July 1, 2017

Smart cities – insights from the AFR National Infrastructure Summit 2017

We’re already living in smart cities. The challenge facing Australia is how to ensure our cities deliver the best possible living and working environments in the future.

We’re already living in smart cities. The challenge facing Australia is how to ensure our cities deliver the best possible living and working environments in the future. At this year’s AFR National Infrastructure Summit, a panel of researchers and academics were joined by NAB’s Steve Lambert to discuss what we need to focus on next.

  • Professor Christopher Petit, Associate Director – City Futures Research Centre, UNSW
  • Professor John Stanley, Adjunct Professor, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies
  • Steve Lambert, Executive General manager, Capital Financing, NAB
  • Doctor Sarah Barns, Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, WSU
  • Moderator: Kathryn Matthews, partner, Deloitte

Smart cities are the way of the future. Big data, open data and the voice of the customer are the key issues to focus on as we move towards a better urban experience.

Are smart cities better cities?

Barns: How do we manage digital disruption so that it benefits citizens, our quality of life and infrastructure? Smart homes aren’t necessarily better, so why would smart cities automatically be better? We need to reframe smart cities as places that use data efficiently to make best use of their services. But that’s not always easy to achieve. If you look at current opportunities like transport infrastructure, Uber is an example of a service that’s extremely beneficial for customers. But it also raises challenges around its proprietary system of data collection, which isn’t available to us as planners of future infrastructure. So we need to work out a system where smart cities can function as digital ecosystems that combine both public and private systems.

Petit: No one wants a dumb city; if we activate a smart city, it’s better. It’s how we activate the big data we already have to make cities more liveable that’s the challenge. Opening access to big and real time data within Sydney has allowed us to improve things like transport and the places we work and live in.

Stanley:  Let’s use autonomous vehicles as a way of exploring what might or might not be a smart use of technology in a smart city.  There are benefits in autonomous car technology around improved safety, more social inclusion of people who can’t drive and an increase in road capacity since autonomous vehicles can travel closer together.

However, there’s a huge risk around the growth of urban sprawl. If you can get into a car and work while it drives you, that commuting time ceases to have meaning, which could lead to the spread of urban sprawl – the enemy of well-functioning cities. The only way to stop that is for autonomous vehicles to be shared. So a smart city would be one that mitigates the risk by encouraging sharing.

I don’t think we can be a smart city until we know what kind of city we want to be. If you talk to politicians in Sydney or Melbourne about traffic congestion, they say we need bigger roads. If you talk to people in Vancouver, it’s a completely different approach. And we’re very bad at integrated planning (between local, state and federal government) in Australia. I think governance will be key to developing smart cities.

Lambert: From our perspective, liveability is very important and data has a huge role to play in that. The broad vision is important but the debate around what we want our cities to be is still to be had in Australia.

Liveability is about local needs and communities. We’ve been working with the University of Sydney to investigate what sort of infrastructure we need to allow communities to reach their full potential. There are three pieces around this: firstly, infrastructure doesn’t need to be big to work.  It has to be good and it has to be the right solution at the right time.

Secondly, how do you get the voice of the consumer into the room? How do you think about infrastructure as a service not an asset? What’s in it for the community? The third piece is how to get local communities involved? Is there a platform where communities can work together to identify and solve issues without waiting for the government?

Are smart cities just about technology? What smart cities can we learn from?

Barns: Smart cities aren’t just about technology. We need to go back to fundamentals and ask what we want our cities to be. A smart city strategy that’s being developed purely as technology, as we’re doing in Australia, is often disempowered from the wider community planning decisions going on.  We’re also seeing that open data pilots in Australia are often sidelined from bigger government discussions.

Cities like New York, London and Barcelona are championing open data as the framework for participation at the local level in planning decisions. Creating local forums is really important for this and to address the trust gap.

How do you see autonomous cars working in our cities?

Stanley: It comes back to deciding what we want from our cities. Most cities want to be more sustainable, which means more compact settlement patterns, stronger CBDs, strong radial transport and access for people living on the fringe. We also need people to be more accountable for the decisions they make – like car usage. That may mean changing the way we tax cars and charging more for vehicle infrastructure usage. It would help push autonomous cars in a sharing direction, which would reduce costs dramatically.

How can we get the voice of the customer into the debate about what smart cities should look like?

Lambert: We haven’t cracked it yet. Maybe broader infrastructure hubs that use technology to facilitate collaboration around issues would help. I think it’s also about getting government, private equity and not-for-profits working together more efficiently. We’re trying to facilitate discussion around the bigger issues in our society and how to solve them.  It’s solving the micro as well as the macro.

Impact capital is a model I’m looking at in this space. We know government can no longer provide the services we need so we have to look for other models.

What is the role of universities around developing smart city policies? How does academia maintain the impact of its research?

Stanley: At the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Sydney, we’ve invested a lot of time in developing smart models of our finished work. That’s starting to impact on governments and they’re now coming to us for advice.

However, we need to improve the dialogue with the community. We try to put our research out there so people can comment and improve on it.

Petit: Academics are moving outside the ivory tower. Huge amounts are being done to solve real world problems. Australia is not very mature in partnerships between private industry or government and universities but it needs to happen.