Our cities and regions are full of opportunity, can we do more to power the potential?

Sun, 2019-11-10 08:00 -- Adam Beck

When Romilly Madew AO (Chief Executive Officer, Infrastructure Australia (IA)), Cynthia Gillespie (Director of Advisory Services, WSP) and Ian Maxted (Chief Development Officer, Broadspectrum) assembled on stage at Smart Cities Week Australia earlier this month with the Council's Executive Director, Adam Beck, they discussed Australia's smart infrastructure future.

Many associate these conversations about digital and data, but in reality this is about social equity and economic growth of Australia as we adapt to global shifts.

Globally, governments are grappling with challenges that require all communities to achieve ‘more with less’. From social and economic migration to environmental challenges, productivity and systemic workforce displacement, we can no longer idle, we must change.

As a country, to tackle the most wicked of social problems and remain prosperous, we all have to collaborate in being smart.

In Romilly's pre-dialogue keynote, she reminded the audience of Australia's projected population of 31.4 million people by 2031. "It’s not just a matter of recognising growth – we also have to have a vision for how people live and work," Romilly stated. She continued, stating that "smart infrastructure must consider access, quality and cost for all."

The question provoking that response - "What’s the goal, in your mind, of infrastructure going forward? Is it different to now?"

And in terms of 'going forward', it is the responsibility of Infrastructure Australia to strategically audit Australia’s nationally significant infrastructure and develop 15 year rolling infrastructure plans that specify national and state level priorities.

Romilly highlighted that "the Audit is clear: a place-based approach to infrastructure is the future." "For example, an interchange is only as good as its ability to connect everyone." A well designed bus stop can be a great place – linking with transport, wifi connectivity, and providing shelter," she said. "Rethinking the way we use shared spaces can help us move to smart cities of the future, and move away from projects – concrete and steel – to service provision," Romilly shared.

Cynthia agreed with the focus on social equity, stressing the importance of delivering opportunity to "each and every community." And on the role of technology in our infrastructure future, "everyone is looking to technology for solutions – but what we haven’t got is a cohesive answer," Cynthia said. "Industry has to get together and work out what the integration package looks like."

She continued, saying "I can’t put my finger on it. What’s the end state of the smart city? What does that mean? If you don’t have an end state you can’t get there because you don’t have a plan."

And Ian was optimistic about our infrastructure future, highlighting that "industry needs to continue to work hand-in-hand with government to ensure we deliver the best projects with and for our communities." "Our challenge is that the impact of infrastructure is not on the people who get the benefit; it’s the challenge – they aren’t homogenous," Ian expressed.

He continued, saying "we are heading in the right direction, and fundamentally, governments are adopting the right principles."

But what about our infrastructure pipeline? Is it a pipeline of smart infrastructure, digitally enabled to help drag Australia's lagging national productivity and global competitiveness up the ladder?

Australia currently ranks 18th in the world for ease of doing business, having dropped over the past decade from 9th in 2008. But is there a good news story amongst this environment of uncertainty?

Well, Australia has a forward infrastructure pipeline of over $200 Billion. As Romilly stated, "the audit tells me that smart infrastructure is a “no brainer” – to sweat assets using tech and data."

IA's Infrastructure Audit clearly highlights an uncertain future, with traditional approaches not likely to solve the problems on our doorstep - declining national productivity, a climate crises, and the cost of living escalating.

Yet, we have a $315 Billion opportunity over the next decade in Australia if we can accelerate investment in smart infrastructure and digital innovation. And to kick-start this digital transformation, might the City Deal's program in Australia provide a series of place-based catalysts?

At last glance, the nations City Deals accounted for critical regional infrastructure around water security, trade and transportation. Social, tourism and education infrastructure such as stadiums, rail and universities are key investments. Reducing waste and enhancing the construction process by adopting building information modelling processes will save millions. Proposed data platforms such as digital twins will potentially save hundreds of millions in asset maintenance and facilitate more strategic investment decisions.

But are these opportunities 'stitched together' to ensure we leverage a smart nation approach like our global competitors?

The age old saying of 'don't re-invent the wheel' seems to be the least we can strive for with our national City Deal's program. Yet in conversation with the leaders of those City Deal's, many, if not most, have not even spoken with their counterparts across the nation. There are no consistent or specified standards or specifications for digital transformation.

The Australian Government's Cities Reference Group, comprising more than 20 peak industry bodies, lay's idle, at the instruction of the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure. 

Is it really a case of 'every City Deal for themselves'? Could it be that there is no 'joined-up plan' to leverage this critically important opportunity to generate jobs, deliver better infrastructure, enhance liveability and provide tax payer savings in some of Australia's key growth areas?

If we can muster the political and professional will to get the basics right - a clear national City Deals plan, defined standards, cross-City Deal collaboration - we may just catch the opportunity to convert this current effort into a smart nation building program.

So, is a smart infrastructure future in our City Deals field of view?

Well, from the perspective of the nation's independent infrastructure advisor, it certainly should be.

And from industry's perspective - we are primed and ready.