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Call for national smart city collaboration and the formation of the Council of Smart City Mayors

With the announcement of the  government’s first smart city grants in WA and the NT – with others to follow soon – it is time to start looking at national smart city collaboration in order to achieve a maximum outcome from the funds that are made available and to ensure that we don’t simply end up with winners and losers.

Combined the leading smart cities in Australia should collaborate through their mayors and discuss their common issues with the other levels of government.

We can build on the work that has already been done in Australian by the eight Australian members of the Global Smart City and Community Coalition (GSC3) in Australia. This Dutch-led  international alliance of cities  already has an existing international collaboration model in place between 25 cities around the world, which on the Australian side include Adelaide, Bendigo, Canberra, Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Sydney, Ipswich and Moreton Bay. The Lord Mayor of Adelaide, The Hon Martin Haese, is the Australian ambassador of the group.  At the ASCA conference in May this year the Lord Mayor also hosted Australia’s first smart city mayors meeting. These are all good building blocks for national collaboration.

While Australia is a global leader in relation to a national smart city policy developed by the federal government, the Dutch have a national smart city policy developed by the mayors of some 40 cities, which was subsequently endorsed by their national government. Because of that bottom-up approach they are also leaders in the area of national city collaboration; and because of Australia’s smart city collaboration with the Dutch we can tap into some of their views and strategies on this.

The aim of the Dutch smart city policy is to develop social and economic solutions for local councils, by local councils, in order to create the most efficient and effective way to develop innovative solutions for themselves. They will also develop transition and transformation models based on common basic principles, but tailor them to the unique requirements of each individual city.

Globally smart cities are developing a trillion-dollar business with enormous social and economic benefits for those cities that are able to make the transition. The G20 estimates that global demand for infrastructure will reach US3.3 trillion per year by 2030. Furthermore, competition between cities globally requires them to develop the best liveable and innovative cities with the best social and economic structures in order to attract people, businesses and capital.

There are three stages in a national city collaboration model:

  • Gathering information, tapping into experiences elsewhere and looking for scalability opportunities.
  • Developing eco-systems and transition paths in the key smart city areas of energy, mobility, digital city, circular economy and healthcare.
  • Creating business, investment and revenue models. A special focus is required on local SMEs as well.

In developing a national collaboration plan between Australian cities we can learn from some of the strategic work that the Dutch have done for their national model.

Combined the leading smart cities in the Netherlands are leading the charge in the transition and transformation of their cities and in developing common social and economic models within their communities. Each city takes its own leadership within the overall national strategy, based on its own unique position in the country (socially, economically, geographically, and politically).

The common interest of their citizens is at the heart of their strategy – and in the current political environment cities have become the defenders and the leaders of many of our democratic principles.

In Australia we decided the best possible model would be for the leading cities to work together, and to make their work available to other cities that might not yet have reached that level of strategic thinking. To be a leading smart city one needs to have a smart city strategy and a smart city manager in place, as well as a smart council structure (empowered to work across silos). The eight leading cities in Australia also have strong and direct political and community support from their mayors. A coalition these mayors could drive national collaboration (e.g. through a Council of Smart City Mayors).

Within a national collaboration structure the cities combined could look at the following activities:

  • Together, selecting the most essential and leading projects and supporting each other; making an inventory of strategies, experiences, projects, business plans, etc.
  • Combining the development power of each city by working together on themes. This increases the quality and creates replicability opportunities from which other cities can benefit.
  • Using each other’s building blocks, rather than reinventing them – and, again, offering them to other cities as well.
  • Using common standards and common principles in order for solutions to be scalable, connectable and cost-effective.
  • Coordinating and standardising the basic smart city requirements in tenders; formulating common problems and using combined buying powers. This also makes it far more interesting for businesses and investors to become involved. The Australian Smart City Industry Group (some 30 companies) have indicated their support for this.
  • Combining lobbying efforts towards state and federal government in relation to legal, regulatory and innovation barriers, as well as financing and procurement issues, in order for them to better facilitate smart cities developments. The City Deal construct is a good example of collaboration between all three levels of government.
  • Combining events, interconnecting hacketons, innovation hubs and City Labs between cities.
  • Presenting together to businesses and research institutions what cities can offer them. Promoting the ‘City as a Platform’ for innovation, social and economic development, digital economy, urban living, sustainability, resilience, etc.
  • Developing a strategic plan for trade and smart city visits. There is enormous duplication here between cities – in Amsterdam alone more than 20 individual Australian cities have been touring the projects, with hardly any sharing of their findings. With a more coordinated approach far more cities in Australia could benefit from such visits.
  • Continuously scanning the horizon, establishing a combined approach towards future developments such as robots, AI, IoT, 5G, Blockchain, data analytics, etc. Always looking out for new smart city themes.
  • Smart city projects are often very big and complex and do require a very structured approach. Federal and state support and facilitation is essential.

Only through a strategic smart cities approach and collaborative models will it be possible to overcome what perhaps is the most critical area: the funding of smart cities. Without proper business and investment models cities end up with what I call the ‘death by pilot’ syndrome, and already the international smart city landscape is littered with thousands of such projects – most highly successful but with no strategic plan and financing to upscale them into city-wide projects.

As most of the national collaboration requirements mentioned above also apply to cities worldwide it is most opportune to also work with the leading smart cities in other parts of the world – combined faster and more effective progress can be made based on sound business and investment models.

Since the Australian smart city policy is driven by the federal government it also important for them to look at other relevant federal projects in order to create (smart city) synergy outcomes. These include projects and initiatives such as digital transformation agency, cyber security, ICT skilling, mobility, innovation hubs, e-health, and Fintech. Much of this can also be used and integrated in smart city activities this creates synergy and a multiplier effect of the investments made in each of those individual areas.

As mentioned above in order to kickstart national smart city collaboration it would perhaps be opportune for the mayors of Australia’s leading smart cities to form a Council of Smart City Mayors that could look into a better alignment between some of the federal initiatives and their own smart city strategies, as well as to coordinate the list of the coalition’s activities.

Paul Budde