One of the latest buzz words is “Smart City”, but what does it mean, how do we make Australian cities smarter, and what would it be like to live in one?
Most people will be familiar with ‘smart’ pieces of technology. Lots of us have ‘smart’ phones, an internet capable device that can perform many more functions than just calls and text. The concept has been pushed even further by things like the ‘Smart Fridge’ that can generate a shopping list based on what’s left inside, and ‘smart’ cars able to transport passengers with no driver.
A Smart City is one that weaves the creative use of technology into the fabric of the places we live. The primary focus is efficiency: giving people all the services they need with as little waste as possible.
Much of this efficiency is intended to be achieved by implementation of digital technologies, often in applications where it has not been used before. Closely monitoring inputs, such as energy and water, to the city and outputs, such as waste, will help predict demand for services in the short term, and inform city planning in the long term.
What aspects of city life can be made smarter?
There is virtually no part of a functioning city that can’t be made more efficient, some of the more obvious areas are discussed below.
The citizens of any city are the entire reason for its existence. It might seem obvious, but making cities better for the people who live there tends to improve the functioning of the city across the board. The needs of the people are basically the needs of the city. Use of mobile internet by an increasing proportion of the population allows for all kinds of changes to monitor their behaviour to allow for better planning.
Knowing who the people are in a city can obviously help plan for their future and mapping, like this example from Parramatta in Sydney, is one way this can be achieved.
One of the key drivers in building a Smart City is attracting smart, creative people. Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, suggests that the way to attract these people to a city is to take care of the “Three Ts”: Talent, Technology, and Tolerance. Cultural diversity is a key aspect of creativity, and Florida created a number of indices, including a Bohemian index, and a Gay index which help predict how successful and creative a city will be. These aspects will also impact the output of creative people within a Smart City development.
Getting around a city makes a huge difference to how well it functions. This applies not just to people who need transport to work, to school, to go shopping and out for entertainment, but the transport of goods to and from, and within the city itself. The physical movement of goods and people can be optimised by careful planning based on existing transport patterns, but can also be influenced by new developments and incentives to use alternate services or routes.
Transport of certain things, such as consumer goods, may be optimised by use of online shopping, for example. Rather than every shopper going to a central location, one delivery vehicle can transport all purchases to the customer. The Smart Cities Council has a huge amount of information around future transport innovations.
A scheme that you may have seen popping up all over the globe is a cycle sharing network. Now more than 50 countries have a bike share scheme, and Australia is no exception.
In many developed countries, economies are moving from a production base to an information base, where trade in physical goods is being replaced by trade in services and knowledge. This has obvious effects on sustainability for cities where these changes have happened, but raises some questions about where necessities such as food and building materials are sourced for those cities. Many local governments have drawn up sustainable economy policies, such as this one from Coffs Harbour in New South Wales.
The balance between a city and its environment is the key to sustainability. The city must not consume more than the surrounding natural environment can provide, or produce more waste than can be cleanly disposed of within that environment. While the potential for sustainable developments using technology seems to be great, the progress so far is somewhat lagging behind according to this analysis from the Sustainable Cities Collective.
A buzz word so often used it seems to have lost some impact, though the key principles are to balance the needs of people with those of the economy and the natural environment. The aim of sustainability is to create a fair, viable and liveable world for people without compromising the natural systems that support them.
Because every aspect of a functioning city can be made more sustainable, many cities have set up agencies to foster partnerships with commercial and community stake holders to encourage greater co-operation in this area. Brisbane City council, one of the largest in Australia, has set up CitySmart to find ways to improve the sustainability bottom line for the city.
Resources are all the things required to keep a city functioning. That includes raw materials for construction and production, water, energy and food, amongst others. Resource inputs are one side of the sustainability equation, the other being waste outputs.
By finding new ways to reuse and recycle by-products it may be possible to reduce overall resource inputs to a city while also reducing waste. Most Australian cities have long encouraged recycling and composting of domestic waste, and many councils, such as the City of Canterbury Bankstown in Sydney have shifted the focus to business, who can often generate more waste than average households.
Encouraging sustainability in the residents of a city comes down to smart governance by the appropriate authorities. Building in the concepts of sustainability into government policy and engaging the community to feel involved and share responsibility is a key strategy of a smart city.
Encouraging people to make their own decisions sustainable is part of this process; for example when building or renovating a home, like this program in Queensland.
Local governments could also take a look at the city of Chicago’s 311 system. The system gives residents an app that allows them to report problems and track the response. This kind of feedback benefits works planning by allowing better mapping of problems, and gives people a sense of involvement and satisfaction when they see a problem being fixed.
Safety & Security
Increasing engagement and involvement of the community tends to increase the sense of ownership among people, which has the knock on effect of improving the general mood of people living in an area. That flows through to increased safety and security as residents feel a personal connection to their local area and an increased sense of civic pride. Using technology can also give authorities a greater network for monitoring criminal activity, civil disturbance and other emergencies throughout the city by linking existing surveillance to a central network.
The benefits of living in a Smart city are obvious to most people, more efficient transport, access to resources and services, and easier interaction with government agencies are likely to make any city more liveable. Also, if the alternative to a Smart City is a dumb city, it’s also clear where most people would rather live.
While much of the hype surrounding Smart Cities around the world seems to be predominantly driven by governments keen to appear forward thinking and proactive, there is definitely a movement towards integrating modern technological capabilities with age old logistical problems that every city in the world has to face.
It would be easy to dismiss the Smart Cities concept as hollow government rhetoric, but by forming partnerships with community groups and the private sector, the move towards Smart Cities could involve the people directly who live in cities, which is most of the world’s population, as well as engage business who may even find economically viable ways to improve the way cities function.
If you’d like to read the current federal Smart Cities planning document, it can be found here.