What is a smart city? Shared vision needed to align 'jumbled mess'

By Stephen Easton

August 19, 2016

smart phone and city scape

The smart city is supposed to be a unifying concept, all about linking up emergent applications of open data and the internet of things to create cohesive, high-tech built environments that are more citizen-centric and user-friendly.

But it’s not going to simply come to life organically, argues Neil Temperley, who leads the Transport and Logistics Living Lab at Data61. A unifying vision of where these ideas are headed doesn’t really exist and must be reached by broad consensus, he contends.

Neil Temperley
Neil Temperley

Neither the concept of “the city as a personalised service” nor the technology to create it are rocket science, Temperley told the Technology in Government conference this month. But he doesn’t believe everyone who aspires to contribute to smart cities can “see the vision” in the same way.

“It’s a kind of a jumbled mess,” he said. “They’re all good projects, I should add. They’re not rubbish projects. They’re doing something useful and they lead to some useful ends. But it’s kind of a hodge-podge of projects without a unifying vision to hold them all together.”

The ideal situation would involve lots of freely available open data. Unfortunately, much of it would have to come from private companies that are already pursuing strategies that involve keeping their data to themselves.

A big market-leading parking garage operator, for example, would have to be convinced that it is more profitable to work collaboratively towards a smart city than to keep investing in its own exclusive online booking system and trying to squeeze rivals out of the market.

Temperley didn’t claim to have all the answers but said an important starting point was to make sure all the “low-level data” like that from traffic management and public transport ticketing systems is as open as possible. Government policy should seek to foster a situation where companies add value to freely available data, not one where “selling data” becomes a popular business model, he said.

To be as future-proof as possible, the vision must be built on a solid shared understanding of what people really want from a smart city, said Temperley. And it should avoid prescribing what practical solutions — from specific digital products to transport modes — will fulfil those human needs.

“I don’t care about autonomous vehicles; they’ll revolutionise parts of the system, they won’t revolutionise everything,” he said to illustrate the point. People will always want to get where they’re going quickly and easily.

Yesterday, Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor announced a series of “stakeholder roundtables” in September to get the federal government’s Smart Cities and Suburbs program going. Encouraging local governments to “fast-track open data and innovative technology solutions to fix local problems” is the aim of the $50 million policy, he said at the Future Cities Summit in Brisbane.

“The Smart Cities and Suburbs Program is to support clever technology ideas to fix difficult or long standing community issues. The most valuable projects will be transformative collaborations between multiple councils and technology industry partners that link closely with future plans for the area,” Taylor said.

“The Commonwealth expects local governments to bring forward a variety of cutting-edge projects such as collaborative design solutions or pilots of emerging technologies.”

As always, it’s important not to be led by the technology but by genuine problems or needs. Temperley says building the vision of the smart city must start with researching typical user stories, looking at what technologies and services are already in place, and finding the gaps to map out future requirements and priorities.

Personalisation AKA “the VIP experience”

Personalisation is a guiding light in the tech sector, and so it should be for smart cities. Temperley asked the conference delegates to imagine a “VIP experience” for all, based on the concept of “a personal assistant or a concierge” that has a huge array of data at its disposal to guide us through the urban jungle.

“A good concierge is going to think of my needs; they’re going to minimise the hassle [and] remove the guesswork, make my experience enjoyable [but] not be in the way, not be bugging me all the time, and essentially pave the way for whatever my journey is and help me meet my journey goals,” he said.

“And of course, when things go wrong, they get straight in there and fix it up.”

“It’s a hodge-podge of projects without a unifying vision to hold them all together.”

Temperley used couriers as an example, as he has done some user research with them for Data61. He imagines the “virtual concierge” booking them a place to park and, knowing the delivery is high-value goods that must be signed off, arranging an appointment with the right person. If something goes wrong — maybe a traffic accident — then it tells the courier to take an early lunch break, pointing out some suggested eating spots, and rearranges the rest of the day as efficiently as possible.

In the context of a smart city, the archetypical users are a very diverse group, not just commuters, but the various public and private organisations that are involved in transport, logistics and city services, and their employees.

“If we get this vision right and we do our projects in the right kind of way, you will meet the needs of all of those guys and you end up with a nice virtuous cycle,” Temperley said. “Because if you collect the data you need to help a courier do their job well, you’re actually providing the data that a transport planner’s been crying out for — the origin and destination data — that helps the transport planners design a better transport network.”

A basic assumption is that all these different kinds of city users want to get on and do their jobs as efficiently as possible — garbage truck drivers don’t want to hold up peak traffic, bus drivers don’t want to be late, and nobody wants to drive around for hours looking for a parking space.

A simple goal should guide the individual projects that will give rise to a smart city: help direct all of this human traffic. Align all city users and their different errands better than before, and minimise how much their plans crash into each other. History suggests you won’t get that from a free market; otherwise we wouldn’t have so many different plugs and cables that do essentially the same things.

Temperley admits this could all get massively complex but the technology is the easy part — especially with the internet of things collecting more and more real-time data — compared to the conversations and negotiations that would need to take place for smart cities to truly come together.

“The challenge is not building the concierge,” he said. “The challenge is not actually the technology, but it is getting hold of that information. No matter how good your concierge is, whether it’s a human or a machine, they can’t help you much if they haven’t got the information you need at their fingertips.

