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.

 
 
 
 

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