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Australia unveils $38.3 million smart cities plan

PM shares vision for a 30-minute city, announces funding

Not a day goes by without a new city or a new country unveiling an ambitious plan for smart cities. With 80% of its economic activity taking place in cities, Australia needs a game plan for its urban future. And on Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a smart cities plan based on a new federal framework for policy that aims to position Australian cities “for success in the 21st century economy,” he said. 

The plan, which lacks some level of detail on how exactly it will be carried out, has three pillars: investment, policy and technology. Smart investment is to give priority to projects meeting ”broader economic and city objectives,” while smart policy entails collaboration across all levels of government in order to develop city deals, through which governments, industries and communities will develop “collective plans for growth and commit to the actions, investments, reforms and governance needed to implement them”. Smart technology, including ride sharing and autonomous driving, will focus on technology that has “the potential to fundamentally change how cities are planned, function, and how the Australian economy grows.”

As part of the new plan, the Australian government will establish an infrastructure financing unit, which will work closely with the private sector on innovative financing solutions. The government is also committing AUD 50 million (US $38.3 million) toward the acceleration of planning and development on major infrastructure projects “with the goal of developing business cases and investment options”.

The Australian government has also presented its vision for a ”30-minute city”. In practice, this means any resident should be able to access employment, schools, shopping and services within 30 minutes of home.

The plan has received mixed responses in Australian media with some finding the plan, in particular the ”30-minute city” vision, bordering on utopia or falling short of Australia’s infrastructure requirements.

Australian citizens have been encouraged to share their views on the plan by June 24.

Don’t forget the people

Navigant Research forecasts that the global market for smart cities technology will be worth approximately $27.5 billion annually by 2023, up from $12.1 billion in 2016. Using digital technology to monitor, manage and enhance infrastructure and public services promises to deliver wide-ranging societal benefits, starting with job creation. For this to happen, vision must translate into action and start with engaging the user community. A traditional top-down approach might not be the best way to achieve a high level of commitment among users.

A recent survey conducted in the UK by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, “Smart Cities – Time to involve the people found there was a lack of awareness about what a smart city is and which benefits it can offer among surveyed citizens. Only a third of respondents were indeed able to accurately select the right definition for a smart city when asked to do so, while a fifth was unsure. Another 8% said a smart city was “a city that has a higher than average proportion of universities and colleges and aims to attract the most intellectual” and 5% described it as “a city that has a strict cleaning regime for its buildings, roads and public places”. Furthermore, services that are today heralded as core to smart city development, such as driverless or electric cars and buses available for hire via smartphones, gathered relatively little enthusiasm (8% saw them as the most useful). Intelligent streetlights were instead deemed the most useful by respondents (29%). The IET is therefore advocating an approach that favors wider citizen engagement right from the start. This bottom-up approach, coupled with a strong collaboration between citizens, local and national government, might well be the key to steer clear of smart city utopia. Ultimately, citizens will vote with their wallet on these new connected services.

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