Smart Cities Week 2016 in Washington DC

Smart Cities Week, hosted last week for the second year in a row in Washington DC by the Smart Cities Council, was a week-long celebration for the smart cities movement.

And it started with a clear message: “Know your city.”

The message came from Archana Vemulapalli, chief technology officer from Washington DC, who was responding to the question: “Where do you start with smart cities?”

Alongside Vemulapalli, her counterparts from the cities of Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dubai were in attendance to showcase efforts in their respective cities, recognising the role of technology, data and intelligent design in driving sustainable outcomes. And to advance their mission even further, they launched a new initiative called the Global City CIOs network. This would be the first of many announcements and commitments made during the week.

The Smart Cities Council made its own announcement, launching the Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge, offering five workshops to be delivered to five different cities in 2017 through a competitive application process with local government.

“This challenge will help five cities get ready for innovation, ready for inclusivity, and ready for smart cities investment”, Smart Cities Council chair Jesse Berst said. Watch for a similar program to be launched in Australia later this year.

The week also kicked off with the City of New York and more than 20 partner cities around the US announcing new guidelines for the Internet of Things, providing a framework “to help government and our partners responsibly deploy connected devices and IoT technologies in a coordinated and consistent manner”.

The guidelines’ subtitle – Better. Faster. More Equitable – is also a clear indicator of where the big city sees the role of technology and connectivity, which is to focus on sustainability outcomes.

The Washington Post hosted an industry luncheon, where Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto spoke of his city’s recent trial of autonomous vehicles in partnership with Uber and Google. He said of the trial that “the greater goal is to make our streets safer”.

“We have to begin somewhere, and we can’t let regulation catch up to innovation”.

And the announcements kept coming, but none more exciting than the White House Smart Cities Initiative. First launched at Smart Cities Week in 2015, with US$170 million committed to an array of smart cities partnerships, programs, projects and labs, an additional $80m was further committed for 2017. New programs include building greater prosperity in low income communities, partnerships for innovation, smart and connected health research, and big data regional innovation hubs. This is a great example of national leadership, that sends a strong message to the private sector, and other tiers of government, to co-invest.

Among the arsenal of announcements, there were two solid days of conference sessions that saw more than 140 people present on everything from internet-enabled urban design strategies to smart cities financing models, and from compassionate data-driven neighbourhood programs to smart grids.

The 1500-strong delegates at Smart Cities Week were not disappointed, as they filled the conference sessions and the exhibit hall. And if you were to take a slice through the audience, you would have found technologists, engineers, social scientists, researchers, financiers, politicians and planners.

Catering for this ever-diversifying movement continues to be a challenge, but at the same time exciting. When healthcare nonprofits are showing up at your conference to hear about the role of data in helping better the lives of young homeless teenagers, you know you are shepherding the smart cities discussion in the right direction.

Likewise, the sellout of all five pre-conference workshops was a clear indicator of the appetite for more knowledge and exchange. Workshops covering the topics as diverse as district utilities, internet of things enabled frameworks, smart city readiness, and local government smart cities metrics were all snapped up.

But it was the White House’s announcement that is of particular interest for me, and should also be for Australia, as the federal government scopes its $50m Smart Cities and Suburbs program.

With a recent road tour of roundtables, the foundations are being set for the federal government’s first major play in piloting and accelerating the smart cities marketplace, and its role in delivering sustainable outcomes for our cities.

Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand has been working closely with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to ensure the lessons learned from the work of the White House and its partners, and also the smart cities work in Europe, can inform the design of the Smart Cities and Suburbs program.

The importance of local government leveraging private sector support, through collaborative governance arrangements, must underpin the program’s core principles. Setting an early research agenda, and establishing a measurable evaluation process based on rigorous sustainability metrics must also be integrated. Using this program as a pilot, to then inform the broader structural investment and reform opportunities through City Deals, must be fundamental.

But most critically, cities must be ready – ready for innovation, ready for collaborative partnerships, ready for inclusivity and ready for investment. And this is not easy at times. Just receiving the funding doesn’t mean the city has established the conditions for optimum success. Mindsets, rules, regulations, politics and siloed operational functions are often cited as the key barriers to successful sustainability outcomes.

For this reason, Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, with the world’s largest network of smart cities policy makers and practitioners behind it, stands ready to support government of all tiers in Australia, as well as represent the interests of the private sector, and embrace the non-profit sector as a critical partner.

The stage is set, and Australia’s smart cities future looks bright. But only if, and when, we focus on the sustainability outcomes of our cities.

Adam Beck is executive director of Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand.