Canberra was the original smart city. It’s time to go further

A view over Canberra's government district. Image: Jason Tong/Wikimedia Commons.

On 30 April 1911, the Australian minister for home affairs, King O’Malley, launched a competition for a new city. It would be a city for whom trade would not require river or sea port, but face-to-face conversation and exchange of ideas. A city whose wealth would come not from what would be mined, but from the mind – its capacity to take and implement decisions on behalf of a growing nation.

It would be Australia’s first true knowledge-based economy, the country’s cleverest city, the original smart city: the new capital, Canberra.

With federal government followed other world-class institutions: galleries and museums showcasing all that was known; scientists, academics and researchers racing to reveal what was not. It gave the world the first glimpse of the moon landing at Honeysuckle Creek and the first glimpse of the future through the invention of WiFi. In return the world gave it the title of best place to live via the OECD.

Such was the city’s success that, over the years, its reason for being changed. Creeks of confidence, industry, and creativity flowed into that initial stream of federation, forming a river of growing purpose and direction. A community not just to serve the nation, but to help lead the nation through its ability to develop and implement ideas; an economy founded on federation, but now moving forward on innovation, on renewable energy, on creating jobs in both the public and the private sector.

As Canberra has changed so too has the world. Its urban population is now increasing by 65m each year. Some Chinese cities have economies larger than European countries. Houses are being 3D printed and the cars of the future will not need drivers. All can be taxi-drivers, hoteliers, or publishers; bank managers through buttons in the palm of our hand, cashiers through the wave of a plastic card.


In half a century, Melbourne will be the size of present day Melbourne and Sydney combined, and future Canberra will have doubled: twice as many shops, twice as much traffic, twice as many people requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment.

In times of questions, uncertainty and disruption, there is opportunity for those with answers, and value in cities with answers. The key to capitalising on this opportunity is two-fold.

The ACT Government rightly invests in physical infrastructure as this is critical for growth. High connectivity between like-minded firms, government, academia, their employees, and the local non-tradable sector (restaurants, cafes), is fundamental to the maintenance of a world-class knowledge-based economy. That’s because we are the raw material: productivity relates to how efficiently we transport ourselves.

Yet the city born to make decisions taken for the nation, must also now lead a new process of decision-making, taking into account new forms of connectivity too. By 2020, there will be 50b devices around the world connected to the internet. This will merge our online and offline worlds, shape our environment in real-time and help solve the challenges of urbanisation.

Data from these devices and other sources will influence every aspect of decision-making: where, when and how governments’ spend, industry invests, citizens live. It will give certainty where once there was only supposition. Evidence will govern and improvement will be a constant process as data is provided in real time.

There is no competition for a new city as there was over a century ago, but there is an extraordinary opportunity for a new type of city. The original smart city can become a new smart city, by using the knowledge and innovation capacity, the originality and smartness, of the extraordinary people, institutions, and networks who reside here.

Kevin Keith is the ACT Manager of Consult Australia, communications & marketing director of GovHack, and an organiser of Canberra’s inaugural Smart Week. He tweets as @KevKeith.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.