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.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.