Smart Cities Now, and Next: Our Interview with Catherine Caruana-McManus

SCCANZ spoke recently to Catherine Caruana-McManus, someone who has been close to the smart cities movement both globally, but also here locally in Australia for many years. As Director of Sales Strategy for IoT integrator Meshed and the Workstream Chair for Smart Cities and Industries for the Internet of Things Alliance Australia, she remains active in the advancement of the digital economy and the sustainability of our cities.

Here are Catherine’s views on some key issues emerging for smart cities and IoT in Australia.

Q: Let’s start at 40,000 feet – Can you articulate the smart cities imperative for me?

I believe we would all agree that the three global mega trends that we are facing are migration, urban population growth and climate change.

The global smart cities movement is the approach of how cities are leveraging enabling technologies to deal with these trends and better connect their citizens so they can actively participate in a globally connected world and a large part of this is about the creation of new jobs and long term sustainability of environment for future generations.

Ultimately it is about people at the heart of the solution which will vary greatly depending on which community they call home.

Q: Disruption is thrown around quite loosely at times with this agenda, do you dare make some predictions on what will be the big-ticket items?

In my view, among others, there are three major disrupters knocking on the door: robotics and automation, the Internet of Things, and the new energy economy.

Robotics and Automation

We now don't have to look too far into the future to imagine the role that robots will have in our cities and the dramatic rise in automation that is now fuelling the innovation in the global car industry and public transport or mobility as a service.

But with automation comes layers of complexity that not only encompasses the regulatory, policy, communications and spectrum aspects, but the behavioural impact that connected mobility will have on how we go about our business and our daily lives. 

Internet of Things

We are seeing a world where every-“thing” will be connected to the internet. McKinsey & Company report estimating a potential global economic impact of the Internet of Things applications of $11.1 trillion (USD) per year in 2025 and according to the IoT Alliance Australia, this equates to $116 billion of potential upside to the Australian economy by 2025. (2015 Report). 

The true value of IoT is not the communication between machines or people but its ability to leverage data from multiple 'silos' within the organisation and from external sources, such as Open Data and Data Sharing. 

New Energy Economy

There is the new energy economy which is being driven by climate change and global divestment from fossil fuels as well as a new emerging aspirational market for quality and excellence in design and sustainability. 

And despite our Federal Government’s resisting the inevitable, there is evidence that we have reached a major milestone where globally there is now more investment in renewables than in fossil fuels. 

Q: But what about big data – isn’t that going to fuel the innovation economy going forward?

We are shifting from a world full of data to a data driven world. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and real-time data generated from mobile applications and real-time sensor networks are pushing traditional means of managing and interpreting data to a new frontier. There is even talk that we won’t need software programmers in the future as computers are teaching themselves and then applying logic and actions using advanced algorithms.

Q: Right here, right now – where is Australia at?

For my part, after years of working with some of the world’s smartest cities such as New York, Munich, Singapore, Amsterdam, London and Barcelona – I am now very pleased to say that it is a very busy time here in Australia in building smarter communities.

There is so much good work going on. What’s encouraging, is that governments at all levels are playing a critical role in providing the frameworks and policy levers to attract investment in smart cities. And none so active as the start-ups and innovation hubs. 

Australia’s local smart city start-up industry is thriving with many new hubs are being launched off the back of the success of the FinTech start-up investment.  For example, Telstra’s Muru-D, Blue Chilli in Sydney and the City Lab in Melbourne are just a few notables.

And this is where my company Meshed fits in.  We are actively working with cities, universities and industry to grow smart cities and IoT and deliver citizen driven projects.  For example, we have partnered with the global open source IoT network, The Things Network and have deployed low cost data networks in 6 of our largest cities including Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Wollongong.  Our latest project, Tulipnetwork.org is collecting data on air quality and is using crowd funding for the infrastructure and sensors and partnering with UTS for the data analytics.

But it’s important to note that it’s not just cities that are becoming smarter, our regions are as well. Southeast Queensland is leading the way in that regard.

At a national level, the forming of the Cities Reference Group by Assistant Minister Angus Taylor has signalled a strong commitment to this agenda.

The City Deals process has gone a long way to address inequities between cities and regions, for example the Townsville City Deal is seeking to address job losses because of the resources downturn.

The Smart Cities and Suburbs funding program also presents a unique opportunity for all tiers of government to harness productivity, innovation and smart cities investment as a catalyst for change.

Q: Are you feeling optimistic about the next few years?

There is a lot of great work that is being done by a number of cities and government agencies, as well as the peak industry and community associations such as the Australian Smart Communities Association, the Smart Cities Council, the IoT Alliance as well as a number of Cooperative Research Centres.

The level of collaboration is exciting, and I believe this is a global competitive advantage for Australia’s smart cities movement. I strongly believe that we can get to a place where Australia is no longer a “taker” of smart cities technology, but a creator and a leader in the areas of smart cities, therefore giving us a strong competitive advantage in the years to come.