Let's talk about planning smart cities

Tue, 2017-04-11 13:37 -- Adam Beck

Repeat after me, “a smart city is about people, productivity, efficiency, jobs, and liveability.” Globally, this is now an agreed concept, and from a definitional stand point, to be clear, technology is the enabler. And I’ll let you in on a secret - its more than just an enabler, its an accelerator. But lets not get ahead of ourselves, just yet.

So, when your underlying ‘urbanism’ in your city - the built environment, and the social response to it - is not conducive to these liveability and productivity characteristics, well, you’re swimming upstream on your smart cities journey from the beginning. 

And yes, whilst retrofitting failed urbanism with smart technology strategies and data management systems will provide incredible opportunities to help build these characteristics, and experiences for citizens, an underlying force of tension will still remain.

But when the bones of your city (and its urbanism) are compact, where you can get anywhere within five minutes, and there is a diverse mix of land uses supported by extensive open space, you are winning. 

To go further, you have a private ‘dark’ fibre network that was installed at the beginning, your city is home to the second largest data centre in the southern hemisphere, and you have a dedicated Chief Digital Officer. You are spending billions on schools, universities, hospitals, and a dedicated entrepreneurial and arts-based working and living community. Learning, and people, are at the heart of your city. That's how you planned it, that's how you are designing and building it.

You are aggressively striving for a 30% job containment target for your residents by creating 40,000 new jobs. And the results are starting to show. You now have an unemployment rate of 3.3%.

This is Springfield, a 2,800 hectare city being built from the ground up, 26kms west of Brisbane, within the City of Ipswich. And SCCANZ Partner Place Design Group is helping shape the smart city journey for this future city.

"This is, the smart city, and we really haven’t even begun with the tech and data yet”, says Chris Isles, Executive Director for Planning at Place Design Group. He says that "with such strong fundamentals, with a robust urban plan, we can now use technology to enable some pretty exciting outcomes that will transform the lives of residents, and the workforce.”

In a recent interview with Isles, I challenged him on the 'smart city from scratch' model, highlighting failed attempts around the world. "Well planned, people-centred, tech enabled - that's the winning smart cities strategy", Isles points out. "Many make the claim of 'people-centre smart cities', but fundamentally, the city is failing their citizens, and workers. Poor urbanism is the smart cities 'achilles heel' - too few jobs, you need to drive everywhere, lack of housing choice, you cannot age in place, or attract the millennials."

Isles explains that "when you build the bones of the smart city in a way that respects the opportunities that technology and data management can enable, you build the best possible city for people." "This starts by ensuring your fundamentals on urbanism are in place - land use, your streets, open space, employment zones, housing choice and density."

"The City of Ipswich is a smart cities leader", Isles says, "and Springfield is a petrie dish, awaiting opportunities to experiment." "We are going to unleash the power of data and analytics, whilst engaging the community." "There is enormous potential within Springfield  to 'sense the city', using the internet of things to collect, communicate, and crunch data, and provide intelligence to our residents and workers, and ourselves as city-builders", he says.

IDEA City is a centerpiece precinct within Springfield, Isles describes. "Its an urban precinct where technology, research, creativity, and design meets to create a desirable place to live and work." Isles is bold in his claims, stating that "this precinct will provide direct employment to approximately 20,000 people, securing the future prosperity of Springfield residents and in doing so, creating the underlying DNA for Springfield to be and remain the Smartest City in Australia."

And if delivering on the Springfield vision to date is any indication, its going to happen! This project is the fastest city-building project in the country. More than $13 billion of direct and indirect investment has already been poured into Springfield, and the annual development spend of $600 million per year is increasing by around 18% per annum. 

Springfield is a smart city nation-building project, but there is lots more to do. It has more work to do in finding that sweet spot where smart technology and city-building practices intersect for accelerated 'people' outcomes, but it has an advantage - it's emerging urbanism.

Springfield's IDEA City will be inherently urban. Its master plan is chasing a fine grain outcome with an urban grid, public streets, lane ways, and small flexible retail tenancies with generous open space. This is IoT heaven. This is potentially the smart city blueprint Australia has been waiting for.

And with a single development company behind the vision, this reduces the complexity of multiple governance structures, and politics. It means things can get done, faster. And this is key, as it means the 'do-fail-learn-improve' cycle is much shorter compared to other projects.

This is the first new (modern) city in Australia being built from the ground up, and to have a smart city plan. We have to watch it, we have to learn from it.

But the other big story here is the City of Ipswich, a local authority I have on my smart cities watch list for 2017, for a number of reasons. More to come on this soon.