The conduct of Australia’s erstwhile, and first ever, minister for cities, Jamie Briggs has been anything but smart. Of more concern to the Australian public than the unsmartness of his personal conduct should be his lack of any focus on the smartness of Australia’s cities.
When prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Briggs’ appointment in September, he charged Briggs to “develop a new Australian Government agenda for our cities in cooperation with states, local governments and urban communities.”
He added: “Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically the Federal Government has had a limited engagement with cities and yet that is where most Australians live, it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found. We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets.”
Fine words, but no mention of smart cities, nor does Briggs appear to have achieved any progress on this important area in his short tenure.
At least it was an improvement on the situation under the Abbott Government. Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said in a November 2015 report after attending the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors: “Unfortunately, other levels of government have been slow to recognise the growing importance of Australian cities and the previous Federal Government’s Major Cities Unit was shamefully abolished by the Abbott Government.”
US Gov pumps $US160m into smart cities
Contrast this approach with the US where the White House in September held a Smart Cities Forum at which it announced more than $US160m in Federal research investments and more than 25 new technology collaborations to help cities solve problems.
Writing on the White House blog Dan Correa, a senior advisor for innovation policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said: “As part of the Smart Cities Initiative, many Federal agencies are also stepping up their efforts. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced over $35 million in Smart Cities grants. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is launching a new round of the Global City Teams Challenge – a project that brings together different organizations to develop Smart City goals and advance Smart City technologies to improve residential quality of life. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy, Transportation, and Commerce are also investing in smart city applications with projects that will help improve air-quality monitoring, increase the effectiveness of first responders, reduce traffic congestion, enhance energy-efficiency, and foster entrepreneurship.”
Smart grid, no smart city
What the Australian Government has done is to spend $100m on a Smart Grid, Smart City program, but it would be wrong to infer from the title that this project extended to smart city technologies other than smart grid, it didn’t. According to the report of the project, which ran from 2010 to 2013, “This major government initiative was delivered by Ausgrid and its consortia partners for the purpose of supporting and informing the industry-led adoption of smart grid technologies in Australia.”
The report also claimed: “In total, around $490 million was invested in the Smart Grid, Smart City Program by all contributors,” in what was “arguably one of the widest-ranging technology assessments of smart grid products in the world.”
Its central conclusion was that “The potential [exists] for a net economic benefit of up to $28 billion ($2014) over the next 20 years from the deployment of smart grid technologies in Australia.” The report included many recommendations. It has its own dedicated section on the Department of Industry’s web site but this makes no mention of any initiatives to implement the recommendations developed at this considerable cost.
Announcing its release in July 2014, industry minister Ian Macfarlane made no specific commitments to implementing any of these recommendations, saying only “The full range of issues relating to the energy sector is also being considered in the Government’s comprehensive Energy White Paper process.”
The Energy White Paper was released in April 2015, and guess what? There was not one mention of ‘smart grid’ anywhere! This despite Macfarlane saying in his foreword: “In the decades ahead, our actions to build on our energy strengths and fully grasp the opportunities of our energy-rich continent will be increasingly critical to a strong and productive economy. We must do this by boosting our energy productivity and capitalising on new technologies.”
Australian cities aiming to be smart
So in short, the prospects of any meaningful initiatives on the smart city front from the federal government are not looking good. Meanwhile a number of cities have launched their own initiatives, most notably Adelaide, The City of the Sunshine Coast and Parramatta.
Adelaide is working with Cisco on a number of smart city projects and was designated by Cisco as its first smart and connected ‘Lighthouse City’ in Australia in February 2015. The Sunshine Coast Council in Queensland aims to be “Australia’s first fully-integrated smart city.” In partnership with Telstra and Cisco it has created the Smart City Framework, a portfolio of 13 services, and proposes to deploy smart city solutions in a staged manner in key locations including the Priority Development Area of Maroochydore, the Oceanside Health Hub and Caloundra Central Business District.
In NSW Parramatta City Council claims to be “building Australia’s leading smart city.” It has appointed a dedicated strategic project officer to implement the blueprint and oversee the rollout of future smart city initiatives. It has also published a Smart City Masterplan to “guide the integration of leading-edge technology and future town planning designs in new developments across the city, including the $2 billion Parramatta Square project.”
Commendable though this is, and the document is a useful guide to smart city technologies and possibilities, it is hardly a plan: there are no specific objectives and target dates.
These specific initiatives serve to highlight what is clearly lacking: any overarching co-ordination and initiatives at a federal level, and above that, it seems any real recognition and understanding of the importance of smart city technologies.
As White House blogger Dan Correa said: “With more than 50 percent of people worldwide living in cities the challenges cities face will also continue to grow. This includes everything from sustainability and energy use to safety and effective service delivery. But, if researchers, public officials, citizens and companies can develop effective solutions to these challenges, the impact at home and abroad will be enormous.”
The precise figure for urbanisation depends on how you define ‘city’, but according to one measure for Australia it is already 89 percent and according to the ABS, Australia’s capital cities alone house 66 percent of our population. So if any nation stands to gain from smart city initiatives, it’s Australia.