Richard MacManus finds out how 5G will help Auckland smarten up by building better relationships with its citizens.
In its latest Smart Cities Index, Swedish company EasyPark ranked Auckland 58th out of 100 worldwide cities. Decidedly average. But it gets worse, I’m afraid. In the same list, Auckland was ranked 85th out of 100 cities for its traffic congestion and 73rd in parking.
Clearly Auckland has major infrastructure issues to sort out. Rapid population growth this century and under-investment in public transport, housing and other crucial infrastructure has left the city suffocating under its own weight.
However, technological developments present an opportunity for Auckland to start to solve some of its longest and largest problems. It’s a chance for Auckland to become a “smart city.”
5G is the latest generation in mobile networking and Vodafone has become the first provider to go live with a commercial 5G mobile network, rolling out in parts of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. It’ll be a key technology for Auckland’s growth since it will enable fast, reliable internet connectivity across the entire city. Everything from the city’s trains and buses, to your electricity meter, and even the bins you dispose of your rubbish in, will get connected and become smarter. This simply has to happen if Auckland is to address its infrastructure problems.
But what is a “smart city” anyway? It’s not just about using technology to upgrade a city’s infrastructure. It’s also about the residents of a city being more aware of what’s going on around them. Even better, giving people the tools and data to interact with their city and make positive changes – for both themselves and the environment.
According to Usman Haque, the founding partner of London-based urban technologies company Umbrellium, a smart city is ultimately about the relationship citizens have with their city. He prefers to use the phrase “engaging cities” rather than smart cities, because it puts the needs of people first.
“Very often what you’re looking to do is to bring about improvements through people’s relationship to their city,” Haque told me, “and their relationship to each other.”
With the emerging “Internet of Things” (IOT), tens of thousands of objects throughout Auckland will eventually get connected to the Internet via tiny sensors.
For Michelle Sharp, Head of IOT at Vodafone New Zealand, the key is for these types of solutions to go “beyond just connectivity.” It’s about getting useful data from our surroundings, which we can use to make positive changes in our daily urban lives.
New Zealand has so far been an early adopter in IOT, at least according to Vodafone’s global rollout of smart objects.
“Around the world, Vodafone has over 80 million IOT connected things across 30 countries,” Sharp said, with 1.6 million of them being in New Zealand.
I spoke to Matt Montgomery, Head of Innovation at Auckland Council, to find out how Auckland plans to use technology to help make the city smarter. A key concept in Auckland Council’s future plans, Montgomery told me, is something called a “digital twin.” This refers to “a digital representation of a physical object” in the city’s infrastructure, based on data provided by tiny sensors. The goal is to understand how each object – for example a building or a road – is performing.
It’s important to note that Auckland doesn’t yet have any of these digital twins in operation. But here’s how it could work in Auckland. Montgomery gave the example of adding sensors to the City Rail Link (CRL), to give people a better train experience.
“You might have sensors in the platform which tell you how many people are waiting to get onto the train, and sensors on the train which would tell you how many people are currently sat on the train. Then [the system] will help people align themselves on the platform, to ensure they are getting in the right door where there’s the right number of vacant seats.”
That train network could also integrate with other transport sensors, to provide a better overall transport experience for Auckland commuters.
“So if you’ve got a big flood of people coming out of one station,” said Montgomery, “you can dynamically adapt some of the traffic lights around that area, so you can safely get people to cross the nearby roads, and distribute them across the city more easily.”
To help make sense of all this projected sensor data, Auckland Council is building an Internet of Things network and a central platform.
“My team has been a pioneer in the development of a low cost, open source Internet of Things architecture,” Montgomery told me, “which essentially democratises a lot of this technology and enables every organisation to connect with this network and share in the opportunity.”
Currently, there are only around two dozen connected objects in Auckland Council’s IOT network, although it expects to “ramp this up significantly starting in February.” Montgomery listed some of the initial use cases being tested.
“We’ve got water quality sensors out in the streams looking for pollution events, we’ve got air quality sensors – which also showed what was going on during the Convention Centre fire – and we’ve got sensors in rubbish bins telling us when the bins are full and looking for patterns.”
A common theme in Auckland Council’s IOT projects is an environmental focus. The rubbish bin sensors, for instance, show how and when people are filling up the city’s bins. That helps the Council optimise collections and ultimately reduces the amount of rubbish clogging up streets.
Collecting and analysing data throughout the city is one thing. But we also need new design ideas, to help citizens understand and engage with that data.
Cam Perkins leads the City Centre Project Design team at Auckland Council. He’s especially passionate about tackling air pollution in the cities. He thinks interactive LED signs in Auckland Central could help with data transparency, and more importantly get people thinking about “where we are right now and where we need to get to.”
“Imagine you’re walking down Queen St,” Perkins told me, “and there’s this incredible LED – like a light art piece – that shows in real time what the air quality in that particular part of the city is. You could go up and engage with that, and see that there’s a problem. That starts a discussion with the community and that community has a discussion with the politicians, and that’s how we get stuff done.”
It’s also crucial to get city occupants to think about their urban environment in new – and perhaps unexpected – ways. Usman Haque of Umbrellium told me about an interesting experiment he was involved with in Toronto.
“In one of my own projects, Flightpath Toronto, we looked at how to develop a public transportation system that could be rapidly deployed and re-deployed, specifically so that citizen engagement and decision making were at the heart of the process.”
In that project, Haque and his collaborators used a zip line (a pulley suspended on a cable) to ‘fly’ people over a public square in Toronto. It was all about getting people to “re-imagine the city and the way we move through it.”
