We might be managing our cities, but is that enough?

Tue, 2019-11-05 07:45 -- Adam Beck


By Adam Beck, Executive Director, Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand

As I prepared for my keynote speech at the New Zealand Association of Local Government Information Management conference in Wellington last week, I wanted to look and think beyond those typical issues and questions that are familiar with this agenda. I used the opportunity to pause, and reflect on this movement, the narrative and the 'rub' we continue to see. Here's what I typed after opening up a blank page on the screen.

It starts with an issue that matters deeply. Unleashing purpose-driven actions that matter, that make a difference. But it starts with a big idea. A world-changing idea.

You may not see it yet, but that’s what lays behind smart cities.

Smart cities are about change – moving from good, to the best cities. The best for people, best for planet. What city or town would not want to be part of this change?

We are beyond the idea that smart cities is an efficiency agenda – technology to make things better. It is about changing people lives. Period.

But often dismissed as a 'tinkering' agenda around connected bins and lights, many are doubtful. So, what’s the hook to bring those across the chasm of doubt?

I believe smart cities is the movement local government leaders have been waiting for. And here are three reasons why.

Social wellbeing, known

Last year the Smart Cities Council and a consortium of its members scored (quantitatively out of 100) 14 cities and regions across Australia on their subjective wellbeing. This was a follow-up to an early pilot study in 2016 of the ten largest cities in the US (by population).

The methodology is rooted in over 20 years of research in the behavioral sciences, which have shown the importance of combining objective measures with direct measurement of subjective wellbeing to obtain a more wholistic understanding of the health and wellbeing of a population.

We used publicly available data from both social media and digital sources such as blogs, microblogs, forums, discussion boards, review sites and social networking sites. From this we were able to score elements of wellbeing such as the emotional state of citizens, how engaged they are, whether they have a sense of accomplishment, how strong their interpersonal relationships are and whether they are feeling physically and mentally healthy.

Imagine if every smart city technology and data solution contributed to these social wellbeing attributes? Focusing our digital transformation to those areas that increases the community’s wellbeing score by a factor of 10 points, or more?

Impossible to score some may say. Well, we can. And this data science capability is the superior framework for smart cities action and investment.

From data culture, to data economy

Blah blah blah, data is the new oil. Yep, we get it.

But do we?

The open data approach, whilst having some profound benefit in building a data culture within government organisations, has in some respects spectacularly failed. Putting up data sets on a website for all to see and use, and then hoping for good things to happen, using downloads as a key KPI, is not necessarily a formula to accelerating a data economy.

I know this view will be violently opposed my many, but this is what I am hearing more and more everyday. And for the record, I believe open data is the minimum a government should be doing with tax-payer funded data sets - 'our' data. This is a fundamental, minimum compliance issue, to maintain transparency in a democratic society. 

And sure, activating hackathons and other short-term challenges can significantly benefit from open data, and the flow-on opportunities that can result. But are we building the conditions by which the economy can thrive and generate opportunities for all sectors and all populations, especially our communities most vulnerable?

And while we are opening up data sets, some with the most granular of detail (such as hourly bus patronage levels), the most important data of all is still locked away, hidden from plain sight - how tax payer dollars are spent (ie. the budget).

With emerging tools and platforms, we can now ignite a ‘DEEEP’ data culture, which includes data engagement, data enablement and data exchange. This is the approach being taken by the City of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, as it moves forward with its second phase of the Switching on Darwin project, which is to catalyse a data-led economy.

Essentially, they are building the app-store for data, where the community buys, sells, trades and engineer’s new data sets in an open marketplace. More to come on this project throughout 2020 as it builds momentum.

Parallel worlds with digital twins

As citizens, we are immersed within the city - the built environment - every day. 'The city' has a direct influence on our ability to move around, exchange and engage, and generate the opportunities we need to live our lives. The built environment is also one of the largest budget items on a local or state government's books.

Whether it be road upgrades, public space maintenance or the humble electricity bill, the built environment can drain the budget swiftly.

Therefore, having a realistic digital representation of our physical assets – a digital twin – allows us to better understand the impacts of our assets, and inform the decisions around them. A digital twin can analyse and simulate real-world conditions and respond to operational changes.

But in terms of functionality, it is way more than just a digital representation of our physical and natural worlds. It's a tool for sharpening our ability to deteremine how to invest tax payers money in the most productive projects that will generate a higher level of wellbeing, among other outcomes.

Is the digital twin the 'uber' data platform, to trump all 'platforms'? It is grounded in reality (by being spatially enabled), and you not only see the data - you see the city! And being visually enabled, the community potentially engages like never before. There, I've called it. Now lets see what happens.

It's early days (there are currenlty no standards for Digital Twins, ISO 23247 for manufacturing pending). This new parallel universe is just gathering speed, and interest, and as the level of sensing and data capture exponentially grows in our cities we step closer to this digital reality.

Why just manage a city when we have the tools to create the highest performing social, economic and natural conditions for human development?

Welcome to the big ideas behind the smart city.