Could we have a new ‘Smart City’ focused PM? We look at what’s happening in governmental circles with regard to smart cities, then goes on to talk about innovative technologies currently in use around the world, and finally asks where Australia could be heading.

Since the Liberal leadership spill, new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has used his platform on various occasions to push the idea of ‘smart cities’ into the national conversation.

Even in his previous post as communications and broadband minister, Turnbull was reported to be “animated,” during a discussion on ‘smart cities’ at the annual Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD) meeting in Melbourne. Attendees described his knowledge of and passion for cities of the future, in which digital technology would be married to the everyday needs of citizens.

In 2014, Turnbull also addressed the Smart City Forum in Parramatta, closing by saying “… a smart city needs more than smart technology, it needs smart people. And to create the environment that will attract them, you need technological imagination and above all smart planning.”

Now as PM, he has had the opportunity to further foreground these ideas, including and .

He has also highlighted efforts to use technology and push innovation forward in numerous tweets, including a round table on innovation and being referred to as the ‘tech-savvy PM’

What is a ‘smart city’?

Although there isn’t a universally agreed definition, the Smart Cities Council begins with a basic description of a city “that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” In a Forbes magazine interview Steffen Sorrel of Juniper Research focuses on two benefits of ‘smart cities’; sustainability and efficiency.

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This involves governments, business and citizens playing a part in enhanced quality and performance of services, reduced costs and resource consumption, and cities engaging more effectively and actively with citizens. This might involve a wide range of areas (including government services, transport and traffic management, energy, health care, water and waste) where technology could be used to improve accessibility, sustainability and efficiency.

Top 5 smart cities in the world

According to the Forbes report on a study by Juniper Research, they identified the top five smart cities worldwide as.

  1. Barcelona
  2. New York City
  3. London
  4. Nice
  5. Singapore

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5 technologies changing world cities

  1. Flexible street lighting. In Amsterdam (and other Dutch cities) energy provider Alliander has introduced an ‘Open Smart Grid Platform’ which provides data that can help make street lighting more flexible and responsive to changing demands. For instance, based on information from various sensors lights can more efficiently provide safety in public places whilst saving energy. They can be dimmed or increased depending on the weather, the flow of traffic and pedestrians and the saved energy can be used to power other function of the ‘Smart Lampposts’, such as Wi-Fi and measuring air quality.
  1. Smarter parking. App developers have partnered with a number of city councils and, using sensors under car parking spaces, are able to deliver real time parking availability information to drivers’ smart-phones, easing congestion as well as saving energy, emissions (and frustration!) caused by searching blindly for a space. The ‘Parker’ app can also direct drivers to specific types of space, such as disabled parking and those with credit-card payment facilities.In terms of the built environment, there are examples of fully automated parking solutions in Dubai, which can be seen in action in this rather hypnotic video. Developments like this make better use of the available space.

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3. Bike sharing. Bike share facilities are becoming increasingly common, operating in 78 cities and 16 countries. The aims are often to reduce congestion and pollution from car journeys, whilst offering a sustainable, environmentally friendly, convenient inner city transport option, which could also contribute to better quality of life and improved health. The basic idea is simple, but only relatively recently has technology made it more feasible; with smart card and mobile phone payment and electronic tracking allowing bikes to be collected and returned to different location whilst discouraging theft.

Like cars, more advanced, space efficient and secure bike parking is also being developed and implemented, as you can see in this video from Japan.

4. Traffic flow. In L.A., reportedly the most congested city on earth, if sensors detect that cars are moving at the posted speed limit (i.e. traffic is flowing freely) that data is used to synchronise upcoming traffic lights and give a better run of green lights, reducing congestion and standing emissions. The City reports the initiative has cut the journey time on several heavily used corridors by 12%.

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5. Improving accessibility. Wheelmap is an online map developed by a German NGO, and is a good example of the role of citizens in developing smart cities. It allows users to share information on wheelchair accessibility and 500,000 locations across the world have already been covered. As well as allowing other users ready access to that information, the crowd sourced data can also be used by campaigners and governments when considering the issue of accessibility.

Are Australian cities getting smarter?

Australian cities are conspicuous by their absence in the top five smart cities identified by Juniper Research. However, there are ongoing developments such as a partnership between tech company CISCO and Adelaide. Trials are underway for smart city initiatives in parking and lighting.

The City of Melbourne is reportedly pushing via the House of Representatives Committee for a smart city approach to planning infrastructure, and point out they already use sensor technology to gather data on pedestrian activity in the CBD.

There are also projects at RMIT looking at how ‘big data’ can be gathered and used, particularly for smart transport innovations along with the Smart Cities Research Cluster (SCRC) at the University of New South Wales.

Related: Energy tips from the world’s most sustainable countries

Australia is the most urbanised country in the world, with over 70% of population living in cities. You might assume, therefore, that it’s in our interests to be at the forefront of technologies that are likely to define life in the cities of the future.

If we are to continue topping ‘quality of life’ surveys for worldwide cities as our urban population is likely to grow further, the use of technology and data might be indispensable in providing key services like transport and maintaining a sustainable level of energy use. It seems the will is there, with research and experimentation ongoing, but it is difficult to say how soon we will see the fruits of smart city innovations.


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