smart cities

It’s clearly good to be a “smart city”, largely because the alternative seems a tad unappealing. Viz: who actually wants to be a Dumb City? However, despite the obvious attractions of being smart, and despite signs of progress, Australian cities are mostly slow learners when it comes to being data-driven, responsive and tech-enabled.

In this sense Greater Sydney is not a smart city and on current trends will not deserve that description any day soon. This is partly because smart cities require one thing we haven’t got. And that’s something quite un-techie and indeed rather traditional: smart governance.

Dr Tim Williams

My emphasis on “Greater” is deliberate in this respect. The City of Sydney is clearly interested in the smart city agenda. The same can be said of Parramatta. Both councils have been developing smart city or digital strategies, reviewing how public services can be redesigned on digital platforms and how sensors in infrastructure or in our own mobile devices can give us the insights and data analytics to improve the management of our streets and precincts. If not “smart” yet, these councils are on their way, so what’s the problem?

Scalability of design and implementation of smart city initiatives across our metro area: that’s the problem. Remember, Greater Sydney has 40 councils in a highly fractured system of localised governance [this has since been reduced to 31 through the forced amalgamation process, with further reductions expected to follow at the completion of legal action].

To add to the difficulty of doing anything across metropolitan Sydney we have myriad state government departments and agencies who have historically acted as though the others don’t exist in a form of introspection so severe that “silos” doesn’t really describe the half of it.

This means that even if one council or department were smarter in a very smart thing such as some data driven, tech enabled re-design and delivery of a service or an engagement process, the others wouldn’t necessarily know about it, let alone be induced to follow suit.

The Committee for Sydney first drew attention to this governance gap around smart city initiatives in Sydney almost three years ago when we published our first survey, “#wethecity”.

That was when we summed up the Big City/Little Data problem of our city in the lament that “if only Sydney knew what Sydney knows”. That is, we are producing a massive amount of data in Sydney with much more to come but there is no one Sydney-wide body or city government – unlike New York, Chicago or Barcelona – able to gather that data and manage the performance of the whole city on the basis of it.

Just over nine months ago we published our second #wethecity showing that global cities with which Sydney was in competition were going even further and faster down the smart city path, with little progress in Sydney to report.

So Barcelona with a city government covering 1.5 million people has 12 smart city programs in transportation (smart parking and bus stops as well as good public transport – now that’s really smart), streets (lamp-posts which both light a street and gather data from it), energy and water (smart metering), waste (intelligent bins) and very smart community engagement – all enabled on a world class wifi and fibre network, and a political commitment to open data and an open source platform.

And this doesn’t just encourage effective and democratic city government, it also encourages business and inward investment, with Barcelona the location of the annual World Mobile Congress with its 90,000 attendees and with Barcelona SMEs benefiting from open data and an approach to public sector procurement aimed at reducing barriers to competition from small business.

Chicago, covering almost 2.8 million people, has its Windygrid, an open source platform for monitoring the vital signs of the city – a kind of Metro “fitbit” – enabling the mayor to make quicker and smarter decisions and allocate resources. Using spatial, historical and of the moment data, emergency 311 calls, GPS data, building information and geo-spatially enabled public tweets, it provides real-time advanced analytics to inform city decision-making and service design and delivery, across Chicago.

Combined with the new Array of Things to collect real time data on urban infrastructure and a really innovative approach to digital inclusion with new city apps being tested in and by poor communities, Chicago is becoming a world leader as a very smart city.

New York, Singapore, Amsterdam, Boston, San Francisco, Kansas City (enjoying broadband speeds of a gigabit per second is laying down Internet of Things sensors as it builds its light rail – neither of which is happening in Sydney). London, Seoul, and even Rio in crisis are all pushing towards the data-driven, responsive and tech enabled smart city at a more metro scale.

And what about us? This is the question I am asking at this week’s Smart Cities event in Melbourne (on Wednesday) promoted by the Australian-British Business Chamber, on a panel with Angus Taylor, Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation. Taylor’s appointment is  a very welcome development suggesting the Feds get the link between the two. How smart can we be with un-smart city governance and complex tiers of government?

The good news in Sydney? There is some. Partly in response to campaigning by the Committee for Sydney, the NSW Government has now created the first metro scale planning body for the city in the form of the Greater Sydney Commission. I am optimistic this will help – with council amalgamations – to encourage that cross-government collaboration within the NSW Government and between tiers, that is the non-techie essential basis for progress towards Smart Cities in Australia.

We also know that the GSC – whose chief commissioner, Lucy Turnbull, the former chair of the Committee for Sydney and part of a duo [with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull] known for its passionate interest in technology – is creating Greater Sydney’s first “digital dashboard” on the model of London’s data store, though we don’t yet know how far-reaching or interactive this will be. Fingers and legs crossed as what the GSC is doing is potentially game-changing for Smart Cities progress in Australia.

The Australian challenge, however, is serious. The Feds and state governments need to sit up and take notice of what is being achieved internationally and pay close attention to every word of a high-tech business leader in the Windy City, who says of his increasingly smart home town: “In Chicago, there is the political will and the organisational structure, to make this happen.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.