Why did the city become so smart?

Fri, 2019-06-14 11:30 -- Adam Beck


After speaking to a number of our industry members, Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand (SCCANZ) is sharing the following views in response to recent commentary from media and academia regarding the Switching on Darwin project in the Northern Territory. SCCANZ discloses, that in its role as the nation's leading advocate for smart cities, it is providing support to the City of Darwin.

Society is changing at a rapid rate and the wide impact of the fourth industrial revolution is seen within our cities and regions. Too often we are willing to criticise the government when it does nothing and yet, when they act, we are all too quick to look for the negative.

Governments are responding to embrace the changes with many adopting technologies to enhance social and economic well-being. The focus of this digital adoption is commonly known as smart cities/regions.

The ‘smart’ in our cities and regions represent a step change for all governments. With the growing urbanisation of our cities, unprecedented demands are being placed on governments at all levels, most notably, at the local level. With costs rising and pressure to reduce local tax (rates), local government is seeking ways to do things ‘smarter’ – more for less.

But, not only are they looking for ways in which technology and data can help them do more with less, they are seeking opportunities to catalyse economic development – to provide a platform and create the conditions for others to thrive, whether it be small business, young entrepreneurs or existing businesses looking to move to their next growth phase.

These goals, and how the use of technology and data to enable government to achieve them, is at times murky. The smart cities idea has often been confused by some as being an agenda of investing in new technology, for technology sake. And at times what we see in the media has a disconnect to the reality of the world around us, and what is actually playing out.

This is understandable at times, as the link to technology investment and social and economic outcomes is not well understood. While cities around the world are piloting flying drones that deliver a pizza to your doorstep, other cities are investing in technology and data solutions that are less visible yet responding to priority issues.

Data analytics to predict the next hot spots of domestic violence in a community, personal beacons to monitor the gait of an elderly person suffering from a heart condition or the humble iPad being used in regional aboriginal communities to digitally archive verbal stories to educate the next generation.

The smart cities and smart region idea are not always that visible, or ‘sexy’. However, it is changing people’s lives, and allowing government and other sectors to do more with less.

Within Australia, one of the most significant investments in smart cities technology and data solutions has been in the Northern Territory, by the City of Darwin. It is known as the ‘Switching on Darwin’ project.

The City of Darwin is the gateway to Asia for Australia; a city with tremendous opportunity for growth. However, it is a city and region under massive pressure to transform, and all parts of the economy are collaborating to achieve this. The Property Council in the Northern Territory has worked tirelessly to provide detailed evidence of what is needed to power social and economic growth; the recent CBD cooling project is just one example of how evidence is being used to underpin critical decisions.

Like all cities, Darwin has its challenges; in this case, it’s anti-social behaviour in the central areas. This is openly recognised by the Northern Territory Government and the Darwin City Council. As with so many societal issues, this situation is complex and multi-layered.

It would be so easy to just focus law enforcement and policing on the anti-social behaviour; however, it is not that simple. There is an imperative to provide safety and support for the most vulnerable in Darwin who are gathering in the central area.

Credit should be given to the three levels of government that have come together in Darwin to negotiate and deliver a City Deal that features many investments in technology and data, for good.

As part of this agreement, the city council has taken a leading role in using smart technology to enhance the liveability of residents and ratepayers. From smart parking to free up traffic circulation, to environmental sensors that provide near-real time intelligence allowing the City to make decisions that enhance visitor and resident comfort and experience. And of course, publicly accessible Wi-Fi, now a staple service for any modern city or town looking to engage its residents and visitors.

Another key part of Darwin’s technology deployment has been CCTV for public safety. Part of the Northern Territory’s Five Point Plan for enhancing public safety, this existing technology enabler has been extended as part of the Switching on Darwin project.

Unfortunately, many have been quick to criticise the use of CCTV in Darwin with some drawing inferences that Darwin is set to become just like China with a social credit system. Commentators are focussed on the assumption that thought has not been given to the privacy and ethics of data capture, storage and use.

While the evidence surrounding CCTV and crime prevention is not strong, the use of smart technology for public safety has many layers and is not a simplistic issue. CCTV, used with careful planning, provides a critical tool to enhance an urban environment, such as Darwin.

Make no mistake, the local community in Darwin have identified that ‘feeling safe’ is one of their five top attributes for making their city a great place to live. How people ‘feel’ about their quality of life, and their perception around feeling safe, in a qualitative or subjective way, can be as important, if not more important.

Being ‘smart’ allows governments to do more with less, to monitor and to intervene before situations escalate, and thus protect those at risk. Governments are endlessly criticised for being reactive - being smart offers the ability for proactive government. Fixing the pothole, emptying the bin, cleaning the street before the community is aware of a problem.

Importantly, digitally enabled smart infrastructure (such as the systems deployed for Switching on Darwin) enhances the ability of government and law enforcers to ascertain patterns of anti-social behaviour and to use the data for evidence to support targeted investment in the public realm and therefore shape positive changes in community behaviour.

With the rapid advancement of environmental sensing through the internet of things, data analytics and machine learning, Darwin joins other cities and towns around Australia (and the world) who are better understanding how social, environmental and economic systems are working in their community, and are moving from ‘reactive best guess’ to ‘data-driven action’.

It sends a clear signal to trading partners - Darwin is open for business in a modern economy. This is something we should all applaud.

Each ‘Smart’ project is unique; and should have a well-defined problem/opportunity always articulated at project inception. The ‘Switching on Darwin’ project is an example of government ‘doing something’ to enhance the lives of residents and ratepayers. The defined opportunity statement for the Switching on Darwin project could not be any clearer, as discussed above.

And on the potential risk of data exploitation, as highlighted by some commentators regarding the Darwin project, this has already been addressed in statements by government officials. For Darwin, it’s been a process of using appropriate technology and data solutions, accessing best in class standards, designing privacy in from inception and adherence to legislation.

We fully agree that anything funded by the taxpayer should rightly attract scrutiny, however commentary must also consider the context, as every smart city is unique.

The community and economy of Darwin need our support. Darwin is the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, and our gateway to Asia. It is also a former frontier outpost, now leading the smart cities frontier for the global data economy.