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Australian cities are getting smarter

The smart city phenomenon is taking off in Australia, where there's the space and the will to make it work.

Cities evolve. Most of them start small and expand over time, growing in a haphazard fashion that can often seem random to their inhabitants. Few cities in the world could truly be described as smart. Many of them seem to balance precariously on the edge of chaos.

Yet that might be about to change. The smart city concept is gaining momentum around the world, as councils look to manage their cities in a more rational way. This is often through sensors, smart meters, clever use of transport technology and better internet services. All of these are on the agenda, driven by the increasing power and decreasing cost of technology. Big data is at the heart of this, using information about every aspect of a city and its inhabitants to improve infrastructure and lives.

The prerequisites for a smart city aren’t exactly new. Many large population centres have already initiated some components, such as free wireless internet in the central business district (CBD), better public transport and a coherent management strategy. But the true smart city vision ties all of these together – along with environmental considerations, culture, fair economic planning and other factors – into an effective, well-managed, data-driven whole. At least, that’s the idea.

Smart cities a natural progression in Australia

Australia is an obvious place for smart city implementation. Its cities lack the haphazard urban randomness of the likes of Paris, London or Rome, simply because they’re younger. That makes some aspects of smart city implementation easier in Australia, though not all. Cities such as Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne have already thrown their hats into the ring, some of them openly taking inspiration from smart counterparts like Barcelona, Singapore and Glasgow.

What’s the downside? Privacy concerns must be handled sensitively, since smart cities rely on gathering huge amounts of data from citizens; data that could be compromising or embarrassing if made public. Gainsayers, and there are a few, point to the risks in handing over vast swathes of public data and administration to large multinational technology corporations. It’s a valid point. Once technology takes executive decisions away from humans, there’s no going back.

But the smart city movement isn’t an overnight sensation. There’s plenty of time to thrash out effective legal frameworks to maintain a fair balance. And some smart cities are trying to grow their own technology solutions, in universities and startup hubs, to keep things close to home.

There’s no Australian central government funding available specifically for smart city projects, but that doesn’t stop cities applying for funding for individual projects under the smart city umbrella. Many are forging ahead regardless, including Parramatta, a New South Wales city within the broader Sydney metropolitan area.

Parramatta’s smart city ambitions

Parramatta’s smart city project offers this goal: “A city based upon the foundations of good urban planning, economic competitiveness, environmental engineering and sustainable practices that use information and communication technologies to enhance liveability, sustainability and workability.”

Backing this up, a Parramatta City Council spokesperson said: “We believe that embracing smart city will benefit all the residents of Parramatta by creating more opportunity, attracting new business, improving governance and making the local government area more liveable.”

All of which is laudable, but when it comes down to it this is a huge undertaking. When asked what was perceived as the biggest technical obstacle to be overcome, such as gathering and processing the data from smart meters or maintaining a resilient city-wide network, the response was: “Council is still working to identify its priority projects for smart city. We are looking forward to solving the challenges that lie ahead in terms of identifying the best use of data capture, analysis and use.”

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There will certainly be challenges. Parramatta’s data collection plans are wide-ranging, to put it mildly. Possibilities include smart meters that will measure usage of electricity, water and gas. Smart buildings may be equipped with sensors to monitor movement and energy use. Environmental sensors could check the quality of water, air and soil. Then there are smart traffic lights; smartcards for ID, payment and transport; CCTV networks; and much more. Although not set in stone, these and other possibilities are being considered.

Support for local tech startups

But how much of the transition to smart city status will be driven by local technology businesses? It seems Parramatta is keen to make use of its own resources wherever possible.

According to the spokesperson: “On 10 November a new Launch Pad Tech Start Up support programme was launched by Parramatta City Council, in conjunction with Western Sydney University and KPMG. This programme is designed to identify budding tech entrepreneurs across a range of sectors and provide them with a business support community and leading expertise to enable local startups to streamline, commercialise and test their business services and products.”

The goal is for this spark to ignite the fire of development for the city. “The commencement of Parramatta’s Launch Pad Tech Hub will provide a focused space for other leading technology providers to proactively contribute to future smart city concepts and projects,” said the council spokesperson.

Perhaps it will, but there’s a surprising sting in the tail, with two years considered a reasonable timescale for becoming a smart city, from original idea to full implementation.

That seems unlikely. This is, at heart, a public sector IT project, and such projects have a long history of going over budget, over deadline and not meeting the specifications. More than that, its an IT project melded with civic engineering and social restructuring projects. As juggling acts go, thats got to be one of the hardest, particularly as no central government funding has yet been secured, with “Parramatta City Council currently researching what is available”.

Still, if the council can pull off this ambitious plan, or even get a fair percentage of the way there, it might find itself with the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Once the data starts rolling in, it can be used to refine the citys operation and accelerate its development.

Open data for the good of all

Thats data as a utility; taking datasets – suitably anonymised – and using them to improve the way the city is run. Parramattas plan envisions making some of this data open and public, following examples set by New York and other smart cities. This way, anyone interested can use the data to discover underlying trends and factors that might not be immediately apparent to the casual observer.

So while the deadline might be a little unrealistic, the goals are admirable. Using data to improve the lives of a citys inhabitants is a problem that big data might have been invented to solve.

Whether Parramatta gets where it wants in two years is almost beside the point. Other city councils are watching, and will learn from Parramattas experience. The smart city genie is out of the bottle in Australia. The only way now is forward.

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