I've worked for decades with local government to solve complex transportation challenges. The work of local government is essential to the future of our cities and our quality of life. My own city has the goal of being a "world class city." The important work of local councils is done in a transparent democratic and public consultative environment.

Which is a pity when you consider the majority of eligible people don't vote and rarely respond to public consultation. That's because we are still trying to force a traditional public consultative system that existed before the internet. That means there is not much diversity in those who respond. In fact, we know the demographics of those who vote and respond creates a bias in representation, apparently, from older, whiter men.  In Auckland (New Zealand) "the council's own survey found only 15 per cent of Aucklanders' had trust, and only 17 per cent were satisfied with the job Auckland council is doing". 

An emerging technology in Australasia could (finally) reverse this, and create citizens who are highly engaged with their community and local government.

What does a Smart City look like?

People often assume a Smart City will have visible technology, and that you'll open an App or two as you cross the town boundary. There have been numerous mistakes made assuming that technology creates liveability. Rather, what makes cities great is vibrancy, activity, interaction, and a sense of place.

A Smart Cities approach is not technology-led. The first step is to examine what are key personal frustrations about quality of life and the environment. These are the things that if improved quickly will change people's perceptions about the quality of life in a city.

Once we have identified these frustrations, we need to understand what needs to change for these frustrations to reduce, and then finally look at emerging technologies that may be able to assist. Technology is that last step.

One example I heard recently was a small rural town where people would travel from far and wide to use their boat ramp. But these people seldom went into town to use the shops.Talking to the boaties, it quickly became apparent they found it hard to park their vehicles towing boats in town in suitable places. It was so frustrating they didn't bother to go into town any more. The solution was to provide parking spaces for cars with trailers, and instrument it so that a sign at the boat ramp shows in real-time how many of these special parks are available.Removing this one key frustration has seen boaties instantly change their behaviour, something the traditional 'education' approach couldn't have achieved.

So entering a smart city won't be a hyper-technology experience only available to the digital-natives, rather it will simply be a surprisingly efficient, convenient, and vibrant experience.

LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Networks)

Variants of LPWAN are currently being rolled out worldwide, including Australia and New Zealand. It is this technology which I believe will transform how communities and local government engage and collaborate.

NIMBY is a well-known acronym (Not In My Back Yard) which means that even if people believe in the value of infrastructure or densification, they don’t want it to occur near them.  When councils communicate en masse, most people immediately look to see if they are personally affected, and if not then happily disengage.  A smart cities approach takes this ‘localism’ into account, and in fact uses it to increase citizen engagement.

Low-power wireless Wide Area Network (LPWAN) is a technology that interconnects low-bandwidth, battery-powered devices with low bit rates over long ranges. Put more simply, LPWAN is a technology that is like Bluetooth but operates over long distances, and with very low power consumption. It is possible to have small sensor devices that communicate simple data for 10 years without any need to change the battery or maintain the unit. The promise is many of these devices will be in the low hundreds of dollars.

For the first time, it will be possible to collect information and share it at low cost. This information could be air quality, stream quality, noise levels or any monitorable activity.This means low-cost data will become available in real time.

I expect that this will see a change in how people relate to their environment. In a similar way to citizen science, if information becomes available then the problems become transparent. For example, if an environmental sensor detects a loss of quality then interested citizens and 'localism' will kick in and people will go and see what has happened. Locals will then become part of the solutioneering.

For example, as water quality sensors get cheaper you can put them into a stream and give a live data feed to a local school and they can start doing projects on stream water quality. This is a real story; as soon as something bad happens to the stream you can guess what the kids do - either in class time or after school they go and have a look at the stream and ask: "What's gone wrong with our stream? And what can we do to stop whatever happened from happening again?"

Compare that to the current system where someone would have to notice the problem, call the local council, someone from the local council would have to travel to site and investigate. At best most locals might find out about dramatic problems, at best through social media, or more likely the local traditional media at a later date.

While local government may have a reduced need to monitor, they will need to alter their approach to support communities in solutioneering.There will be a need for collaboration and working together, because the detailed data will no longer be restricted to council.

The Internet of Smoky Hassle

When we asked one of our council clients "What's your biggest hassle and what wastes the most of your staff time?" The answer came back quickly: smoky chimneys! "A resident calls up and says, 'My neighbour's chimney is smoking me out, can you come out and warn or prosecute them?' Council staff need to travel to inspect it but by the time they get there, the smoke is gone or is just everywhere. There's no evidence, no one's happy, it's all quite wasteful."

Thinking about LPWAN, we said, "We can get you internet connected air-quality sensor and a cheap infra-red camera with really wide-angled lens - that'll automatically tell you where the smoke is coming from even before the neighbour notices." After this pilot it may be that local residents or community groups who care most about air quality will put out the sensors themselves.

The modern smart cities approach is the small-but-scalable application of technology that suits LPWAN. This is the key to smart cities - it's not a big IT system . And if it doesn't work it's gone, if it does work you'll find people will actually want to engage.

Engaging the Digital Citizenship

I believe LPWAN will create communities where data is freely available that then leverages off the "localism" factor: people will engage in and respond to things that are happening around them.

With real-time information provided over LPWAN, communities will understand better what the challenges are and become involved in identifying and monitoring the solutions.

Where local government takes on the role of supporting communities in implementing these solutions, I expect to see a new levels of engagement and understanding of the importance of the role local government contributes to our future quality of life.

The key to understanding smart cities and its role in digital citizenship is that technology is just an enabler for a transformation in local civic engagement by improving the quality of urban life through convenience, efficiency and empowering digital citizenry ("Digizens").

About the Author
Matt Ensor

Business Director - Advisory Services

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