Six Big Lessons from Smart Cities Week Australia 2019

six big lessons

Over 350 delegates, 100 speakers, 50 cities, 30 sessions and six big lessons. Smart Cities Week 2019 brought together our entire ecosystem on both sides of the Tasman to road test ideas and engage in robust debate. So, what did we learn?

1.      The rubber has hit the road

We’re starting to move past plans and strategies, and towards projects making real world impact. And the case studies just kept on coming.

Waverley Council has half a million subscribers to its public WiFi and three years of data under its belt – and with the help of predictive analytics knows how many people will head to Bondi Beach on Boxing Day.

Moreton Bay Regional Council is using dashcams installed in garbage trucks to scan its $2 billion road infrastructure for potholes and prioritise maintenance for fast repairs.

The City of Melbourne, which took home the prestigious City Leadership category at the Australian Smart Cities Awards, has brought together 26 partners to develop data sharing standards for 5G and the Internet of Things.

And the City of Canning is transforming a “multifunction drain” surrounded by unsightly barbed wire fencing into a beautiful patch of green and blue that people can enjoy. Sure, there’s sensors, CCTV and a ‘happiness tracker’, but the real success story is in how existing and underused assets can be reimagined as our cities expand.

The lesson? If you haven’t got projects on the go, you’re lagging behind the leaders.

2.      Yes, there is more to this than technology

The vendor community heard it loud and clear: stop pushing tech and start offering solutions to city problems. And the enlightened tech companies are listening.

As Cisco’s Head of Smart and Connected Communities, Yasser Helmy, said: “We shouldn’t treat smart cities as an IT project. Technology is an enabler, a means to an end.”

Local government leaders were in lockstep on this issue. Mayor of Canterbury Bankstown Council Khal Asfour admitted he doesn’t even like technology much. But after a visit to Silicon Valley three years ago, he recognised that smart cities can add value far beyond “roads, rates and rubbish”. Khal emphasised that the biggest benefits for his community aren’t found in rolling out “tech or toys” but in “changing the way we operate, being more open and transparent, and listening to our residents”.

Wyndham City Council’s Ben Sinnott argued that “technology doesn’t have to be the driver, but it can help us understand the solutions”. And Nathaniel Bavinton from the City of Newcastle offered our audience a new way of looking at our urban challenges beyond the technical. “Don’t see the city as the problem. Value the city as the solution,” he said.

We often hear the phrase “it’s not about the technology” before someone rushes headlong into a conversation about technology. But the best projects on show this year were not just high-tech, but human. That’s the benchmark to strive for as you start thinking about your award submissions for 2020.

3.      Our data literacy is improving, but we’ve got a long way to go

Data remains a big problem in many cities, and in many cases actionable insights are a tiny spot on the horizon. “AI isn’t magic – it can’t fix the basis of your dataset,” warned Brisbane City Council’s Bernadette Stone. Forget big data, the City of Newcastle’s James Vidler added. His team was focused on “modest data” before big data even got a look in.

But data literacy has undoubtedly improved in the last year, and we joined engaged and insightful conversations that moved beyond “we need to measure more things” and towards “we need to measure what matters”. As City of Wellington’s smart cities guru Sean Audain said succinctly: “Data has no meaning of its own – it is only how it solves a problem that matters.”

Speaker after speaker agreed. During the Digital Twin Symposium, Lendlease’s Bill Ruh pointed out that Barangaroo already has more than one million live data points. “The problem is what you do with the data. Everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles, but we don’t talk about autonomous buildings. That’s what digital twins are going to change,” Bill said.

Cities are also starting to build a more responsible culture around data. New conversations about privacy, stewardship and algorithmic bias can help us grow our data literacy. As privacy expert Nicole Stephensen said, ‘privacy by design’ can help “cities to identify and eliminate privacy risks before they become risks”.

In an Australian first, Smart Cities Week played host to an accelerator session on civic data trusts. Facilitator Dr Vanessa Douglas-Savage of GWI urged delegates to bring a greater level of governance to their data journeys. “Figuring out where to start, and who should be involved, takes longer and is more difficult than you realise at the outset,” Vanessa explained. “All data sharing has a price and finding a sustainable model that delivers benefits is crucial. The fact that we are having a conversation around data governance models is a significant step forward.”

