​​​​​​​Flashing LED street lights, basketball backboards … how MANY approaches are giving effect to smart cities

Historically cities have been established on conservative models, and therefore one of the major challenges when it comes to creating smart cities is to move away from a model rooted in an old approach, and take a different path.

This challenge is not one for cities alone… it spans across every facet of our lives in the 21st Century.

I recently attended an event where I was introduced to a stunningly simple product which was essentially a much cheaper, easier to produce (thanks to 3D printing) version of the cochlear implant which doesn’t require the external microphone, wiring and so on. There was much discussion by the attendees at this event asking ‘why hasn’t Cochlear done this?’ The simple answer is that their whole business model is built around a continued revenue stream which is firmly grounded in an inflexible approach that relies on selling regular upgrades to their existing software, and it’s a business model which they clearly find really hard to move away from.

If we think about this in terms of smart cities, there are many similarities … it IS a challenge for cities, governments, communities, businesses to think about things differently, to try a different approach, to invest in the relative ‘unknown’.

But thanks to some forward thinking and ‘brave’ people, communities and cities across the globe, we are seeing a groundswell of ‘smart city activity’ where boundaries are being pushed, people are thinking outside the lines, and real problems are being solved with relatively simple solutions which have far reaching impact.

And this is the essence of a smart city.

I wrote recently about what I was hoping to see and hear at Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley 8-10 May. I find myself a little cynical when it comes to some conferences these days, but this event was different. I was really engaged, even with some of the most predictable sessions. And upon reflection I wondered ‘why?’

Joining city leaders and technological innovators, Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley ultimately set out to answer ‘what does the next generation of smart cities look like?’

To answer this question is hard. No-one knows exactly where we are heading or what our smart cities will definitively look like. But what became clear throughout this event was that by looking at the ‘now’ - the successes, the mistakes - through sharing these stories, we can create a better ‘what’s next’.

At Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley, the most useful and interesting contributions were those from cities and small towns where they were quite open about their experiences in terms of what didn’t work, as well as what was working.

On the positive side, we heard about a small town of 15,000 people which had introduced an LED street lighting program, and the benefits that brought to the community.  Through moving to smart LED’s the lights can flash at the location in an emergency situation, they can go to their brightest, or change colour to alert the community of certain event, such as a shooting, a gas leak, a car crash, a pedestrian crossing and so on. All these things become possible with smart lights through a ‘smart cities’ approach.

At the recent launch of Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute (where I chair the advisory board), we heard about a terrific solution which the City of Melbourne is introducing across basketball courts located in residential areas. Designed by the city’s industrial design team, the new backboards’ honeycomb panels absorb sound and dampen the noise of the ball when it hits the backboard – making surrounding residents very happy indeed.

I implore the Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute to think of - and be inspired by - this simple solution to a real problem, to a real community need, which has improved the lives of those experiencing and living in the city. That’s what a smart city is about.”  Michelle Fitzgerald, Chief Digital Officer for the City of Melbourne said at the launch. 

The backboard, the LED lights - and there are many more examples – are being received well by communities who are as a result engaging and interacting with their city. A key component of being able to say you have ACTUALLY done something for a city is to ensure that what is being done is recognised by the community as being of value to them, and not just of value to the people with an Apple iPhone in their car.

The message coming through loud and clear from Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley, and also the launch of Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute, is that while smart cities are in part about ‘take your breath away’ technology, that’s only just one part of the puzzle. They are as much about people as they are about technical capability.

Likewise I believe that smart cities are about bravery to break from the mould of conformity that has gone before us. If we want to engage with the community and have the community understand the value of this whole approach, our leaders, policy makers, planners, need to move away from old approaches and facilitate interactions which are real and not seen only as ‘Jetsons’ solutions. We must develop - as a community - our thinking in the Smart Cities space.