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Exclusive Interview: The City of Newcastle on smart city investment

06 Mar 18

The City of Newcastle is one of the most advanced 2nd tier cities in terms of smart technology investment in the country, with a range of different initiatives with end-goals of community revitalisation, business investment and economic growth.

The city is set to tell its full story at the Cities 4.0 summit in Melbourne on the 20th - 22nd of March along with a range of other local and international public service delegates, exploring how global smart city investment is fostering business development, ensuring economic growth and increasing general livability.

Ahead of the event, Techday sat down with Deputy Lord Mayor Declan Clausen, to find out how the city is investing in smart city technology, and how the council is working with vendors to foster innovation.  

Can you give a bit of a background as to where Newcastle started its smart city journey and where it’s currently positioned?

Newcastle is pretty well established as being a leading smart city. There has been quite a bit of investment and we’re very lucky to have a team of expert staff who have a lot of enthusiasm. Late last year I did a tour of smart cities in the US and looked at a lot of other comparable cities and it’s fair to say that the thinking in Newcastle is very advanced. We’ve been lucky to have the support of the state and federal government with some considerable grants in recent years that support our thinking on Newcastle as a smart city.

Newcastle is a 2nd tier city with a population of around 500,000. We’re part of a region with a gross regional product of $44.5 billion and there’s an awful lot of growth in the city itself. Council is forecasting to approve $1.5 billion in development this current financial year which is really exciting as we’re moving from manufacturing towards the smart economy.

In terms of the smart city plan, council plays the role of an enabler in establishing and implementing infrastructure to support development. We view Newcastle as a living lab, so that’s really driving a lot of the technology investment that is we’re putting in, as we’re trying to establish an environment where people can come to trial new products and systems that gives live data back to the city.

Can you expand a bit on what you call the Hunter Innovation Project?

One of the major key pillars of the Hunter Innovation Project is about installing a lot of sensors and technology to really create the heart of the smart city. This includes smart energy efficient light poles, free public Wi-fi and high-speed fibre connections to property in the innovation precinct as well as a whole heap of sensors that measure things like pedestrian and traffic flows and sending that data back to the city.

One of the ideas that have been pitched is about trialling autonomous vehicles on that road, which would leverage the smart network that’s talking to those cars telling them about traffic conditions to enable peak performance. We’re delivering that alongside the state government as a part of a complete range of intelligent infrastructure we believe is needed for a smart city.

Has the introduction of the smart city project facilitated further industry development in resources and manufacturing - which the city has traditionally been known for -  or does it mark an economic shift towards a digital economy?

The smart city project builds on the natural advantages that we have. We’ve got 100+ years of expertise in manufacturing and energy and so the smart city transition is really highlighting and embracing those skills while shifting in a new direction at the same time. It’s definitely also about acknowledging that we have a global economy but the existing expertise in traditional sectors that we have locally is still very much needed.

How have you had to manage the issue of urban sprawl?

Newcastle is a relatively well defined urban area and within the city boundaries, it is almost completely developed. So the sprawl across our city has ended and it then becomes an issue of working with neighbouring councils to ensure that there is some continuity across our local government boundaries. We’re not an island and we need to work better with our neighbours.

There marks a series of ongoing conversations between neighbouring councils and there are different councils within our region that are taking different approaches to smart city technology. Lake Macquarie is a neighbouring council for us and in some respects, we’re working in partnership but then there are other things where they see areas of competition between the two councils.

It’s just about working out where there are strong synergies and where - for example - we can trial one set of technology in Newcastle that could be then rolled out across both council areas and vice versa.

On that note, what are some of the best ways local councils can contribute to smart city development?

One of the things city councils need to be extremely mindful of is the huge number of different vendors that are operating and providing product in the smart city space. If an elected council was to start looking at smart city technology from the beginning, you could literally fill your diary with meetings with vendors trying to pitch different solutions.

We’ve tried to be a bit more agnostic in terms of the technology choices and the outcomes that we want to see for the city. We’ve been looking at things like smart mobility, making the city more livable and moving away from cars and to easily accessible public transport, so the discussions have to revolve around those outcomes.

In my view, there are two key questions that a city needs to ask before deploying any smart city technology. First, does it increase efficiency and therefore reduce the cost to the council, with a following debate on whether council continues to levy the cost or whether there is some form of payment that goes back to residents as a result of the increased efficiency. Second, does it improve the livability for residents? If the technology doesn’t meet either of those two criteria, then I don’t think that you should be pushing it out.

How big of a role will IoT and big data have in further development?

They will have a huge role going forward. We’re deploying sensors right across the city, which are going to produce a huge amount of data. We’re establishing an open data platform and have made a very clear governance decision that the data we collect should be made freely available and be used for a range of people who want to test or further understand the way that products work.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in that space. Initially, we won’t be too worried about the final format of the data, but as this becomes more advanced we’ll be starting to ensure that the data is in easier to use forms that people can utilise. The advantage of IoT, while there are some great products available, there is a fair bit that is still unknown, so we’re excited to explore some new and innovative outcomes that will advantage the city of Newcastle.

You’ll be attending the Cities 4.0 Summit in Melbourne later this month, what excites you about the event?

I’ve been really impressed by the lineup that Cities 4.0 have been able to put together. I understand that there’s quite a strong contingent of NSW delegates heading down as well as speakers from right around the world.

There’s an awful lot to learn from the event. The fact that cities are working together is exciting and I think that - regardless of where we are in the world - we’ve all faced similar issues. So there’s a good opportunity to make sure we’re not repeating mistakes and can pick up on the best bits of what other people have implemented.

I’m really excited to hear about the range of other contributors about what is going on right across the world. It’s fantastic that an event like Cities 4.0 is being put on in Australia.

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