“So we need the connectivity between those solutions that exist now and the solutions that are coming, and we need to fill the gaps in the components and [before we can do that] we need to know what those gaps are.”

Privacy and security

As annoying as it is for those working on the forefront of digital technology and dreaming of amazing futures, privacy and security must always be considered.

“We do need to get the privacy bit right,” Temperley said. “In this scenario, there’s much more information flowing around. That is not trivial.”

Earlier in the conference, a panel discussion concluded with each member being asked what they would do if they could “wave a magic wand” and remove one barrier to digital transformation in government.

“Everyone would stop caring about privacy so much,” said Pedro Harris, the executive director of technology platforms at the New South Wales Department of Finance, Services and Innovation. “We need protection, but I think the word ‘privacy’ — specifically when you’re talking about data — just seems to be such a hurdle; it’s always hard to cross.”

ACT government chief digital officer Jon Cumming gave a similar, if slightly more nuanced, answer. “Privacy and personalisation is not an either-or, although they sometimes fight each other,” he said.

Cumming would use the magic wand to “resolve the two together so your privacy is absolute, yet we can give you a really personalised experience that makes you feel like we love you” — which sounds like a pretty good aim for smart cities.

Laurie Patton
Laurie Patton

In another session, Internet Australia chief Laurie Patton nominated “customer security, the whole privacy thing and Big Brother” as one of the key risks to the expansion of the internet of things in Australia (along with a “crap broadband network”).

Patton is highly critical of the way the Attorney-General’s Department handled industry engagement with regard to the drafting and implementation of the Data Retention Act, but sees a lot more promise in the recently formed Internet of Things Alliance Australia, which has six government agencies as members including Data61’s parent agency CSIRO.

Smart cities is one of six workstreams the IOTAA is focused on, and perhaps this offers the best chance to develop the overarching vision that Temperley believes is lacking.

Patton argues the current plans for the fibre-to-the-node National Broadband Network will prevent Australia from becoming an internet of things leader, but holds out hope that the ship hasn’t sailed on expanded use of optical fibre.

“In just three years we’ve fallen from 30th on global average peak Internet speeds to 57th at last count,” he said. “Worse still, we are around 8th in our highly competitive region.”

Then there’s the radio spectrum, a “scare commodity” that must be carefully regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. “So, planning how best to allocate it to whom and under what conditions will become an ever more pressing task for them and their masters in an IoT driven world,” said Patton.

He argued one of the most pressing roles for government was “to deal with the growing and evident shortage of a skilled ICT workforce and the creation of a pool of industry practitioners that will be needed for IoT” as well as policies to make home grown tech entrepreneurs think again about moving overseas.

But above all, Patton suspects the most important thing to get right will be public trust, and in the wake of the public backlash against this year’s Census, it’s hard to disagree.

“The biggest threat to our success as an IoT nation, in my opinion, is a loss of trust by people at large,” he said. “So, a final thought: we need to effectively collaborate between government, industry and civil society, in order to ensure that we foster innovation in a manner that creates and ensures security and confidence.”

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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
5 years ago

Thanks, Stephen. Your article contains several key pointers to success in transitioning to an efficient city, and several hints as to how Australia is headed in precisely the wrong direction. Without even mentioning the NBN.

First, a pointer to a precondition for success. “History suggests you won’t get that [alignment] from a free market…”. Indeed, because the task of alignment requires coordination across private and public sectors, federal, state and local government, community and business. Only government can facilitate such coordination on a city-wide scale. Yet governments are methodically hollowing out their capacity to coordinate. In the federal sphere, I need mention only the efficiency dividends that are annually squeezing capacity for the federal departments to innovate, to pick up bright ideas and to coordinate between each other (these functions not being front-line services). In the states’ sphere, I need mention only the gutting of regional land-use planning by Queensland’s Newman government during its anti-strategic tenure.

A second pointer to success is your and Laurie Patton’s closing reference to the importance of trust. Indeed. A casual observer might observe the publicly stated view of the Institute of Public Affairs (which in many fields is driving government policy towards privatisation and outsourcing) that the public should trust their governments less. With friends continually pushing that line, a government keen on smart cities doesn’t need enemies.

Privacy has been made more of an issue by the outsourcing of formerly public-sector-run services to commercial businesses and/or to other countries. Even the tax office outsources debt collection to a private company based who knows where. Under which nation’s privacy jurisdiction?

The presenters that you cite I believe are correctly highlighting the importance of the coordination role – as indicated by the term “concierge” – but their message is being completely contradicted by the Commonwealth’s apparent response that smart cities will be achieved by individual projects. The Assistant Minister’s approach seems to be leading towards the “Yellow Pages” approach to public administration: if you can find a company (or subordinate government) prepared to put in a bid towards a brief, then the national government needn’t perform that function.

And what hope do we have of encouraging bright researchers to stay in Australia when our premier research organisation, CSIRO, is subjected to repeated budget cuts?

Far better to nourish the grassroots of smart cities (scientific research, education, mapping, land-use planning, transport planning, blue sky envisioning and a range of other public services), with generous discretionary funding; then let enthusiastic experts and practitioners select the technology and other tools they need at the time. That seems to be consistent with the views of you and your presenters but seems to be lost on the one entity able to steer Australia in that direction, the federal government.

(Disclaimer: I am a former corporate member of the Planning Institute of Australia).

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