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Australians are living in futuristic ‘smart cities’ without realising it

In recent years, the concept of “smart cities” has been on the rise.

Driven by urbanisation and a desire to improve our living spaces, city planners and governments are looking for solutions through the Internet of Things (IoT).

Take the traditional streetlight, which can be programmed to switch on and off at certain times.

By adding ICT and IoT technology to that streetlight and making it “smart”, we can have it dim when pedestrian activity is reduced and monitor it in real-time to know when it needs fixing. The result is a more environmentally-friendly light with lower operating costs.

Sounds good, but it will probably only happen in hi-tech places like Tokyo, right? But what if I told you that smart streetlights had already been trialled in Australia, right here in little old Adelaide?

Yup, Aussies aren’t sleeping through the Smart City revolution. Adelaide’s “Street Smart” is just one of many projects that are kicking off around the country and the government is starting to get behind them.

In April last year, the Government announced its Smart Cities Plan and it is currently taking applications for a $50 million program that will support smart city projects. Here’s a clip of Prime Minister Turnbull getting pretty fired up about it:

To find out more about smart cities and the kind of technology they use, we spoke to Paul Gillespie, the Group CEO of Australian-headquartered company Smart Parking.

What makes a city “smart”? Why do you think cities are moving in this direction, and what steps are they taking to become smart?

As an emerging field, there are differing definitions of what makes a city “smart”. At a smart cities’ conference that I spoke at in Hobart, Peter Carr said that a smart city is essentially made up of five things: Smart Energy, Parking, Lighting, Transport and Waste. That’s a good definition, but I’ll add a sixth element: Smart People. It’s citizens that are the true catalyst for making a city smart.

Cities are moving in this direction because if they don’t they will become more congested, harder to manage and unpleasant to live in. Cities municipalities are proud of how well their cities run. Steps they are taking to achieve this comes back to the question of “how can I manage things better?”

So cities are looking at how to manage assets more effectively. Now those assets can be things like bridges, roads, parking spaces, motorways, lighting poles, waste management and so on and so forth. In the past these were just “things”, but we can now gather those things together and make them talk to one another. That’s essentially IoT and its what powers a smart city.

Which are the world’s smartest cities? How do Australia’s stack up?

One of the smartest cities that I have been to is Singapore. There, they have a program called Smart Nation which includes a multitude of smart city projects. For example, in Singapore’s Yuhua housing estate, thousands of sensors have been installed to monitor the activity of individual apartments. They can then measure energy and water usage and give residents feedback on how to reduce consumption and save money.

Australia, in general, is an early adopter of technology so there has been decent uptake here. There’s been a lot of talk about installing the type of technology that we provide and they have adopted it in some places. To get bigger cities like Melbourne and Sydney to become smart overnight is very challenging.

In Queensland, they are building a smart city from scratch. A place called Maroochydore, which is very interesting. They are looking at every single asset to be smart and to ensure that everything that is connected.

Listening to what is happening around the world, you hear a lot about places like Zurich, Copenhagen and Barcelona and not so much about Australia cities. But I think that has more to do with PR than reality. There is a lot happening in both Australia and New Zealand and we are able to take up technology quickly.

How does Smart Parking fit into a smart city?

We are in a space that is providing technology for the parking departments of local governments. We have in-ground sensors that know when cars park and leave spaces. This is important because if cities understand this, they can manage their costs more effectively. If there is a huge demand in certain areas, we can disperse that demand and shift it to other parts of the CBD.

Quite often, people want to park in one area. By raising the price in one area and lowering it another, similar to surge pricing in Uber, you can spread out the demand. This can only be achieved with real-time data. We can also send parking information to smartphone apps so that drivers can find parks more quickly, reducing congestion.

We believe we are reinventing the parking experience. So people can just pull up and walk away, removing the stress out of it. We want parking to be forgettable. Because when you forget it and don’t worry about it, it’s working. And when it’s bad, you talk about it.

What kind of technology do you use to make parking smart?

We place a parking sensor into every single parking bay. It is battery powered and the battery can last up to seven years. The sensor communicates with a network we install on lampposts nearby, which in turn connects to the internet. Once we have that data in our cloud, we can send the information anywhere. It can go to parking wardens, a person’s smartphone or a sign, again, all in real-time.

In your experience, how supportive of smart city initiatives has the Australian government been?

There is certainly more happening now. As you mentioned, the government has its Smart Cities Plan, and I’ve attended a number of conferences of late, most recently in Hobart and Adelaide. Lots of local governments are in attendance, city majors are standing up and talking about the initiative, what they want to achieve and what they want to do.

There is inertia moving behind this now. There is going to be investment required which is always a challenge with the government. If you have the motivation, which is what I am seeing at these conferences, there are changes afoot.

What are the biggest challenges facing smart cities?

To get networks in place that are going to get all these previously dumb assets talking to the internet requires investment.

However, that’s really where parking fits in. It can assist in generating additional revenues through compliance revenues and enforcement. And so as a result parking is one of the first smart city initiatives that people look at because it deals with the problem of congestion, it generates revenue and provides a better service to the end user.

It’s not just governments that need to take this on board. It’s us as providers and vendors who need to come up with new and innovative ways of financing alternatives for government so that it can get over that capital expenditure hurdle and try to provide something different. The mindset is changing, and now the question is how to pay for it.

When do you predict most developed cities will be smart?

It’s certainly starting now. We are seeing initiatives pop up all over the world. A lot of independent research is talking about 2022 to 2025 but I think you are going to see things happen before that.

Probably in the next 18 months, you are going to see a continual growth in smart city projects. I would like to think that by 2022, 2023 you are going to see lots of different projects happening or executed, and cities becoming smarter.

Certainly, by 2023, I think you will see a lot of cities with some form if not many different smart city projects either ongoing or executed and the benefits of installing that new technology.

The Smart Cities Expo World Forum 2017 will be held at the International Convention Center (ICC) in Sydney. To learn more, visit the official site.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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