In Australia and around the world, towns and cities are launching smart city strategies and showcasing various smart initiatives.

There are almost as many different approaches as there are communities claiming smartness.

So, picking winners is not easy.

In Australia, Ipswich in Queensland is a strong contender. The council presides over an area of 1100 square kilometres that is home to 210,000 people and more than 500 parks.

In the judgement of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Ipswich is beyond smart: it’s intelligent. In March Ipswich made ICF’s shortlist for its 2018 Intelligent Community of the Year award.

The eventual winner, announced in June, was Espoo in Finland.

However, Ipswich has another accolade that makes it a lead candidate to be Australia’s smartest city. In 2017, it won the Premier of Queensland’s Award for Public Sector Transformation.

Ipswich, in early July 2018 along with Wuhan East Lake Free Trade Zone in China, was recognised in the administration category in its list of the 19 most outstanding smart city projects in Asia Pacific, excluding Japan.

According to research firm IDC, under Ipswich’s Smart City Program, it has projects which include smart parking and transport, smart lighting and energy management, autonomous lawn mowing and automation.

Geof Heydon, digital economy and smart cities consultant with consultancy Creatortech, says it’s hard to pick the smartest city in Australia but agrees that Ipswich would be a strong contender.

“They started earlier than most. They have deployed a platform that enables them to gather and consolidate all their digital information and they are starting to think about how to leverage that information in a way that is smart,” he told Information Age.

“And because Ipswich is a regional council, it has within its footprint an interesting mix of urban residential and rural properties. That means they are responsible for a broad cross section of parklands and community facilities. Regional councils often do more things than city councils.”

In 2017, it was the City of Melbourne that ICF recognised as the world’s most intelligent community. Despite this accolade, Melbourne did not even make the shortlist in 2018.

The ICF claims to be the original smart cities organisation. It started life in the 1980s as the Canadian Smart Cities Institute (CSCI) and morphed into the ICF in the 1990s.

However the criteria by which it assesses a community’s intelligence — broadband; knowledge workforce; innovation; digital equality; sustainability; advocacy — are somewhat at odds with those that might generally be seen as defining a smart city, for example the wide reaching definition given in Wikipedia: “An urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently [including] data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analysed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.”

What do councils do?

Heydon points out that, in any global smart city competition, Australian cities face a couple of handicaps. The largest cities are fragmented into a number or local councils, and in most cases councils have no responsibility for most of those sources of data.

“When you look around the world, the most achieving smart cities are in countries where the city is responsible for far more things than Australian cities, such as police and fire services,” he says. “Here most of them are only responsible for collecting rates, rubbish removal and roads.”

This fragmentation also creates considerable confusion when trying to compare smart city approaches and pick Australia’s smartest city. The ‘City of Melbourne’ that scored the ICF’s 2017 gong was the City of Melbourne Council area, population 130,000, not greater Melbourne.

A 2017 Telstra-sponsored report How smart are Australian cities? Local approaches to adopting smart city strategies looked at Adelaide, Newcastle, Melbourne and the Sunshine Coast, claiming to be “limited to larger cities”.

However, its section on Melbourne made only passing reference to Greater Melbourne and concentrated on the City of Melbourne Council area, hardly a large city.

Adam Beck, executive director at the Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, disagrees with Heydon. He says councils “are no longer roads, rates and rubbish. The majority have a lot of responsibility. They are becoming the data collector, the aggregator, the intermediary.”

Beck ranks the Sunshine Coast and Melbourne along with Ipswich as the most established smart cities in Australia but says others have made considerable progress in recent years, and there are now around 20.

As to what makes a city smart, Beck says the Smart Cities Council judges a smart city as one having a very clear strategy directed to three goals: liveability, workability and sustainability.

Heydon agrees that there are about 20 smart cities in Australia but says many of their initiatives fall well short of being truly smart. “They are using modern technology to do things in new ways, but that does not change anything very much except save some money.”

It’s all about data sharing

His view is that smartness means using the data that can be collected from the Internet of Things (IoT) and leveraging that data widely for maximum advantage. “That means opening it and sharing it with innovative companies that are looking at ways of doing new things. … In my opinion, without data sharing you cannot do innovation.”

Heydon says he is trying to get councils to adopt data policies that are consistent with each other. However, the major hurdle to this is a lack of standards for data sharing, standards that, he says, the IoT Alliance Australia is working to define.

“The alliance is deeply involved with Standards Australia and a few other bodies to try and build the Australian model for smart city technologies and the necessary standards, and the one missing standard is around setting data privacy setting and controlling the way data is shared.

“The NSW chief data scientist [Dr Ian Oppermann] is working hard on coming up with a model. That model looks like being adopted by all states and territories, and there is some interest from international bodies.”

With many different approaches, one way to compare cities is to look at the how rather than the what. As the Telstra-sponsored report notes, all the cities it profiles “have strong leadership at the elected leader or executive level, which has led to the creation of smart city strategies or designated teams.”

Each city, it says, “defined a ‘smart city’ as the organisational approach and implementation of practices that would deliver an improved quality of life for citizens; high quality, inclusive and connected urban spaces; diverse jobs, thriving economy and efficient resource use,” adding “a smart organisation also determines the role that it wants to play in developing and implementing smart city approaches.”

Top secret smart city plan

According to Matthew Schultz, City Digital Officer with Ipswich Council, Ipswich’s smart city leadership is the culmination of several decades of technology initiatives, starting with the council in the 1990s launching its own Internet service provider, Global Infolinks.

In 2009, in the early days of the NBN, Schultz led a project to get an accelerated NBN rollout for Ipswich.

As a result, over 40% of urban Ipswich has fibre to the premises.

Later, the council then worked with all three mobile operators to get improved mobile coverage of its area. And in 2015 it launched Firestation 101, making it the first council in Australia to own and operate a start-up hub.

Its smart city journey started in earnest in 2015. “In late 2015 we engaged Accenture to come up with a smart city blueprint and implementation plan that council ratified in September 2016,” Schultz said. “We were one of the first and its probably one of the most expansive, granular and in-depth plans of its type.”

The full plan – some 300 pages – has not been made public.

Schultz identifies one of the most important initiatives flowing from that strategy as the creation of a smart city platform architecture.

“We wanted to create an open and interoperable city platform for the data generated by all the new initiatives like connected lights and other connected city infrastructure.”