The technology to create truly smart cities is here, but we’re not going to realise the benefits until Australia brings all the right players to the table and starts thinking differently about intelligent infrastructure. Katharina Gerstmann, our Principal for Transport, explores the issues policy makers need to grapple with.

A smart city uses the data from devices and IoT sensors to improve people’s experience of city services, better manage resources and alleviate problems like congestion, crime and pollution. The technology to create this type of truly smart city is already available and in use around the world. Already, rubbish bins compost themselves; street lights dim when they’re not needed and brighten when pedestrians walk by; sensors prevent sewers from overflowing into rivers during floods; apps tell motorists the location of the nearest – or cheapest – parking space.

As Australia’s urban population continues to balloon, such technologies will be key to sustaining the world-class liveability of our cities. But they will not deliver unless we change how we plan for, integrate and manage the development of intelligent infrastructure.

Total integration

According to the Commonwealth Government’s Smart Cities Plan, Australia is well aware of the global lesson that long-term planning and collaboration are critical for delivering the coordinated infrastructure, housing and services that shape our cities and the lives of residents. The Plan notes:

Fundamentally, better cities policy starts with a commitment from all levels of government to work together to deliver common goals—including reforms that make our cities easier to invest in and do business.

To this point, the Plan includes ‘City Deals’ as part of a new approach to urban policy, creating long-term (15-year) partnerships between all three levels of government to secure a city’s economic success. The Deals create the impetus for institutional reforms and investments to create whole-of-city capacity and governance arrangements.

Infrastructure Australia’s recent Future Cities report also identifies integrated governance and leadership as keys to success, recommending:

Australia’s largest cities should establish institutions and processes which enable the delivery of metropolitan-scale governance.

While I heartily agree, I believe we need to go further. Smart cities need national governance because, eventually, our economic growth will depend on their smart services interconnecting.

Of course, an individual city will have its own vision and specific local challenges. But if we allow our major cities to continue to each develop siloed smart systems and define their own standards, Australia could be on course for the digital equivalent of another rail gauge fiasco.

Already, we’ve managed to develop incompatible public transport smartcard systems: Opal, Myki and Go Card. State transport departments are all now looking separately at next-generation transport cards.

Our federated political system means no one is looking at a national card compatible in every state on every form of transport.

Australia could be on course for the digital equivalent of another rail gauge fiasco.

National standards

If cities are to create the right conditions for open innovation and reduce barriers to systems integration, we need national standards. This is the moment for Standards Australia to get involved.

In the UK, the British Standards Institution was commissioned to formulate a Smart Cities Standards Strategy. This has resulted in Cities Standards Institute, which brings together cities, key industry leaders, and innovators to work together in identifying the challenges facing cities, providing solutions to common problems and defining the future of smart city standards.

It’s a good model for Australia to build on.


We also need to recognise where smart cities are really going. Opal is supposed to be moving to contactless payments with a debit card. But, if we look at Singapore and Hong Kong – leaders in smart transport – the reverse is happening. In these cities, travel cards are becoming key to all city services, integrated with retail outlets and office buildings. In both cities, you can use your travel card to buy lunch. Soon further integration will see people using their transport cards to swipe through office security and access tourist attractions.

Notably, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation is the only transport operator in the world turning a serious profit. This is because long ago, the MTR figured out that its business is not transport – but real estate.

As one of the world’s densest cities, Hong Kong’s retailers depend on public transport to move customers from one side of the territory to another. In exchange for transporting customers, the transit agency receives a cut of the mall’s profit, signs a co-ownership agreement, or accepts a percentage of property development fees. In many cases, the MTR owns the entire mall itself, as well as the offices and residences next to every transit station – some of which have direct underground connections to the train.

It’s time Australian cities started thinking about their public transport systems in the same way:  as part of a vertically integrated business that brings shoppers to malls, employees to work and locals and tourists to restaurants and entertainment and sporting centres. In this City-as-a-Service mindset, we might usefully ask: who benefits from transport working brilliantly and what very different funding models could we therefore use?

If transport cards become integrated with the payments system, perhaps the banks should be looking at the sector…

Time for a national, collaborative effort

The best people to make all the above decisions are the stakeholders currently tackling smart city solutions from different perspectives. Policy makers, tech developers, urban planners, developers, funding providers, investors, environmental scientists, engineers of all disciplines –  everyone needs to work together: to set broad national standards that will ensure integration, to share learnings, to encourage collaborative innovation and to make sure we don’t get left behind.