Why we need a clear vision for Australia as a smart nation

By Neil Glentworth

September 17, 2018

Young business person and graphical user interface concept, Internet of Things, Information Communication Technology, Smart City, digital transformation, abstract image visual

Australia must refresh and reframe its current smart agenda, says Neil Glentworth.

The global economy is seeing a tectonic shift as technology and connectivity become all-pervasive. Countries are redefining themselves to address the challenges and opportunities provided by the fourth industrial revolution[1]. With its remarkable resources, wide open spaces and an enviable lifestyle, is Australia just a passenger in this revolution?

All sides of the political spectrum understand we must embrace innovation to thrive but are we on the right track or just marking time? The current innovation agenda is providing some glimmers of hope but only if you’re looking hard. Will our Australian luck continue if we just apply a ‘she’ll be right’ approach?

Smart cities – are we there yet?

“Without a unifying vision, without genuine community engagement and ongoing collaboration, many smart projects are merely adding cost to their rate/tax payers with no fundamental gain.”

A defining part of this industrial revolution is the seamless interaction of physical, digital, and biological environments[2]; for many, this is most evident in their built environment, the smart city. Much is written and quoted about cities, towns and regions being smart. There are many so-called innovation and smart city projects occurring in Australia – some are delivering tangible outcomes, others are merely poorly defined technology projects. With significant funding provided by all levels of government to enable these ‘smart’ projects, the question must be asked, who is getting the value?

In 2016, I published the article What makes a city smart. My point was that in a true smart city, communities must be empowered to make better decisions through dynamic data at their fingertips. Several Australian ‘smart’ projects built on this premise are seeing social and economic gains for their communities. Through careful planning in collaboration with the community, low cost and high value outcomes are being achieved that are improving the lives of Australians. Alas, many of these projects are occurring in isolation, thus stifling the macro opportunity for Australia.

The surge in ‘smart city’ projects is largely being driven by technology, despite some of the social and economic foundation work provided by the Federal Government[3]. Here lies the problem: what’s the destination?

Without a unifying vision, without genuine community engagement and ongoing collaboration, many smart projects are merely adding cost to their rate/tax payers with no fundamental gain.

A smart program must be so much more; it must be about everyone being smart, not just one aspect of society.

There is an urgent need for a single vision, with clear goals for every Australian: businesses, unions, not-for-profits, governments, communities, young and old – we need a vision for a smart nation of Australia.

Singapore’s united smart vision

“A smart program must be so much more; it must be about everyone being smart, not just one aspect of society.”

Singapore is on the ‘doorstep’ of Australia, a mere eight-hour flight, yet it is almost a parallel universe in terms of digital transformation. Over the years I have travelled through, stayed and conducted business in Singapore, and each time I am inspired by what can be achieved.

Yes, a comparison between Singapore and Australia isn’t entirely fair. Singapore is a small, densely populated country with a different political system to Australia – but Singaporeans have some of the highest trust in their government for an advanced nation.

Over the 53 years since the formation of the sovereign nation that is now Singapore, it has reinvented itself many times over, from shipping, banking, tourism and now data. In recent years, Singapore embarked on Smart Nation Singapore[4].  This a true end-to-end program that has engaged all members of their society, cradle to grave. From healthcare, transport, education, environment, aged care, opening a business, employing people, water and power security, the vision is one that everyone understands and gains value from.

Smart Nation Singapore gives clarity to the future for all generations. It guides the strong collaboration of government services, enables business growth, embraces change and looks after its people. Everyone feels part of the need to do things better with data, from how a meal is paid to how the government service is provided.

Getting to smart in Australia – beyond the politics

Australia must refresh and reframe its current smart agenda – it needs clarity that can transcend pet political projects and ideology. Right now, we need a clear vision of how Australia is going to be smart as a nation.

That vision needs to be enduring and flow through all aspects of the economy, in all parts of Australia; it needs to empower all levels of government beyond the political cycle. It needs to create genuine public value and not a sugar hit of a grant program that the next political cycle will change.

It may be easy to scoff at my very own utopia vision for Australia, but what’s the alternative? Those economies that surround us are growing in capability by embracing the fourth industrial revolution. Their levels of productivity and innovation are leaving Australia behind. To be lucky, we need a vision; we need to define our own smart nation.

Neil Glentworth is the founder and chair, GWI and founder, Democracy Intelligence.

Neil is passionate about productivity at a macro level and is an active advocate of economic growth and the creation of public and shareholder value. Neil is known for his no-nonsense advice with a focus on practical ways to leverage data for social and economic benefit.

Neil is the founder and chair of information and data management firm GWI, and most recently developed Democracy Intelligence, a data-driven service that understands the political, social and economic activities in a given geographical region.

Working alongside all levels of government, Neil has focused on driving smart city and community strategies at the local government level, helping to grow Australia’s regional economies from the outback to the coast.


[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/thefourthindustrialrevolutionwhatitmeansandhowtorespond/ 

[2] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/thefourthindustrialrevolutionwhatitmeansandhowtorespond/ 

[3] https://cities.infrastructure.gov.au/ 

[4] https://www.smartnation.sg/

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