Adam Beck has just returned from Smart Cities Week in Washington DC, where he chaired one of the sessions. The opportunities for smart cities are unrelenting, he says, and at their heart is social benefit.

The article title read “Australian cities in no hurry to become smart”. Asked if Australian cities were dragging their heels compared with others around the world, Cisco chief executive John Chambers said: “You run a risk if you don’t make a move.” The article was run in the Sydney Morning Herald in late 2014, which clearly profiled the mood at the time of the Smart Cities agenda in Australia.

With a Minister for Cities now in place, could Australia be ready to put its grown-up pants on and join the global Smart Cities movement?

That’s a bit harsh, let me reframe my question: Could a Minister for Cities lead and facilitate a structured national dialogue on the role the Smart Cities agenda could play in helping Australia be more liveable, prosperous and productive?

I have just been in Washington DC at Smart Cities Week, the inaugural conference of the Smart Cities Council, which is seeking to promote a movement that helps create smart, sustainable cities with high-quality living and high-quality jobs. Over 1000 people came together to share, network, learn, debate, disrupt and procure.

The weeklong series of events kicked off with US President Barack Obama announcing a new $160 million Smart Cities Initiative for the nation, looking to research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations that will help local communities tackle a number of urban challenges. This includes digging deep on solutions for reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate and improving the delivery of city services – just some of the fundamentals that help improve liveability and productivity.

The sustainable city is a smart city

And the Smart Cities agenda continues to emerge as a key accelerant for sustainable cities. A recent resource guide produced by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network titled “Getting Smart About Smart Cities” highlights the intersection of technology, innovation and sustainability. This guide has been developed to support government leaders in achieving their sustainability goals.

Of particular focus is the opportunity for those working within government and industry who are responsible for identifying and implementing greenhouse gas emission reduction activities. As cited in the guide, a recent study from GeSi, “Smarter 2020”, identifies big data and information communication technology tools as potentially helping secure 9.1 gigatonnes in GHG reductions, delivering $1.9 trillion in financial savings. Additional opportunities have been identified in the power sector, green building operation, transportation management and water efficiency, among others.

But without social benefit, the Smart Cities agenda fails. And this was at the heart of a panel session I co-curated and co-chaired with Patty Durand from the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative at Smart Cities Week. During the session, which featured Harriett Tregoning (principal deputy assistant secretary for community planning and development at US Department of Housing and Urban Development), there was much discussion around the social benefits of the Smart Cities agenda and its ability to improve liveability and prosperity for communities across developed and developing countries.

Some of my tweets from the session provide an insight into the discussion that unfolded, as many Smart Cities “traditionalists” caught sight of the interconnected opportunities their “widgets and wares” provide when designed and delivered as a social driver for change.

Lost in translation, but change is imminent

The last tweet above quoting Harriet on the Smart Cities focus to date is where the opportunity now lies. To date, globally, the vendor’s have shown up, but with the wrong message. Buy my widget, please, Mr Mayor. It’s been top down. And as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald article, John Chambers stated, “If a political leader is not so excited about [technology] then I go sell somewhere else.”

Long time Smart Cities expert, Dr Boyd Cohen, identifies this approach as Smart Cities 1.0, the era when technology companies pushed their solutions onto government. Smart Cities 1.0 was an approach, in hindsight, destined to fail.

A more “corrected” approach is currently upon us, Smart Cities 2.0, in which cities are taking the lead in identifying the technology they need to be smarter. The idea of technology as an enabler of smarter cities, led by the city administration, as opposed to technology vendors emerged.

The hiring of chief innovation officers has been a sign of this, providing the City with the capacity and expertise to engage more proactively in the Smart Cities agenda.

However, what is more exciting is the emergence of a more “people-centred Smart Cities 3.0, where the citizenship co-creates the technological and non-technological solutions for more sustainable cities. It’s as much about the approach as it is the technology, although technology is key. But it is about people, first and foremost. And this is where Australia could lead.

The next thing for Australia – showing up

President Obama is showing up. Industry is rallying. Wallets are opening, innovators are primed and outcomes are imminent. Although a rocky start to this emerging movement, President Obama has put a stake in the ground, and sent a signal. His recent announcement at Smart Cities Week was about showing up, with money, and with partnerships in play. This is leadership from a national government in unleashing one of but many tools for creating more sustainable cities.

Is Australia showing upon Smart Cities? I’m not sure. I don’t think so – well not to date anyway. And showing up matters. But showing up in a meaningful way means a partnership approach. Signals and seeding from government, a patient private sector willing to co-invest and our citizen-based entrepreneurs ready to unleash creativity.

Without putting too much on Minister Briggs’ plate too soon, I encourage he assemble a group to advise on the unrelenting opportunity the Smart Cities agenda has in creating a more prosperous, liveable and sustainable Australia.

Adam Beck is director of innovation at EcoDistricts, and an advisor to the Washington DC-based Smart Cities Council.

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  1. There is a future and a generational opportunity to ‘carpe diem’ today, by embracing a collaborative enterprise involving Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic & Political constituency framework. Social would be the overarching component throughout the enterprise, whether within a major city, township or community precinct. Social and collaborative outcomes will provide smarter contributors, products and serviced applications.

    Interconnectivity in/of cities & communities, requires worlds best delivery service, to optimise socially effective outcomes for all participants. The present NBN delivery model will not properly service 21st century needs.

    Hope we’ll move on from “building the roads of the 21st century” towards “building the super connectivity highways of the 21st century” Go Oz Go!