Bayside's Dendy Street beach.

Australia’s more established communities are using technology to become smarter and more efficient. But smart infrastructure is largely out of reach for fast-growing suburbs that are struggling to provide the basic services. Harnessing data that already exists could be one solution for these new communities.

Population growth has ballooned in Australia with no sign of slowing: the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects 30 million people by 2033, and our biggest cities are absorbing the bulk of this growth.

This fuels rapid expansion in the suburbs that flank capital cities, with communities like Camden in New South Wales seeing growth rates nearly four times the national average, according to the ABS.

On one hand, it can be exciting to watch unassuming libraries morph into bustling community centres. On the other, infrastructure challenges spawned by swift growth can be even fiercer in these communities.

Since local governments are often the chief stewards of infrastructure assets — a role both citizens and council leaders overwhelmingly agree is their foremost priority — councils carry an outsized duty to meet these challenges. And, as ideas like smart cities gain steam, leaders are wrestling with these urgent needs amid calls for innovation.

So how can councils and their citizens build long-term sustainability and liveability when growth makes it more difficult to meet the need for basic government services?

City outskirts face unique infrastructure challenges — and opportunities

Almost every council struggles to reconcile shrinking budgets with rising expectations. As Australians’ digital literacy matures, citizens are acclimating to on-demand, self-service technology of the private sector and increasingly expect to pay rates and access council information without leaving the house.

Rapid growth magnifies these challenges. In communities with population growth of 20 per cent or more, councils can be responsible for building infrastructure and services before seeing any increase in their budget.

But these challenges do come with opportunity: a chance to incorporate growing digital literacy and sustainability considerations from the beginning, instead of retrofitting those considerations into the legacy platforms often found in established communities.

To build infrastructure and services needed yesterday while ensuring that foundations can scale tomorrow, councils will have to start thinking about how to use cloud, connectivity and data to deliver services and engage collaboratively with residents — something we call “community as a service”.

A foundation for smarter cities: better data management

“Smart cities” are a hot topic, but definitions vary. Most commonly, “smart city” indicates municipal use of technology to improve factors like energy efficiency — for instance, smart lighting or smart bin notifications that replace scheduled refuse collection.

These are useful solutions, offering clear benefits for the environment and optimising community resources. But, in isolation, they tend to have marginal impact, especially within city fringes where councils are still trying to build basic services.

Instead, we’re seeing greater impact (and greater potential for future impact) when councils prioritise a comprehensive approach to data.

That’s where community as a service comes in – a concept that encompasses smart innovations as well as the groundwork necessary for improving basic service delivery.

Even in established communities, many councils use multiple, segregated enterprise systems and maintain data in isolation, causing delays and incomplete analysis.

For example, Port Stephens Council in New South Wales struggled with 300 data sources across their organisation. But, by integrating sources and consolidating data, they reduced manual tasks and saved time for ratepayers.

Other councils, like Victoria’s Bayside City Council, have seen similar success by establishing master data management and collating data from their own systems as well as those of third parties.

This is an especially important hurdle for fast-growing suburbs: better data management enables community as a service while expanding their range of motion for future innovation.

Prioritising and facilitating citizen involvement through data

Data aggregation is crucial but so is the data type and how it’s used. Community as a service depends on harnessing data in ways that clarify citizens’ needs and facilitate collaborative dialogue.

For instance, Rockingham City Council in Western Australia implemented an online self-service portal along with a Happiness Index modelled after private enterprises’ Net Promoter System. The index allows them to constantly monitor the benefit of their new portal and other services, improving engagement and responsiveness.

Greater citizen engagement and better data use are interdependent: true smart cities that can offer community as a service will encourage collaborative participation and connect diverse data points to forge a deeper understanding of their citizens, their infrastructure and how the two interact.

While these goals involve unique challenges for councils in rapid-growth areas, they also equip those same councils with the most sustainable path for meeting demand — both now and in the future.

Ben Cowling is the executive director at Civica Australia/New Zealand.

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