Lucky country, smart city – Opinion

Australia has long held a reputation for being the ‘Lucky Country’.

That has largely been the case over the past 25 years. Our economy has the averted the financial crises that have plagued the USA and Europe. Most industries, with relatively high amounts of low-cost capital at their disposal, have grown steadily.

But has this streak of good fortune made us complacent in the ways we design, build, and maintain our cities and infrastructure? How we will respond if our luck runs out?

‘Smart cities’ and ‘going digital’ are phrases that will resonate in 2018 as we focus more on technology. Infrastructure professionals are increasingly taking advantage of design software that digitally connects and unites people, processes, data, and digital technology to yield significant results.

This technology will have a profound effect on the realisation of a smart city.

Smart cities, intendedl to deliver economic, social, and environmental improvements, have gradually become more prominent over the past decade. To realise the potential of a smart city, a concerted focus is being placed on the latest digital strategies to enable comprehensive project delivery and enhanced asset performance for those who design, build, operate, and maintain our city infrastructure.

There is increasing use of digital engineering models in infrastructure design. These models act as visual operations that support infrastructure asset performance, taking advantage of cloud computing, the Industrial Internet of Things, big data, and operational data from a variety of sources.

These models can be referenced through the full lifecycle of our city infrastructure, resulting in longevity and performance improvements. But technology is only one enabler for smart cities.

Australia’s growing pains

Many smart city initiatives to date have been born out of necessity. In the USA and Europe, most of current smart city developments emerged from the financial crises that have severely curtailed government budgets and available spending for infrastructure.

The cities with the most visionary leadership, like Singapore and Helsinki, have typically built smart cities to overcome constraints such as the availability of land. That has not been the case in Australia, but we still face three significant problems: population growth, urbanisation, and climate change.

These challenges mean that smart cities need to develop much faster and more effectively.

Failure to act will have dramatic consequences for public infrastructure as Australia’s population increases. Our population growth rate is one of the highest in the OECD, with particular concentration in our major cities.

These surges have already begun to push existing transport, utility, and housing infrastructure to their limits. Australia’s population growth shows no sign of decelerating. If urban planners continue with business as usual, our cities will soon hit a tipping point where public transport, utilities, and services like healthcare will begin to experience frequent and severe disruption.

The only way to adapt to population growth and increased urbanisation is to take a long-term, collaborative approach to smart city investment and policy, one that encourages leadership and direction from the top combined with local creativity and innovation. We need to prioritise sustainable gains over short-term results.

A new approach to smart-city planning

As always, it is best to start with the end in mind. Smart cities are a political and economic issue and local leaders at the highest level should define exactly what a ‘smart city’ really means to them.

That definition may vary radically depending on the city. Some cities will prioritise transport and reducing congestion; others will focus on liveability, utility supply, or health.

Ultimately, cities are about people, so the needs a smart city addresses should be based on close consultation with citizens, focusing on achievable outcomes. Including smart city objectives in procurement activities, to encourage innovation and competition.

Governments must also address the competing priorities of the various parties involved in any smart city’s transition. Infrastructure owner-operators (often governments themselves) will typically focus on budget constraints, service levels, and operational performance, while portfolio managers concentrate on optimising spend over the lifecycle of their infrastructure assets.

Meanwhile, contractors most often focus on maximising their profitability. Often, due to restrictive contractual conditions, contractors are forced towards an adversarial mindset on projects, assuming a zero-sum game where any benefit to the client results in a loss to them.

Urban planners should design contracts, incentives, procedures, and environments that address these various parties’ priorities and bring them together in a collaborative environment.

Governments should extend their planning horizon for the success of smart city developments. For example, systems to streamline and digitise public transport infrastructure should be designed based on the city’s expected demand once the project finishes in five or ten years – not the city’s current requirement. Long-term maintenance costs, not just short-term capital savings, should feature prominently in any feasibility assessment of smart city projects.

Urban expansion should also account for the flow-on costs and externalities involved in any plan. ‘Building upwards’ on existing structures, for example, may reduce the total cost of infrastructure. It does this by lowering ongoing investment in extra roads, substations, water facilities, and other connecting infrastructure, compared with the costs of ‘building out’ into new land.

Similarly, smart city developers should always consider investing in existing infrastructure as well as building new. The former may not bring as much glamour or public attention, but it may prove more cost-effective and faster to complete – both significant benefits for any government’s long-term legacy.

Is it too late?

Fortunately, Australia has a highly educated workforce and the technological means to build effective smart cities before our luck turns. We have a window of opportunity.

Advances in computing power have made it possible to capture data about entire cities, which was previously impossible. Using the latest technology, these types of models can be maintained and regularly updated, providing planners and maintainers on demand access, and supporting long term smart city planning.

Models like these, combined with cloud delivered data management platforms that aggregate disparate datasets into a unified whole, have made it easier and faster for designers, planners, and engineers to access accurate up-to-date information when they need it.

Australia has the people, the technology, and the financial resources to make smart cities the norm within a few years. But to achieve this, we need the highest level of political leadership to deliver the policies and investments at a local level where the challenges and resources are best understood.

That will only happen if public-sector leaders commit to long-term, collaborative principles – and apply them to new projects as quickly as possible.

Australia is still in many ways the Lucky Country. Rapid, collaborative investment in smart cities will help us continue to make our own luck.

Brian Middleton is Vice President ANZ for Bentley Systems.

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