Digital divide a ‘major challenge’

A new analysis shows a major divide between metropolitan and regional Queensland in terms of the state’s smart cities agenda, prompting a call for a change in the approach to ‘smart’ urban growth.

The survey of Queensland’s 78 local governments warned of “major regional disparities” in council performance against key metrics.

Urban councils are leading the way in innovation with eight of the “smartest” LGAs located in central areas including in Brisbane, while only two of the top performers were in regional areas, according to the analysis.

It comes after a KPMG study in 2017 found 80 per cent of Australian councils had started smart city initiatives, and more than a decade after Brisbane and the Sunshine State launched smart city agendas.

Co-author of the paper Tan Yigitcanlar, an expert in smart urban development at the Queensland University of Technology, told Government News that the metropolitan versus regional divide is a “major challenge” for both Queensland and the rest of the country.

This divide is driven by the “tyranny of distance,” which sees more regional areas placed further from employment hubs, causing smaller populations, which ultimately impacts on the capacity for smart city investment, he said.

Only a small metropolitan area of Queensland could be considered medium-well performing against a smart city index, with “mixed performance” among council areas, Dr Yigitcanlar says.

The state’s leading councils

Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, Cairns, Logan, Ipswich, Townsville, Gold Coast, Moreton Bay, Noose and Scenic Rim were all found to be the “smartest” cities.

Most of the top-performing cities fared best in the governance and planning indicator, with Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and Cairns all performing best in that category.

Brisbane was found to be the “benchmark LGA,” performing well across all categories but performing best in governance and planning – unsurprising given it is the largest LGA in Australia and home to a number of State innovation and infrastructure spaces.

The Sunshine Coast also fared well, performing “very well” in governance and planning but marking average performance overall.

Lessons from leading smart cities

A number of useful insights can be drawn from the research to help other cities better inform their smart city strategies, Dr Yigitcanlar says.

Success on the liveability and wellbeing index, for example, is most likely a reflection of good health, safety and housing and social conditions in a city, he says.

The better performing cities, who were mainly in metropolitan areas, are usually “economies of scale,” traditionally investing more in quality of life, infrastructure and usually with higher employment rates, making it easier for them to formulate smart city roadmaps.

“The higher achieving metropolitan cities tend to offer good governance, have a relatively high quality of living and high achieving localities,” he says.

The Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan in particular have also been engaging in benchmarking, looking at global examples, and learning lessons from these – a factor that has helped to drive their success.

The most successful councils are the ones that have a smart city strategy before rolling out smart infrastructure, Dr Yigitcanlar says.

“So a planned approach and broader consensus on what the future of a city will look like will help them a lot,” he says.

Call for rethink

According to the paper, Queensland’s smart city ambitions could be frustrated without a rethink of the state’s strategy that addresses the poor performance of regional councils.

“Without a change in approach, the smart city movement will not deliver the anticipated opportunities to reshape our cities,” the paper argues.

Cities need to take on a ‘new approach,’ the paper argues, based on benchmarking performance across a range of key deliverables including economic, societal, environmental and governance indicators, Dr Yigitcanlar says.

Governments must also ensure cities have the capacity to develop unique technologies which promote inclusion in outer-metropolitan areas while also equipping them with more transparent policy making tools, the paper argues.

But state and federal government investment, particularly in human capital, could help to close the disparity between the ‘smartness’ of cities in Queensland, according to Dr Yigitcanlar, through, for example an expansion of Commonwealth funding into regional cities.

definitely helps a city move towards a smart city direction. Some things require more than money or financial aid but require smart leaders or teams. And preparing a roadmap to where a city wants to go is important,” he says.

And it’s the smaller cities that often have the most leverage to instigate a step-change in policy, Dr Yigitcanlar says.

“Sometimes in terms of applying a step-change in policies and the direction of a city a small or medium sized city is in a better position because they need less funding and less people to convince or bring together,” he says.

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