“We have reached a stage in the development of our technology where we have the power to create the environment we need, or destroy it beyond repair, according to the use we make of our power. This forces us to control this power. To do this, we must first of all decide what we want to achieve. And this is far from easy…”

I extracted this quote from the depths of a speech penned by Sir Ove Arup in 1970, as he prepared his partners for the inevitable change they were likely to see in the world over the coming decades.

Adam Beck
Adam Beck

A structural engineer by trade, part-time philosopher, but humanist at heart, Arup’s view of technology shaping us, and our environment, remains as true today as it did more than 45 year ago.

But have we decided what we want to achieve yet? Yes? No? Maybe?

Imagining life in a Sydney of eight million people, Melbourne with six million, and the Gold Coast at almost 700,000 residents is not short order.

What might this look like? What’s the plan? What’s the enabling strategy?

I’m not sure we truly have a grasp of what this could, should or would mean for the generation who will take control of these urban masterpieces in 2050.

But what I do know is that extrapolating the past and backcasting to the future will only give us some glimpses, at best. Not all algorithms can dodge black swans. Just ask those toll road operators in Brisbane!

I have some hunches. Greater velocity of change, more unknowns and continued disruption – to our business models, to the way we work and to the way we live.

I don’t think many would disagree with me. You know, the kind of disruption that results in the world’s largest taxi company owning no taxis, and the world’s largest hotelier owning no real estate. We didn’t plan for Uber or Airbnb, did we? I don’t remember seeing the “sharing economy” section of the Brisbane City Plan 2010, did you? Hello WeWork, goodbye 10-year office leases. Pokemon come, Pokemon Go! And cars with no drivers. Let that one sink in for a bit.

Keeping our aspirations for a better world real in such as era of disruption is both a challenge and a blessing. Owning this force, and shaping it for good, is the first order of business. But “how” is the key.

Smart cities: the enabler and the accelerator

So, if “smart cities” is the answer, what was the question again?

Well, the question has always been the same: “How can we embrace technology and intelligent design to create a better world, for people?”

Ove challenged us with this question back in 1970, and many urban thinkers before him.

But let me be frank. “Smart cities” alone is not the answer. Nothing ever is. But while the agenda has evolved over the past two decades, with its fair share of critics I must say, the smart cities agenda has always been about “better”.

And we all want better cities. In fact, our aspirations for “better” are something again. As built environment practitioners, we are advocating for nothing less than liveable, prosperous, vibrant, walkable, bikeable, efficient, affordable, resilient, net zero, biophilic, compact, mixed-use, shareable, circular, age-friendly, diverse, equitable, 24-hour, inclusive, healthy, integrated, 20 minute, 30 minute, transit-oriented, restorative, regenerative and safe cities.

And it is here, at the intersection of managing our urban challenges and trying to realise our aspirations, that the benefits of a smart cities approach are unleashed. Using a range of systems to turn information into intelligence, telling us what is going on in the built environment, providing us with a situational awareness and allowing us to optimise. But predicting what’s next is possibly the most exciting part of the smart cities agenda.

And this is why Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand (as reported last month in The Fifth Estate) is positioning smart cities as the primary enabler and accelerator to sustainable cities.

I will go further and make the boldest of statements. “Smart” is one of the most powerful frameworks and approaches to community and city building we are seeing across the world. Future instalments in The Fifth Estate will unpack this.

A movement beckons

Technology comes and goes, as do “approaches”. A movement, however, is a different story. Movements can stick, and be transformative. I see you, green building movement!

You see, movements build a narrative, attract followers, and change behaviours and mindsets. They embrace a common agenda, shared measurement, build mutually reinforcing activities with partners, ensure continuous communication, and put in place backbone support. Yep, you picked it, movements are underpinned by collective impact theory. As they must. Because movements are not about one-offs, or individual impact. It’s all about large scale social change, first and foremost.

So what do we expect of the smart cities movement? At its core are some fundamental attributes that will offer transformational opportunities for our cities – harnessing, analysing and communicating data, sensing and connecting everything (people, objects, places), incubating entrepreneurialism and enhancing access to opportunity. At the very heart of the smart cities movement is intelligence, innovation and connection.

Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand is mapping a pathway for building this transformative movement locally. Developing a Smart Cities Readiness Guide for the region is the first order of business. From this, a collection of additional resources will spin off – readiness workshops, guidelines and thought pieces.

Building the narrative of smart as an accelerator to sustainability will be critical. With the council being part of the world’s largest network of smart cities practitioners, it is well placed to advance this outcome. And not to mention connecting policy makers with solution providers. Creating a more direct path to deploying solutions is fundamental.

And the foundation for this movement-making opportunity just received a boost, with the federal government clearly indicating its support for a smart cities agenda in its draft Smart Cities Plan. While only one piece, it nonetheless is an important piece of the (policy) scaffolding that needs to be erected.

Accelerating our vision of sustainable cities is the task of this generation, and building a smart cities movement to support that vision is now underway.

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

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  1. The smartest thing a city can be is walkable. And cyclable.

    Everything else is just detail.

    Technologies come and they go, but walkability persists.. because humans!