Our landscapes are precious. They feed us, protect us and produce the fibre to clothe us. They regulate the environment, temperature and air quality. They provide us a connection to nature, bringing health and happiness. Could this living infrastructure be the most important investment any city or town can make? Possibly.

I’m not a landscaper, or a landscape architect, but I do know about building sustainable neighbourhoods and cities. I also know about the benefits in collecting and analysing data for the purposes of making better, more sustainable decisions.

And recently, I have been concerned at the lack of quality data used in shaping critical planning strategies for our cities and regions around Australia. National data collected every five years can tell us a lot. But does it tell us what’s really happening? The website of the Australian Bureau of Statistics purports that the census “tells us about our way of life and helps us plan for the future”. Yeah, maybe.

As I laid in my Sydney hotel room on census night (I live in Brisbane) filling out the paper version of the survey, I thought to myself: is this really asking me the right questions? Will they have any idea of what I did today; how I live my life? Do they know I no longer have a landline phone, gobble up about 10GB of data a day, and use ride share over taxis? I am rarely in a car, instead preferring bus and rail. With a passion, I try to avoid driving. On an average day, I spend more time working from a café, or another public space, than my office space. My energy bill continues to shrink. What do these habits say, about our citizens, for planning cities?

So, I wonder, is anyone joining the dots? Or better, are they understanding the connections? Of course, I’m throwing myself a Dorothy Dixer there! And I understand it’s not the job of the ABS to ask all of these questions.

However, my point is about data granularity. Take the recent Infrastructure Partnerships Australia report providing an analysis of Uber data. Here we have a case of real-time, granular data taking a pulse of what’s really going on. This has provided the platform for new metrics to be developed. It is allowing us to move from just “having data” to a position of having “situational intelligence”.

But this is not just about real-time data, but also the intelligent design behind the platform – the technology and the innovation and entrepreneurialism that drives it. In a recent Forbes article, Uber has revolutionized transit more in 7 years than the government has in 7 decades, Scott Beyer calls into question the fitness of the public versus the private sector to improve urban mobility in the US. Who are the real data collectors, and is it getting into the hands of government decision makers?

Well, let’s look deeper into some innovations and opportunities to embrace a data-driven approach to city planning, landscape and public place design and management.

The Soofa Park Bench

Soofa, the MIT spinoff start-up designing internet-enabled public place infrastructure, is killing it. Starting with park benches and more recently the Soofa Kiosk, this start-up now has deployments in 75 cities across the US.

“We are designing a kit of plug-and-play internet enabled public place parts,” Soofa’s director of strategic partnerships Ed Krafcik says. This includes park benches and information kiosks – and there is more to come.

The Soofa bench can pick up smart phone movements within a 75-metre radius. What does this tell us? To start with: is your public space being used, and at what times of day? Also, which parts of the park or space are being used, and are people travelling between places (where multiple benches are installed)?

Krafcik says “it’s the ultimate confirmation of whether our urban and landscape designs work”.

“In one municipality we have four benches located throughout the city, and the data is being stored in the cloud for easy and instant access by the Parks Department. When they are programming the place, through events and festivals, they can see what worked and what didn’t.”

This project is helping build a culture of data-driven decision making.

Place Score – quantifying place

The recently launched Place Score platform is offering our cities a different type of data-driven decision making platform. Place Score chief executive Kylie Legge describes it as “the feedback loop we never really had”.

“Did our public place investments really make a difference?”

Legge describes Place Score as the quantification of place that many of us have been curiously exploring for a long time.

“Using data gathered through face-to-face and online survey methods, and combining a range of algorithms, we can score a public place,” Legge explains.

And on first inspection of the platform, my curiosity was well served. Not only does the Place Score component provide exactly that – a place score – but the other component of the system, Care Factor, is an important precursor that provides the city with data rich reporting on what characteristics of place the community loves, and doesn’t.

The humble streetlight

I end with the humble streetlight – the modern-day Trojan horse for smarter cities. To some, a streetlight. To others, the backbone for a dozen urban performance management technologies that can sense, gather, analyse and communicate. From digital signage to flood monitoring, and from ebike charging to image sensing, the humble streetlight (or smart pole) is a sustainability strategy for the future city.

In Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the local authority is deploying its own fibre backbone in the main street, fully equipped with smart lighting to enable the private sector, universities and the City to test the various components of a sensory network that will collect, communicate and crunch data. This will feed directly into the council’s shopfront laboratory located along the retail strip, where council staff, businesses and the community can see what’s happening, and not happening. With intelligence, you can make better decisions. Remember, you cannot manage what you can’t measure!

And looking forward, with our streets and public places, and the communities that use them, “talking to us” through these sensory networks and innovative data gathering techniques, we are well placed to respond through smarter investments and better services.

However, success will lie not only when we equip our cities to “sense”, but when we have the sensibility to harness the intelligence that comes from it, and subsequently act upon it. And there, like in many similar stories about the sustainable city, lies the critical issue of leadership and governance.

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