From Sydney to Rome and London to San Francisco the idea of Smart Cities fuels endless conferences and talk-fests. It’s the buzz-word that pricks the ears of governments, town planners, architects, city mayors and high-tech firms and indeed almost anyone connected with our cities across the globe.

But just what is a ‘Smart City’, where did this idea spring from and is it a concept that has a future that we should not only be aware of but embrace with zeal?

The genesis of the Information Age appears to have a direct link to smart city technology with the idea of Smart Cities dating back to 2005 when through President Bill Clinton’s philanthropic organisation the Clinton Foundation, Clinton challenged Cisco to use its technical know-how to make cities more sustainable.

Cisco then went on to spend US$25 million over five years to research the topic, within its Connected Urban Development programme. Subsequently, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Seoul took on pilot projects testing the technology’s potential.

In 2010, Cisco launched its Smart and Connected Communities division. Not too far behind, IBM had a similar vision to use its IT to make cities smarter. And while these two IT giants took different paths the idea of Smart Cities took hold.

We are also facing pressures from massive structural changes impacting every aspect of the global economy and our shift to a digital economy and Smart Cities will be central to this transition.

Populations Pressures

As society becomes more concentrated and urban, and as cities account for an ever-greater slice of economic activity, the link between cities and technology has profound implications. Some key areas that immediately spring to mind are the environment, energy, and transport.

Smart city technology then generally falls into a few basic categories: mobility/transport focused on areas like autonomous vehicles and bike shares, open/big data with the use a cities’ public data to improve public services, and smart buildings/infrastructure, a field usually focused on energy efficiency but also many areas of design.

Experience already shows that Smart Cities require carefully crafted policies and a whole of government planned approach. Federal, state and local governments need to rise to the challenge together in a focused and logical manner.

So, in Australia can we do that?

To-date the evidence does not look very convincing. In Sydney, we have the City Council and State Government at logger-heads of over some aspects of energy conservation. Then just consider the role out of the NBN, the mess in delivering Sydney’s light-rail network and inter-city trains that don’t fit some station platforms. All are measures designed to make Sydney a better and smarter place.

Smart Cities might be the brave new world but on one side of the equation, much of our infrastructure is stuck in the 19thCentury while as individuals and society-wide we love technology.

Apple will soon be our first trillion-dollar company but we have governments, laws, and policies that can’t keep pace. This makes harnessing the full benefits of Smart Cities harder. Smart Cities are much more than just the domestic idea of having Alexa or Google Home switching on the lights or telling us the days’ weather forecast.

Taking just two areas, for example, helps demonstrate why Smart Cities are central to progress, consider energy and transport.

Energy involves an entire range of issues from the distribution and use of energy to how technology can help us sustain and manage energy consumption and costs.

While transport, covering road, rail and air travel are all essential to how cities function and massive change is already on the way however, and with 19th Century infrastructure, how will we manage driverless cars and trains let alone drone transport.

Driverless cars, like electric cars sound great, but who will meet the huge bill for transforming our roads and related infrastructure to accommodate these new technologies. Even if they have the will, governments do not have the revenue needed and already have a big enough task in expanding public transport systems.

We already see how long it takes us to add a new airport to Sydney and as more and future technology takes hold we will not have decades to adopt.

Part of the solution will come from the application of big data, and while that’s a topic a little tarnished over recent months by breaches of privacy, as big data increases from the interconnection of objects and appliances the reality will change the way cities are run. Transport and many other areas will be and are already being impacted.

Big data will potentially impact energy, telecommunications, healthcare and lots more and will rely upon the support of 5G communications networks.

The weekend’s announcement of a new $800m digital rail control system for Sydney further demonstrates the impact of data-linked technology.

However, not all investments have to be this big and Barcelona shows some good innovations. These include sensors to control the use of water in city parks. There’s also an app with real-time information on available parking spaces both good ideas for Sydney.

Other innovations include street lamps that dim and use less power when there’s no nearby activity.

Other examples include Vancouver’s City Studio which pairs students with local universities to create urban-focused initiatives and develop skillsets germane to smart city industries and public governance.

We also have Chicago’s scholarship and education programs, helping to prevent greater socioeconomic divides where libraries become job training centers. Chicago’s public schools, parks, and public transport were all being invigorated ensuring an inclusive, equitable city.

Major IT companies are looking for their niche in the Smart Cities market, with projections that annual spending on smart city technology will reach US$16 billion by 2020. In the USA an estimated 66% of cities are investing in Smart Cities technology.

Australia’s Efforts

Locally the Turnbull Government has a $50 million investment in Smart Cities.

The $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs Program is supporting the delivery of innovative smart city projects that aim to improve the livability, productivity and sustainability of cities and towns across Australia.

There’s an appetite to be involved with 176 applications received for the round one funding. Successful projects are being co-funded by partners including local governments, industry, research organisations and the private sector.

The second round of funding aims to encourage even more collaborative projects, led by local governments, which apply innovative technology solutions to urban challenges, that will deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.

However, to make a real impact we need an integrated strategy not a scatter-gun approach. The desire to create Smart Cities goes well beyond how we might better manage the urban environment.

We are having to confront the power of big jumps in technology and ask are we making the most of what technology can offer. Change is rapid and today the average person carries in their pockets more processing power than a 1990 supercomputer.

The engagement with the ideals of Smart Cities is increasingly being fostered by cities themselves and not federal or state governments, at the city level there’s more flexibility and an ability to make changes without additional ‘red-tape’.

A plan to shift the digital delivery of government services to the top three internationally within seven years, will address some aspects of red-tape and boost the wider digital economy.

Creating Smart Cities will require a society-wide solution and if that happens we can better manage a growing population, climate change and scarce resources and create not only smarter cities but happier and better cities.

Isn’t that what we all want and so goes some way to answer the question of what Smart Cities should and can be. We have entered an Urban Age and without policies like Smart Cities, we will face an uphill battle to manage the growth, complexity and social value of our cities.