Collaboration is king in smart cities: Our interview with Katherine Tobias

To kick off the Smart Cities Pulse series for 2018, we sat down with emerging smart cities leader Katherine Tobias, of KPMG’s Internet of Things practice, to hear her views on smart cities now, new and next. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Q: How did you find yourself in the smart cities business?

A: I was attracted to the smart cities agenda because it is fundamentally about tackling the critical challenges of our time – population growth, climate change, security, increasing social inequality etc. As part of my Master’s degree in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford, I wrote a thesis exploring the power of smart cities to enable citizen-centric urban design and governance. I am particularly passionate about how smart cities can use technology as an enabler for meaningful collaboration among a diversity of stakeholders.  

Q: And why KPMG?

A: KPMG is the first of the Big Four to launch a dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) practice, of which smart cities is a key focus. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? And KPMG is blazing a trail in the space by helping government and society tap into the economic, social and sustainability opportunities of the internet economy by using smart cities to reframe complex challenges as opportunities to build thriving communities.

Q: Collaboration is key to smart cities success, how do we climb that mountain?

Traditional silos of operation have been embedded across organisations and society, and still remain today. It’s an obstacle for the smart cities movement, and a big one, because the power of smart cities lies in cross-sector collaboration and co-creation.

A quote from Stephen Goldsmith resonates strongly with me in this respect – ‘Cites are organised vertically, and people live horizontally. They don’t live in the transportation or parks department… they live in a neighbourhood’

Until recently, we have seen champions in organisations driving smart cities initiatives, and this has certainly helped to kick-start things, but we are now slowly seeing a trend towards smart cities enthusiasm and responsibility being diffused through organisations, which is what we want to encourage.

Deeper and more effective collaboration can also be supported by standards, which play an important role in helping cities mitigate against vendor lock-in. No single player holds a monopoly of ideas in a smart city, and standards are valuable tools to enable interoperability and reap the benefits of open ecosystems. Organisations like the Internet of Things Alliance, Smart Cities Council and Australian Smart Communities Association are doing a good job of bringing people together around the value of embracing standards.

Q: I have to ask - what’s the most exciting thing about smart cities for you?

A: No doubt, it is the collaboration piece. Just take the exciting opportunities with data – how we can capture it, interpret it and action it. It naturally brings people together seeking new opportunities to solve problems. And then seeing the delight of citizens who are exposed to new, rich experiences, this is very rewarding.

I think we are only just starting to realise the vast opportunities of big, and especially open, data to drive effective decision-making in cities and improve transparency and trust. As we open more data, the potential for co-creation is significant. Transport for London stands out in this respect as they opened up all of their data – 80 data sets capturing the millions of journeys made in London each day. This has catalysed the creation of 600 apps by Transport for London as well as a diverse spectrum of players across the city, which are now in use by 42% of Londoners.

Effectively operationalising data holds the potential for local government to replace the traditional model of ‘one-size-fits-all’ service delivery with a more personalised experience, tailored to citizens’ needs and desires.

In Australia, there is still work to be done in sharing data. The emergence of innovation labs is promising and is playing an important role in including the community in city making and building a culture of data opportunity. It is also motivating to witness how open data is helping to fuel the Sharing Economy.

Q: What were the smart cities highlights of 2017?

A: In 2017 I think cities realised that smart city transformation is no longer a pipe dream. The Australian Smart Cities Plan and Smart Cities and Suburbs Program have helped to make it more tangible, and as a result we have seen significant mobilisation.

The other highlight was KPMG’s smart cities event series with the Public Sector Network, which brought together over 400 smart cities leaders to engage in dialogue on where we are now, and what next might look like. While we often hear about cities such as Barcelona and Singapore as leaders in smart cities development, this event series was particularly exciting because it showcased the cutting-edge innovation happening across our own Australian cities.

Q: How does Australia become a global smart cities leader, in policy and practice?

A: We need to embed smart city thinking and action in our day jobs. This is about encouraging experimentation and risk-taking to foster a culture of innovation.

We also need smart cities to scale. It’s great that we have a catalyst program by the Federal Government, but we need to move beyond point solutions quickly, and create overarching smart cities strategies and roadmaps.

Amsterdam is a clear leader in demonstrating the importance of genuine collaboration to realise sustainable and scalable action. Their smart cities body, which is a collaboration between many different sectors, is what makes them successful. Public, private and civic all coming together under a framework of investment and action, underpinned by a deep sense of trust. Amsterdam has successfully engaged its citizens as partners in city-making.

At a policy level, we need structural incentives to scale impact. Australia’s National Cities Performance Framework is one example where we are starting to see this, helping us track progress, open data and share learnings.

Q: Finally, you are a foundation member of the Smart Cities Council Emerging Innovators network, why are you supporting this?

A: The smart cities movement is about building prosperous, sustainable and vibrant communities of the future, and young people need to be involved in creating the landscape they will ultimately inherit. Our Emerging Innovators network is multi-disciplinary, comprising young professionals who bring diverse skills and perspectives, and we aim to integrate ourselves within the smart cities ecosystem in Australia and New Zealand. I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of leaders to engage with the smart cities movement, as our cities are relying on our contribution.