How to create a tribe of smart city thinkers

Connection, collaboration and the enabling power of technology create better places for people. These were the key out-takes from Australia’s first Smart Cities Week.

Nearly 450 people gathered at Sydney’s Hilton last week, shadowed by a record-number of cranes in the sky and amid the construction chaos of George Street’s emerging tramline.

Sydney was the perfect backdrop for a discussion about future cities, as the pressures of population growth, urbanisation and climate change play out in our suburbs and streets. The same story is happening in cities and towns on both sides of the Tasman, said Smart Cities Council Executive Director Adam Beck. We will only solve the problems of 21st century living with 21st century thinking.

Monique Esplin, General Manager for Growth and Strategic Markets for Telstra Enterprise kick-started the day with five “big” questions:

  1. What is our future city?
  2. How does technology enable our city?
  3. What is the biggest problem to solve?
  4. How can we use data?
  5. How well is our city?

A packed program with six concurrent sessions brought with it a palpable buzz. For the first time, smart cities practitioners and planners, thinkers and technologists, were in the same place.

Half the conference delegates hailed from local governments, and the audience relished the chance to learn from those working at the coal face of smart cities. Kiersten Fishburn, CEO of Liverpool City Council, captured the rapid shift in smart cities thinking underway in our region. In just a year or so, smart cities conversations had moved away from the “propeller heads” and towards the practitioners, she said.

 

Beyond tech for tech’s sake

Cities need to “infuse and infect” technology and data into every aspect of their operations, said Wellington City Council’s Chief Executive Kevin Lavery. But don’t make the mistake of thinking smart city thinking is all about technology. “It’s about liveability and keeping people’s needs in mind” said Teng Leng Lim, Deputy Director for Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities.

It might be about more than technology, but the 5G session had everyone sitting on the edge of their seats. 5G will be our smart cities “saviour” said Channa Seneviratne, Telstra’s Executive Director of Network Infrastructure engineering. 5G is not only good news for Fortnight fans. 5G will promote machine-to-machine communication, enabling much more data to move around. 5G will accelerate the uptake of Internet of things devices, e-health, drones, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

We heard many big ideas: smart cities could be the panacea for poverty, the roadmap for inclusive design, and the bedrock of health and wellbeing.

The inextricable link between sustainable and smart cities wove its way throughout the three days, with data and analytics central to the climate resilience story. The achievements of green building practitioners could be emulated in the smart cities space.

The Green Building Council of Australia’s Nicole Sullivan, for example, thought speaking in terms like “proptech” was important. “Not everyone gets climate change. But everyone gets a built environment that is efficient and healthy.”

 

Towards a data-driven world

There was some anxiety in the audience around data, and privacy concerns popped up with regularity. Many parallel conversations were had around data quality, standardisation and ethics. The scale and complexity of the challenge ahead was daunting, said Kate Deacon, the City of Sydney’s Executive Manager for Strategy and Urban Analytics. The most important question to ask ourselves is ‘why?’. “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”

The unresolved challenge of “basic data standards” was a common lament. This isn’t a technical challenge, though. The founder of Imby, a platform that visualises planning and development data, had unearthed “374 ways for council to say approved”.

Our biggest challenge right now is that “we have a standardisation methodology that suits last century,” said Mark Bew, the strategic advisor to the Centre of Digital Built Britain.

Speaking at the proptech breakfast, Bew challenged Australia’s developers to pivot from builders to data analysts.

“We must change our mindsets”, and this means understanding that “the key thing is not the technology itself, but the underlying data” that the building generates, and how to keep, store and appropriately exchange it for precinct-wide benefits.

There were the obligatory discussions about business cases and return on investments. Haifa El Ashkar, Service Strategy and Solutions with technology company CSG, said Internet of Things technologies could be likened to making money at the movies – the ticket may get the punters through the door, but the popcorn is where the profit is made.

“You might not make any money selling street lights to cities, but once you have enough out there, imagine what you can do with the data.” It may be the secondary service that drives revenue, she said.

 

Shift happens

The Pitchfest conveyed the lightspeed change underway across the nation, whether in the form of SpacetoCo’s Airbnb style booking system that make use of idle public spaces or Larki’s land surveys that pick up 30 million data points in 3D. Many of these ideas weren’t possible even a few years ago.

No change has occurred faster than in the mobility space. In the last year, we’ve seen electric scooters and dockless bikes take off, microtransit and on-demand bus services get off the ground, as well as drone deliveries and an explosion of ride-sharing apps. Uber changed our thinking about technology and transport, said Transport for NSW’s Natalie Pelham. The ride sharing app had taught us to “get obsessed with the user experience”.

With all this change, how can planners keep up? Agility and vision, a strategy and framework are all important as we head into a smart cities future, said Place Design Group’s Director Catherine Gallagher. “But don’t stick to it too much,” she warned, echoing Winston Churchill’s advice that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything”.

Federal Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, Alan Tudge, alluded to a future announcement of a “better planning framework” that could be modelled on the City Deal philosophy. The Australian Government has already invested $28.5 million in seed funding for local government trials of technology and data, and another $21.5 million in funding is imminent – and this, together with better planning, can support “really innovative, data driven ideas” that can be replicated around the country, Tudge said.

 

Gathering a tribe to take action

And then there were the awards. Sunshine Coast Council was presented with the coveted ‘Leadership City’ category for a nation-leading commitment to smart cities through data sharing, investment in IoT technology, free public Wi-Fi and a 15KW solar farm that offsets all of Council’s energy use. The Sunshine Coast Council also took home the ‘Regional Leadership Award’, while Council's Smart City Framework Lead, Michael Whereat, was acknowledged with the ‘Government Leader Award’.

Awards host and Deloitte Partner Allan Mills said celebration of success was “evidence that Australia can play a leadership position in the global smart cities movement”.

LinkedIn’s Nick O’Donnell was on hand to help the conference delegates build a ‘tribe’. Why was LinkedIn interested in city-making, O’Donnell was asked? “LinkedIn is based on people, and smart cities is all about people,” O’Donnell explained.

For the Smart Cities Council’s Adam Beck, the conference was about more than content – although the program didn’t disappoint.

“The technical conversations got people in the door, but the intimate dialogue and relationship building is what will create real action and investment,” Beck said.

“Smart Cities Week is a catalyst for us to build a community. We’re already starting the conversations about Smart Cities Week 2019 and will use this annual gathering as an opportunity to review our progress, challenge our assumptions and build the tribe we need.”

Smart Cities Week will return to Sydney in November 2019.

We are building a smart cities movement. Join us.