Lisa McLean at an Open Cities event

A new national peak body has been formed to lobby governments to make the shift to next generation service delivery across energy, water, mobility and telecommunications.

Called Open Cities, the body has been spearheaded by precinct-scale water and energy service provider Flow Systems, well-known for its Sydney Central Park recycled water scheme. Other founding members include the Green Building Council of Australia, Smart Commercial Solar, GoGet and OptiComm.

Acting chief executive Lisa McLean, who is executive manager corporate affairs and climate positive at Flow Systems, told The Fifth Estate the goal was to help governments set a framework to enable new breeds of utility and mobility providers to flourish, which could lead to more sustainable and affordable city-building.

“I think we’re really in this space where technology is driving new and better ways of delivering essential services to people, and putting downwards pressure on prices,” McLean says.

“Open Cities is saying, ‘We’ve heard about smart cities. How do we actually apply that?

“It’s a voice for the convergence of utility and mobility infrastructure that’s occurring.”

Key to enabling these new technologies is changing legislation, regulation and policy currently standing as roadblocks.

“These types of tech solutions are here,” McLean says. “What we don’t have is the market frameworks to encourage their uptake. We want doors open not shut for these technologies.”

Yet to be officially launched, the body is nonetheless making its voice heard, and is currently finalising a submission to the Greater Sydney Commission’s Draft Regional Plan and Draft District Plans – welcoming a focus on low-carbon development and next-generation infrastructure, but pointing out gaps to do with shared mobility and Internet of Things technology.

Shared mobility as a utility

GoGet head of locations and partnerships Christopher Vanneste told The Fifth Estate shared mobility essentially functioned like a utility “with people only paying for what they use when they need it”.

He says promoting this in new developments will cut costs for developers as they could provide less parking, which would have flow-on effects for housing affordability. With autonomous vehicle technology looming, Vanneste says it is a crucial time to “make the cultural shift to shared mobility” to protect against the negative outcomes of a private autonomy scenario.

“We need to make this a priority for planners, governments and communities.”

Getting a seat at the table

Open Cities is calling for a seat at the table early in the planning process for new communities.

“Only registered ‘Public Authorities’ are entitled to participate in planning gateway processes with developers and NSW Planning,” the body says in its GSC submission.

“While private companies are listed under the ‘Public Authorities’ schedule, licensed local utilities and mobility providers are not. This means alternative water, energy, telco and mobility providers along with their solutions are shut out, entrenching business as usual utility choices and blocking faster, cheaper and more innovative ways to release land.”

A common voice to oppose shortsightedness

Smart Commercial Solar managing director Huon Hoogesteger told The Fifth Estate Open Cities members had similar themes: “Common infrastructure that can provide a backbone for a healthy and abundant community.”

He says currently infrastructure is going into developments without considering long-term implications.

“Often developers have a competing interest with the future owners.

“Developers wish to lower their construction costs yet this comes at the price of the community running costs. Often the incumbent service providers are the last ones to adopt new technologies. To date there’s been no voice for the future to oppose this shortsightedness. Open Cities provides that voice.

“The idea of Open Cities means that through appropriate planning and construction our communities can be more efficient, more holistic, less of an impact and ultimately provide an abundance of services for a lower cost.”

Boost building codes so roofs can take more solar panels

One particular recommendation to the Greater Sydney Commission is to update building codes to improve roof designs for increased solar load.

Hoogesteger says there are swathes of new industrial roof spaces in Western Sydney that would have been perfect for solar, if only they could support the load.

“Most of these rooftops have been designed within the limits of Australian Standards and as such have enough capacity to hold themselves up, but no capacity to host solar panels,” he says.

“The reason: The additional cost of the structural build averages around $19/square metre to the capital cost of the building.

Less than one year to break even

“Our argument is simple: the revenue generated by a solar system on these roofs would be around $21/sq m a year. So less than one year to break even and you future proof the building.

“But developers are thinking of their build costs, not the longer term benefits to their buyer, tenant or community.”

It’s simple changes like raising buildings standards that could see sustainable cities triumph over short-termism, Hoogesteger says.

“[Open Cities’] first goal is to open the minds of planners, developers and construction companies to the possibility that things can be done better.”