How one research institute intends to fix the smart cities "growth problem"

This announcement from Swinburne University of Technology is an exciting one, and is the latest in many emerging research and education efforts from the academic sector to embrace the opportunities presented by the smart cities movement. For the Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute, its focus on solving urban growth challenges, in particular infrastructure and mobility, helps to transition the smart cities discussion from one that has typically been technology focussed, to one that is focussed on city-building. When we focus the smart cities movement on city-building, the conversation about technology and data becomes seamless. And this should be our goal.

We cannot afford to continually question the role, cost and value of applying smart cities technology, but rather focus on solving our cities most challenging growth issues, through deep engagement with the built environment professions. Technologists can no longer be the sole advocate for applying smart cities technologies. We need to recruit as our leading advocates the social planners, urban planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, transport planners, and civil engineers. Only then will the deployment of smart technologies and data become more frictionless. — Adam Beck


Melbourne-based Swinburne University of Technology last week launched the Smart Cities Research Institute (SCI). Its mission? To find solutions to the big challenges cities face as rapidly growing urban populations threaten to overwhelm their ability to provide adequate services and a liveable environment.

"We continue to expand our cities with little regard for the pressures that swelling populations place on our environment and resources, and thereby the health and functionality of our cities," said Mark Burry, a Swinburne professor named as inaugural director for SCI.

The intent is for the Institute to take a multi-faceted socio-technical, interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to its research. That research will concentrate on four primary areas:

  • New urban governance structures
  • Sustainable urban mobility
  • Smart spaces for home and work
  • Smart and sustainable infrastructure and delivery systems

SCI will take advantage of the university's experience and expertise in several disciplines, including systems modelling for transport and land use, the mobility and health needs of aging populations, hybrid energy networks (and alternatives to fossil fuels), water and waste management technologies and governance and engagement for institutional and community stakeholders.

But SCI doesn't plan to do it all on its own. It will collaborate with government, industry and others as it develops new technologies and interventions to remove obstacles and support the major changes cities need to undertake to successfully meet the demands of growing populations.

As Burry put it, "It's unlikely that any single theory from any single discipline is equal to the task of addressing the rapid changes and complex dynamics of 21st century urbanisation. The Smart Cities Research Institute brings together multiple disciplines to this urgent task of preparing our cities for the future."

The Institute's strategy also calls on citizens to get engaged with its research. As an Institute announcement explains, "Partnering with the 'smart citizen' will also play a role, using online and mobile technology tools to engage actively with urban populations for feedback on their needs and engagement on proposed projects and services."

It's fitting in a way that the Institute is based in Melbourne. The city has been ranked as the world's most liveable city for six consecutive years by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Doug Peeples is a writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartcitiesanz on Twitter.