  • How to develop the trust needed for the digital age?
  • And how do we achieve an equitable division of this digital age?

Megan Sharkey is an independent environmental and strategic sustainability planner. She is on a knowledge and action journey to whole systems sustainability currently focusing on auditing (water, energy, and EMS systems) and sharing professional development experiences with a wider audience.