Could smart cities make life a bit easier?

Street lights in Kansas City have wifi sensors which link with a live map, allowing residents to see traffic and free parking spaces. Clever huh? Mark Thomas says smart cities – those which embrace technology in planning – can reap big environmental and financial rewards.

The word “smart” does not appear in Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s 10 year budget plan, which everyone will be able to comment on in March, but that is not to say it is without some thoughtful elements. For example, tackling some of Auckland’s environmental problems, like beach pollution, is not only intelligent – it’s long overdue.

But the lack of smarts in the budget (epitomised by a pledge to hold rates to 2.5% but adding a new petrol tax and rates for water and kauri protection) is broader than some not so very clever arithmetic. Missing from the budget entirely is any reference to making Auckland a smart city. Smart cities are a growing trend in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world – they use information and communications technology in a more intelligent way to deliver more affordable, and reliable, city services.

Vancouver launched its smart city plan in 2013 and its resulting VanConnect app has received 70,000 requests from citizens telling council easily about local rubbish, noise and other problems – the resolution of which they can track via the app. Another popular initiative was establishing an online dashboard which displays how councillors vote at each meeting.

The VanConnect app allows you to send a service request, report an issue, get status updates/news/maps etc. (vancouver.ca)

Singapore established its Smart Nation initiative in 2014, including a senior cabinet minister responsible for a broad programme including new tools to analyse wind flow, sunlight and rain to better design new housing developments.

Today Aucklanders’ top concerns are more than the 16 polluted beaches they can’t swim in. They include the extra 45 minutes many spend each day stuck in rush hour traffic, the high cost of housing and, if they are actually trying to build a house, the 20% increase last year in the number of days to get a building consent. These key issues which affect a city’s liveability have smart solutions that Auckland is not fully progressing.

In the recent Top 100 Smart Cities Index, Auckland ranked 48th. Zurich and Melbourne, ahead of Auckland on some of the global liveable cities lists, were in the top 10. Smart cities find that clever, cost-effective use of new data and platforms can both improve vexed issues like traffic congestion, building regulations, environmental management, and help reduce the cost of running a city.

Vienna (population 1.8 million) began its smart city plan in 2011. Since then its smarter environmental practices alone have saved an estimated $NZ248 million. This includes a public-private partnership with an energy company which has seen citizen/owners encouraged to switch to solar power.

There’s plenty of smarts in Auckland, but council and its agencies often make it hard work for it to get through. Data miners like Qrious used mobile phone data to tell regional tourism and economic development agency ATEED about the people movement around events like the Lantern Festival, and could potentially help a lot with future transport management planning. However, Auckland Transport was not so receptive and this new traffic management approach is not yet a core part of the way Auckland works.

In New Zealand, the lack of smarts is not just an Auckland problem. Smart cities do not feature yet on the new government’s agenda or in Local Government New Zealand’s five strategic policy priorities. As a result, central and local government missed a big opportunity in 2015 when they decided to spend $66m upgrading many of the 370,000 street lights around the country – including 108,000 in Auckland. The upgrade was to introduce energy efficient LED light bulbs, but there was no “smart” overlay.

The same year, Kansas City in Missouri, a city a bit larger than Christchurch, installed wifi-linked sensors together with its street light upgrade which help produce a live map showing the location of street cars, traffic speeds and available parking spaces. Energy efficient lighting and reduced traffic congestion at the same time. Lovely.

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) ran a smart cities research project in 2016. It concluded that smart city technologies can produce significant economic, environmental and societal benefits for communities. A key recommendation from the study was to find a home for future smart developments. This home has yet to be built.

In typical Kiwi fashion, there are a range of ad hoc initiatives underway between councils, but the technology underpinning these projects means much greater benefits can be created if councils work collaboratively and with government – as the LINZ project concluded.

New Zealand leads the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings, in part thanks to the smart government work that’s been done. But much of a citizen’s daily interactions with their local council are not that smart at all. The new government has a big opportunity to resolve this within the new Digital Services portfolio. It makes sense that while we work to deliver better transport, housing systems, and environment networks, we work to be smarter at it.

Because being smarter about how we fix things pays off – and maybe mayors won’t need to boost the rates by quite such intelligence-sapping amounts.

Mark Thomas leads a smart cities enterprise based in Singapore. He was an elected member of Auckland Council from 2010-2016.


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