Okay, so flying like a bird over Aotea Square probably isn’t viable for Auckland – at least until those long-promised future jet packs arrive. But the point of Haque’s Toronto project was, as he put it, to prompt people to “rediscover the ‘sport’ in transport, and to excite imaginative possibilities for our shared urban infrastructure.”
Andrew Gurr is CEO of Fusion Networks, a local IT company that has implemented transport technologies in Auckland – and other parts of NZ – for about ten years now. Gurr is also Vice President of the ITS organisation in New Zealand (Intelligent Transportation Systems), so he’s at the cutting edge of technology solutions for transport.
One of the big projects Fusion is involved with is Auckland’s Waterview Tunnel. At 2.4km, it’s New Zealand’s longest road tunnel and arguably its most technologically sophisticated.
“Waterview was the biggest national project that’s been undertaken in quite some time,” Gurr said to me, “and there’s a significant amount of technology in the tunnel; for operations, safety, speed management, and monitoring of traffic.”
I asked Gurr how New Zealand – and Auckland in particular – compare globally, in terms of transport technology:
“Auckland is a long way ahead on a worldwide stage,” he said, “in terms of trying to automate and manage a transport network.” He pointed to the technology Auckland Transport uses to link together all its different modes of transport, including the use of advanced AI software to power safety and traffic optimisation for Auckland’s CCTV cameras.
Where New Zealand, in Gurr’s view, is falling behind globally is with connected vehicles. By that he means cars being able to connect to city infrastructure, mostly for safety purposes – think smart traffic lights, sensors in busy tunnels, and the like.
The problem, he says, is that NZ has no automotive manufacturers and so we end up importing cars from different parts of the world. Which means the cars on our roads often adhere to different networking standards, making it difficult for our transport authorities to implement technology that connects directly to the cars.
I then asked Gurr what role he thinks technology has to play in the larger context of creating a smart city.
“It will give people the opportunity to change the way they move around the city,” he replied.
Gurr thinks that “different modes of mobility,” like cycling and electric vehicles, together with “the connectivity of the different public transport systems” will show Aucklanders how to “move around their city with the least [environmental] impact.”
That’s something Auckland Council’s Cam Perkins has been thinking a lot about too.
“Our next step from a public transport point of view,” Perkins told me, “is to look at fine-grain ways to move around the city.”
This could include blocking off inner-city streets to private cars, Perkins said. He suggested that “smaller autonomous vehicles” could help replace those cars, especially for people with mobility issues.
Ideally, those autonomous cars would be electric, which would help Auckland City achieve the “zero emissions” goals it has set itself for the future.
I can’t help feeling though that we’re a long way from having autonomous vehicles zipping around Auckland City. Even in the birthplace of autonomous cars, Silicon Valley, residents are squeamish about their roads being used to test self-driving cars.
But as Fusion Networks CEO Gurr pointed out, how are we ever going to get to the autonomous car era if we don’t at least test the technology?
“There’s a lot of fear around things like autonomous cars,” Gurr said, “and just having them be present and visible will help.”
There is one massive issue that must be resolved before smart city technology gets widely deployed: privacy. It’s all very well having smart recycling bins in your home, but you wouldn’t want your neighbour to dox you on social media if you accidentally put a plastic milk carton in the general waste bin.
For Vodafone’s Michelle Sharp, the key is to focus on aggregate data. She thinks new technologies like 5G make capturing this data more secure.
“We have methods to make sure that the aggregated data is being used to solve a problem, not to breach anyone’s privacy.”
Privacy was a big reason why a Google affiliated smart city development in Toronto was drastically scaled back recently.
At the end of October, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs got approval for a 12 acre hi-tech waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto. Originally it was supposed to be 190 acres. Privacy concerns and a perceived “adversarial” attitude by Sidewalk Labs towards local developers caused Toronto authorities to scale it back. Final approval to start building will be considered in March next year, after a period of public consultation.
What became clear in Toronto is that Sidewalk Labs failed to build trust with Toronto’s authorities and residents for such a large public works project.
“It’s a cliche, but trust has to be earned,” Usman Haque told me in reference to Sidewalk Labs. “Especially when you’re involved in innovation – which is inherently about risk – the journey has to be one that’s taken together.”
Despite these initial political struggles, the Sidewalk Labs project is tantalising for smart city advocates and could be a blueprint for Auckland. With its emphasis on inner city walking or cycling, its “climate-positive” claim to cut greenhouse gases by 89%, and its promise of affordable and inclusive housing, Sidewalk Labs has seemingly figured out the ideal city of the future.
But ultimately it will come back to the question: who’s in control? Toronto authorities and citizens have made clear they don’t want it to be Google.
Clearly Auckland has a lot of work to do to re-build public transport in the city, along with continuing to build out its nascent IOT network and make tens of thousands of city objects ‘smart’.
The key to success, other than getting funding for the big ticket items like a light rail system and the ‘digital twins’ project, will be engaging with Aucklanders. That means assuring people they can access city data easily – everything from rubbish bins to transport infrastructure. Not only that, but convincing residents they can use all that data to improve both their daily urban experience and the environment.
I liked how Usman Haque put it, that it’s about people having “a sense of agency, rather than just engagement.”
If you’re an Auckland resident, you’ll know it’s a smart city only once you have proof you’re making a difference. Maybe it’s the data that tells you you’re leaving a smaller carbon footprint every time you cross the city, maybe it’s those LED screens that give you real-time facts about air pollution, or maybe it’s finally being convinced that taking the bus or train to work is more efficient all round.
So let’s hope Auckland Council – and the government – keep residents top of mind as they implement smart city technologies. Because in the end, it’ll be about how Aucklanders use all that data that will make the difference.
This content was created in paid partnership with Vodafone. Learn more about our partnerships here.