Regional smart cities giant awakes

Mon, 2019-10-21 16:36 -- Adam Beck

The City of Newcastle is rapidly emerging as one of Australia’s smart cities testbeds. More than 100 projects have been deployed in recent years or are currently underway as the post-industrial city capitalises on “once-in-a-century” development, says Smart Cities Coordinator Dr Nathaniel Bavinton. What has his team learnt as it leads the charge?

When it comes to smart cities investment, the City of Newcastle has certainly set a cracking pace.

As transformative public and private investment gathered momentum, Nathaniel says the City recognised it had a “a once-in-a-century moment to rethink our future as our city was physically being rebuilt”.

A $17 million state government-backed innovation infrastructure project in 2016 kickstarted the city’s smart city transformation. Partnering with the University of Newcastle, the Hunter Innovation Project has delivered smart city infrastructure and will support a new innovation hub.

City of Newcastle’s share of this collaborative project saw the rollout of a “smart city backbone” of fibre, networks, sensors and other IoT devices, free WiFi, Australia’s largest deployment of smart poles and a city-wide data analytics platform.

An additional $5 million federal government grant in 2017 through the Smart Cities and Suburbs program gave Newcastle a chance to activate this growing infrastructure with a broad suite of projects focusing on smart energy, mobility and data, as well as programming that supports capacity development in the local innovation ecosystem.

Now comes the exciting part, Nathaniel says. Over the last four months or so, Nathaniel’s team has transitioned from the ‘inception’ into the ‘application’ phase.

“We’ve spent three years building the capabilities that are now making it possible for other parts of the business to benefit from smart city applications at a much more affordable cost. We are now able to reach out across the organisation and the community talking to people about their challenges and how the capabilities we’ve deployed can help.”

What are Nathaniel’s top tips for smart cities deployment?

  1. 1.      Co-program with civil works

“Deployment at scale is challenging. Our first lesson was that co-programming smart cities deployment with existing civil works makes it much more cost effective. While the footpath is torn up it is pretty cheap to run conduit – even if you aren’t going to lay the fibre immediately. But it’s very expensive to retrofit after it’s been laid,” Nathaniel explains. “It’s important to take those opportunities, but that depends on being prepared.”

  1. 2.      Build an interdisciplinary team

“Smart cities are complicated. You need a diverse mix of skills and backgrounds. Our team includes people who do civil works, contracting and procurement, we have engagement specialists, sustainability experts, digital and networks people, and I’m an urban strategist. This mix of skills is beneficial. Our team can move fast, and that is how we’ve gone from where we were to where we are now in a relatively short space of time.”

  1. 3.      Move fast, but not too fast

“It’s easy for a smart cities team to be designed as an innovation lab – especially in local government where the practices of innovation aren’t a common methodology – but this can be isolating, and the risk is moving at a pace that is too challenging for your organisation. We are now more deliberate about how we bring people along on the journey, because we are dealing with sometimes ambiguous and complex ideas that need to be explained so our broader organisation understands the purpose and value.”

But Nathaniel and his team are developing examples of how smart cities infrastructure can add value. Increasingly, these applications are coming from the broader organisation. Sporting clubs can now use an app to operate lights at the council-owned ovals, for example. Projects are underway to explore how best to gather data on beach utilisation to better inform surf life-saving staffing. In another pilot, smart meters and sensors will help detect leaks and reduce water consumption at council sites as part of its response to new water restrictions. And this is just the beginning.

  1. Build a backend with multiple capabilities

“We are building capabilities that can solve a problem in one area of the business and then be reused to solve other problems. The same digital platforms that help us solve a waste problem can help us solve a water problem, for example. This focus on investing in the common elements of platforms means that Newcastle’s smart city investment can realise value across the organisation, and beyond, to city partners.

“The hardware and network platforms have been installed, the digital platforms are online, and we are now able to go to people within our organisation to ask: ‘What are your challenges and how can the capabilities we’ve deployed help solve your problems?’ This is part of smart city being solutions focused. What’s important here is that a fair portion of the cost of any potential solution has already been met by the investment in a multi-purpose architecture. This significantly lowers the time and money barriers to entry for other parts of the organisation.”

  1. 5.      Bring the community along

“We have developed a strategic engagement approach with the community, because sometimes it is not always easy for people to understand the value of smart cities projects and how they stack up against fixing potholes or installing new toilet blocks.”

“We believe in learning by doing,” Nathaniel adds, which is why the City has been supporting robotics workshop and hackathons in schools, running Smart Cities 101 classes and sessions in the library’s maker space, and workshops that show kids how to build their own IoT devices. “We are trying to make the opportunities of smart cities a kitchen table discussion and want the kids to be leading that with their families. It’s a real ground-up approach,” he says.

“We have a vibrant ecosystem of people already working in the digital economy, creative industries or tech start-ups – and we bring these people together in lots of different forums to problem-solve live issues. By giving our early adopters a consistent narrative about what’s going on in the smart city space we feel we can create and empower genuine advocates.”

The City of Newcastle’s next big challenge is to make smart cities thinking the new normal. “We’re moving beyond the deployment of foundation technology and are now deepening the engagement with our community and industries around how we collaborate on the future of our city.”

Dr Nathaniel Bavinton will share more case studies from the field as he joins other smart cities strategists from around Australia at Smart Cities Week in Sydney from 30 October to 1 November. Register today.