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Australia's smart communities future

By Laurie Patton, CEO, ASCA*
Monday, 04 December, 2017

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Australian communities will become better and smarter by harnessing people and technology.

Each November, more than 17,000 people from 700 cities gather in Barcelona to consider how to make people’s lives better by combining new ideas and new technologies. The Smart City Expo World Congress, as its name suggests, is the most significant global event of its kind. Australia is one of the countries that sent a delegation again this year. We are also one of the countries poised to become global thought leaders in this fast-emerging field. Adelaide, Ipswich and the Sunshine Coast featured in the Smart21 Communities of 2018 list recently released in New York at the Intelligent Cities Forum conference.

Australia has always been an innovation nation. We made the breakthrough that led to Wi-Fi, after all. We also invented the heart pacemaker and the ‘black box’ flight recorder. So it is more than reasonable to expect we will also be at the forefront of the evolution of what are known as ‘smart cities’, or ‘smart communities’ as the Australian Smart Communities Association (ASCA) prefers to call them.

ASCA was formed originally as the Broadband Alliance by people primarily involved in local government. Over time it became clear that technology alone was not the answer. It has to be about people and what they see as relevant to improving their lives. At the heart of our vision is a belief in the importance of putting people first — viewing things from a local perspective while also drawing on international experience.

Our aim for 2018 and beyond is to grow the organisation, broaden its focus and enhance our role as a sector leader by engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, including federal, state and territory governments — all for the purpose of making our communities more livable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered. In May 2018, ASCA will hold Australia’s biggest ever smart communities conference in Melbourne.

ASCA is focused on smart communities, rather than smart cities, for a good reason. Communities can encompass regional areas which include more than one city. Conversely, large cities invariably contain discrete and identifiable communities.

It’s time

The recently released Greater Sydney Commission 40-year strategy aims to produce more livable communities within the existing city footprint, according to its authors. Sydney will morph into a “tripartite metropolis” — with distinctly separate eastern, central and western cities. The core of the idea is that people will be able to commute between home, work and other key locations within 30 minutes. However, critics of the plan point to the need to create a huge number of extremely high-rise apartment buildings, which may or may not be how people wish to live.

In addition to making existing large cities more user-friendly, there’s scope for creating bigger communities in regional areas — and thereby releasing the growth pressure on our already overcrowded capitals. Forty years ago the Whitlam government launched the Albury-Wodonga Development Zone, which was arguably one of the world’s first attempts at creating a smart community.

There are a number of reasons why this decentralisation experiment failed. For one thing, we didn’t even have fax machines back then, so communicating with the rest of the country was by phone or the postal service. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were held face to face, this was an insurmountable hurdle.

Subsequent governments haven’t shared the Whitlam vision and haven’t followed through with the policies required to encourage such developments. However, perhaps now is the time?

The ultimate unity ticket

A fundamental question is, how do we move further along the pathway to smart communities? Clearly there’s a case for professionally managed community engagement — something that’s increasingly being adopted by government and industry. Who knows better what matters than the people who’ll live and work in tomorrow’s smart communities?

Connectivity is the cornerstone. Innovation cannot occur without it, and innovation is key to creating more intelligent cities and enriching their communities. It will be the smart use of technology that will make the difference. As we learned from the so-called ‘dot com’ era, creating new products is pointless if they fail to satisfy a genuine need and nobody uses them.

The US Centre for Data Innovation has called on national governments to provide assistance to communities via grants, collaboration networks and other forms of aid. It argues that most cities find their budgets lacking when deploying advanced smart city technologies. Its report states that government assistance will make it faster, cheaper and less risky for cities to invest in smart infrastructure and ensure that smart city projects are interoperable so that they contribute data and knowledge to those in other places.

While there’s already a good deal of energy in Australia at local government level, we’ll need our states, territories and Canberra all on board if we are to become world leaders. The federal government’s initiatives led by Angus Taylor are providing additional momentum, and the Opposition, too, is developing new policies.

What’s required amounts to the ultimate ‘unity ticket’. We need politicians from all parties and from every level of government to come together. We need innovative companies with new technologies. And we need people to be at the centre of the decision-making about how we create smart communities.

*Laurie Patton was CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia from 2014 to 2017. In October 2017 he became the inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association.

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