4.      It’s time for our leaders to step up

Smart cities activities must be the responsibility of city leaders, not just one business unit. We saw the power of charismatic leadership in action when Mayor of Seat Pleasant Eugene W. Grant took to the stage.

Seat Pleasant, a 5,000-strong community in Maryland in the United States, which calls itself the world’s first small smart city, turned to technology in the wake of the global financial crisis as the city looked to “do more with less”. Mayor Grant is not a smart cities champion – he’s a champion of his citizens. Whether Seat Pleasant is gearing up for 5G or fixing a pothole, the mayor’s focus is squarely on “developing a citizen-centric smart city”.

Other speakers were firmly in Mayor Grant’s camp. Zac Bookman, the cofounder and CEO of OpenGov, a Silicon Valley software company driving public sector transformation and transparency, urged the audience to forget about “flash” technology and to instead focus on “culture and leadership”.

The big question: Can your leadership envisage the digital environment of the future? Because if you can’t, you may go the way of Kodak, Blockbuster or Nokia, we heard.

5.      Policymakers need to pick up the pace

Debate and discussion in the breaks often centred on interoperability, standards, benchmarking and common approaches to common problems. Siloes don’t work with smart cities – and nothing short of clear, coordinated public policy is needed.

NSW Minister for Customer Service, Victor Dominello, explored the consequences looming large if we fail to address “digital clutter”. Should Sydneysiders expect to navigate 130-odd parking apps – one for each of NSW’s local councils – he wondered? An informed member of the audience commented that this explains why just 10 per cent of Australians use parking apps, which is among the lowest rates in the developed world.

Place Design Group’s Chris Isles, who took home the Smart Cities Award for Industry Leader, is a self-confessed street nerd who worries about the future of our streets without a coordinated and curated approach. We’re staring down the barrel of the “worst streets we’ve ever known” if we don’t start thinking smart. (Chris was part of the SCC Mobility Task Force who created Mobility Now, a new strategy from the Smart Cities Council which outlines six essential steps to greater urban mobility and better cities).

Infrastructure Australia’s CEO Romilly Madew AO also pointed to the pitfalls when government policy doesn’t keep pace with the rate of change. Governments “grossly underestimated” the impact of new mobility – whether e-bikes, Airbnb or ride sharing – she said. While governments are now onboard ride sharing, such reactive thinking must not cloud smart cities opportunities, especially around the uptake of electric vehicles, Romilly argued.

But in a leadership circle session unpacking cross-jurisdictional collaboration, Jannat Maqbool from Hamilton City Council in New Zealand highlighted how councils were avoiding misallocation of resources, and scaling solutions off the back of interconnected networks and funding alignment, resulting in substantial cost savings.

6.      Stop searching for the destination

The smart cities journey so far has been jaw-dropping in its degree of challenge and complexity. As the City of Newcastle’s James Vidler put it: “We’ve had to build the aeroplane while it is flying, but also the airport it would land at without knowing where it would be.”

And that’s why the work to date has been so inspiring. Cities are laying the foundations for a smart future well after the sugar hit of federal funding abates.

But a word of warning. Too often we talk about smart cities with a sense of urgency – but a smart city is more than a “big splash” of projects, as Arcadis’ Jamye Harrison argued. A smart city is one that is “wired, designed and built” to evolve as the needs of humans change and that creates an environment for ongoing innovation.

Broadspectrum’s Ian Maxted was particularly upbeat about the future, provided industry and government “work hand-in-hand” to “deliver the best projects with and for our communities”.

And besides, in an uncertain future the past is no useful guide. Roadmaps won’t help us, argued the University of Technology Sydney’s Margaret Petty. Pointing to companies and leaders that had roadmaps but were still “epic failures” – Nokia or Tsar Nicholas, Lehmann Brothers and Blockbuster – Margaret argued that we need to get better at “reading the terrain”.

Smart Cities Week was the best opportunity to read the terrain that you’ll get all year. If you missed it, then start planning for next year when we gather in Melbourne in August. We are building a smart cities movement. Join us.