Pioneering connected cities

We know that growth in the use and reach of Information technology will define the next decade. Already, Australia is recognized as an early adopter of social media, and the connective possibilities of digital networks. Our universities and researchers are connected through a high speed ‘dark fibre’ (Sabrenet). Our defence industries prototype emerging ICT technologies everyday. Our response to natural disasters is increasingly being delivered through high technology interface, cross-referral and on-ground communication.

But historically we’ve expected our governors to rely largely on ‘analogue’ datasets to anticipate our needs and somehow deliver targetted, innovative policy. Analogue data is retrospective. Census data is coarse, and only taken at static moments in time; failing to respond dynamically to increasingly rapid shifts in demography, movement, economic disadvantage, and need.

What data we do collect is often locked in departmental silos; failing to aggregate knowledge across agencies to meaningfully leverage value. The opportunity for a more responsive, intelligent and informed model of governance that is more citizen-driven lies in our ability to harness emerging families of real-time data to build a more integrated network of information sources to inform policy, engage communities to guide decisions and rapidly, reliably simulate outcomes.

So what is ‘urban data’?
‘Urban data’ is all around us. Finding ways to synthesize the data sets into a co-ordinated whole is todays challenge. Health might overlay disease with income. Education might overlay proximity with school location. Planning might overlay zoning usage with flood data. But rarely are all the data sets available in one place. And the opportunities to ‘mash up’ these datasets to find new relationships between sectors are limited.

Digital data streams are already commonly found in our cities, like;
– transport, traffic management and pedestrian behaviour
– water, energy and infrastructure management
– development status of city property
– building performance (emissions, comfort, air quality, mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems)
– climate (temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity)
– social and economic metrics, including household size and income, education, welfare and life opportunity measures (crime, employment etc).
– health and welfare metrics; such as location, cause and severity of accidents, incidence of disease and exposure to irritants, obesity trends etc
– individual 3G data including geo-spatial networks (Foursquare, Facebook), and live feed crowd behaviour (eg: festivals, events via twitter)

What is the challenge?
McKinsey & Co identify 4 areas of challenge, including;
1. Mindset and attitude barriers
– developers build applications without a deep understanding of city needs
– risk averse agencies refuse to experiment
– agencies operate in siloes; failing to share data & resources
– citizen ‘action groups’ are only beginning to utilize social media
– failure to empower appropriate officials (eg CIO’s are rarely able to develop long term strategies)
2. Resource constraints
– funding is often not prioritised
– the right people are often difficult to find
– the right devices might not be made available/affordable
– cities lack public standards in infrastructure
3. Digital literacy (or illiteracy)
– people needing social services may be missed if data collection is digital
– citizens may lack the skills to access information already available
– excluded groups have limited access to training
4. Consequences of rapid technological change
– the rate of innovation can prevent citizens from investing frequently in new technology
– excluded groups may become more isolated as digital networks grow

What is the opportunity?
Integrating urban data sets into a 3 dimensional virtual platform produces higher quality information, makes it easier to access and analyse this information, and enables better decisions and solutions.

A McKinsey & Co survey of 65 experts, published literature, and over 200 examples of current deployments of urban data streams highlighted benefit across a range of areas, including;
– better co-ordination of monitoring systems
– faster and more reliable emergency services response
– better co-ordination of traffic; reducing congestion and pollution
– faster response to homeless families; getting families housed more quickly
– enhanced delivery of services to the disadvantaged

Generally, more integrated knowledge platforms provide higher quality, more efficient services, better information and access (creating new applications), collaborative problem solving and engagement. Benefits are shared between citizens, policy makers and administrators, nonprofits and the private sector.

The Australian city context
Imagine a fully integrated metro plan that is a digital mirror of the physical city. Dynamic transport networks link existing and proposed growth areas; mapping energy use and movement patterns in real-time. Crowd sourced observation on flora and fauna combine with university research and departmental survey to more accurately geo-tag native habitat.

Design, planning and development frameworks are visualised over communities, embedding performance standards in space and enhancing certainty for community and developers alike. Social, cultural and commercial services are visualized and searchable; linked to live web presence. The implications of decisions are modeled, simulated and evaluated for their value.

What questions do we need to ask?
So how do we apply global thinking to a local Australian context? We need serious pilots. In undertaking the pilot, we have a chance to link back in to global thinking by prototyping responses to the following questions (raised originally by the Institute for the Future);
– How can we leverage urban data to improve services, transparency and civic engagement?
– how can cities leverage social networks for sharing urban data and engaging diverse publics in urban decision making? how can these networks enrich city governance?
– what skills will citizens need to interface with a smart city, and what new interfaces will engage them in helping to shape their own urban future?
– how can public policy enable private sector involvement in public access points and, more generally, in increasing digital literacy?
– How can crowd sourced services be designed to leverage the things that people are already doing in their daily lives rather than adding to the burden of urban life?
– how can cities balance the promise of economic development and poverty reduction through digitization with the opportunity to use urban data to strengthen the existing adaptive capacity of marginalized groups?
– can we build a ‘city knowledge model’ that is at once spatial, intelligent and evolving; informed by real time sensory data streams that are supported by open sharing standards and technologies?

 

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