When Michelle Fitzgerald is out talking to the community about smart cities, she never leads with technology. Instead, every conversation starts with people and their problems – “and only then about how technology and data might help solve those problems”.
Chief Digital Officer for the City of Melbourne, Michelle is part of a cross-functional team driving a purpose and people-led approach to smart cities.
“We start by looking at a pain point. What’s the problem we want to solve? And how can we make life better for the people who come into our city every single day to work, live, play and learn?”
Take the transformation underway as new train tunnels are bored, commercial and residential buildings go up, and precincts are reshaped to accommodate the 1.4 million people expected in the city each day by 2036.
“It’s hard to walk a single block in the city without facing disruption at the moment. It’s a huge pain point for commuters who can’t get from A to B. But when scaffolding is placed right outside your business, it can have a big impact on your profit.”
Michelle says engagement with both commuters and small businesses across the city uncovered some interesting insights.
“We learnt that not everyone wants real-time data. Businesses told us they needed data weeks in advance – before construction work started – to plan their stock and staffing levels.
“Everyday Melburnians were happy to have access to real-time data, but they also want posters in situ that explain what is happening and how it will impact them. They want a mix of analog and digital solutions.”
This “human-centric design approach” delivers much better outcomes for the community, and for the city, she adds.
Another example of the City of Melbourne’s people-focused approach is underway in Carlton, in the Melbourne Innovation District, where Michelle’s team is currently coordinating an emerging technology testbed for 5G and IoT.
5G networks are the backbone of future technologies such as telehealth, intelligent transport systems and smart energy systems.
The City of Melbourne is preparing for 5G licences to commence in March 2020, and recognises it has an important role to play in creating a supportive smart cities ecosystem, Michelle says.
“When we ran our first 5G workshop with the business and research community last year, we realised no one was talking and sharing information. Our participants told us that local government has a unique role to play, and that we are a natural connector and convenor.”
The testbed unites 26 organisations keen to harness the benefits of 5G and IoT. Among them are three of the four telecommunications carriers with 5G licenses, local businesses and start-ups, researchers from the nearby universities, hardware and software providers and the Carlton Residents Association. The City of Sydney is also an observer partner.
“Engaging residents has been really valuable and given us deeper insights into how people will use 5G and where their concerns lie. Collaborating with universities means the testbed can tap into academic talent,” Michelle explains.
The City of Melbourne is designing new governance models and establishing protocols for data management, privacy, security and sharing with the 26 testbed partners. These data sharing standards “can be used by any city”, and Michelle encourages her counterparts “not to reinvent the wheel as we’ve already done a lot of the hard work”.
The testbed is also exploring optimal design and placement of physical infrastructure. “Our challenge is to achieve connectivity without the clutter.” Trials are underway to disguise cells in everything from park benches to buildings with the aim of protecting the amenity and aesthetics of the street.
What’s Michelle’s biggest lesson?
“Keep talking to people and sharing your learnings, so we can all move faster. Smart cities are coming no matter what – and we need to work together to create the best places for people”.
What comes after the pilot projects? Find out when Michelle Fitzgerald and other smart cities leaders take to the stage at Smart Cities Week in Sydney on Thursday 31 October. Register here.