Better meta: research infrastructure for our built environment

A recurring theme in forums, summits and conferences over the last few years has been the lack of comprehensive baseline data to help us really understand how Australia’s urban centres are performing. Knowing where you’re at helps target areas of need and set a direction, milestones, KPI’s and the rest. And when 80% of our GDP is generated in urban centres, and around 75% of energy is consumed by them, performing better matters.

But the value of good datasets doesn’t just lie in the headlines. What if we could monitor the location of emerging cancer clusters? Or map the link between geography and obesity? Sure this information exists. But Australia has no ‘light table’ to overlay different sets of data to find new links. Housing and health. Transport and land value. Well designed places and well being.

In 2010 (and again in 2011) the Australian Government’s Major Cities Unit published a broad snapshot of city indicators in the State of Australian Cities report in support of the National Urban Policy. Eighty one indicators include traffic congestion, duration and frequency of travel, population and housing growth. More recently, we’ve used this national inventory of measures to zoom in on inner Adelaide. Partnering with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we found that around 30 of these were applicable to Adelaide.

The search for better data – and a model for how you use it – is about designing better responses to the needs of communities. And sometimes that means anticipating need. Not just reacting. But do we have the tools to ‘do an Apple’ (in this case broadly defined as using intelligent observation and some design-led innovation to intersect with a need that’s yet to be defined)? Not yet, but industry has been calling for better integration and availability of data as a foundation for evidence based policy, and as a tool for anyone designing, planning or governing cities.

So it was a huge thrill to be invited to join the Board of the $20m Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN). I had my first meeting this week.

AURIN aims to improve the information we rely on to make decisions about urban communities and to do this by growing our understanding of how we use and manage resources. The project aims to collate and share data acquired through a national research network to boost capacity of others in the built environment sector. And to demonstrate how better data can help make better use of resources in cities.

AURIN wants to gather, tidy up, connect and then make available the universe of relevant information that – once linked up – paints a picture of where we’re at, and where new efficiencies or new initiatives might allow us to do more with less.

Sure, data exists. But a bit like a Lego box – bits are more often strewn over a play room floor than constructed into any coherent form.

The AURIN project should help us design, plan and manage places better. And not just in the hard infrastructure. ‘Social’ datasets tracking population health, demographics and well-being are part of a net cast wide. A net that includes universities from around Australia (but headquartered at the University of Melbourne). Some of the early publications can be found here.

To show how better data can make a difference, AURIN has identified 10 ‘lenses’. Each one of these will use aggregated data to look ahead at how we can manage things like transport, housing and household budgets better. Each ‘lens’ will have demonstration projects to showcase how the data can help design new solutions.

The lenses include;
– Population and demographic features
– Economic activity and urban labour markets
– Urban health, well-being and quality of life
– Urban housing
– Urban transport
– Energy and water supply & consumption
– City logistics
– Urban vulnerability and risks
– Urban governance, policy and management
– Innovative urban design

AURIN is co-funded by the Australian government (through the Dept of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education) and the terms of the funding agreement are clear. AURIN doesn’t fund research. It funds the infrastructure to support research.

It may seem extraordinary that it’s taken us this long, but AURIN is our best chance to build the critical infrastructure we need for better decisions in the design, planning and governance of Australian cities, and to power the content behind Sen Kate Lundy’s ‘Gov 2.0’ agenda.

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