Talking Statues and Citizen Paramedics: Smarter Australian Cities Just a Click Away

Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities February 22, 2016 11:49

Talking Statues and Citizen Paramedics: Smarter Australian Cities Just a Click Away

UK cities expert Geoff Mulgan says using technology to tap into citizens’ brainpower and ideas can help improve infrastructure, efficiency and quality of life

Statues that talk to tourists. A fleet of Uber cars providing minute-by-minute traffic data. A network of first-aid trained volunteers saving heart attack victims before paramedics arrive.

Anything is possible in a smart city – one that uses data, mobile and internet technology to improve efficiency and quality of life. So says Geoff Mulgan, international expert on smart cities.
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“Smart city technology is lots of different things – applying up-to-date digital tech to track the flow of matter whether it be electricity, cars, waste. It’s not all that dramatically new but there are plenty of gains to be achieved,” says Mulgan, chief executive of the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

Mulgan is in Australia as a guest of the Committee for Sydney and the New South Wales government to help explain how innovation can improve economic and social outcomes. On Monday Mulgan, who was director of policy for former British prime minister Tony Blair, was due to address a Committee for Sydney event on “what makes cities smarter” along with NSW innovation minister Victor Dominello.

The committee, chaired by Michael Rose, has spelled out the path towards practical applications of Sydney becoming a smart city in an issues paper released in November 2015.

Mulgan tells Guardian Australia the secret is to start with a genuine need rather than to develop a technology first and find an application later.

Geoff Mulgan
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Geoff Mulgan is in Australia as a guest of the Committee for Sydney to help explain how innovation can improve economic and social outcomes. Photograph: Committee for Sydney
Care for the elderly is one such area. Internet fridges never caught on when their primary application was to warn owners to buy more milk, but Mulgan says they may yet prove useful if they warn families or doctors that elderly people are unwell and not using their fridge. Transport is another. That’s why smartphone apps such as Moovit, NextThere and Tramtracker are so popular in Sydney and Melbourne, providing live transport information better than any static timetable could.

Mulgan says Sydney has been at the forefront in some fields, including city planning, but has been “a bit far behind” on so-called collaborative consumption or the sharing economy – use of technology to share one’s home, car or time with a neighbour.
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“At the commercial end, there’s Uber and Airbnb, but there are less commercial versions. The public sector can use the same principles to provide better libraries or healthcare and I’m not aware of those being used or there being a strategy around the collaborative economy here,” he says.

Some smart city technologies may take years to develop as they will require new technology, such as driverless cars requiring new road safety rules, technology and public behaviour, Mulgan says.

But some are ready to go and just need more people to sign up, like the Good Sam program, Mulgan says. Good Sam lets members of the public in London train and register as first-aid responders, receive a notification when an emergency call is made nearby and provide CPR or use a defibrillator while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Mulgan says there is a “great battle in every big city around the world” to balance the benefits of new tools with mitigating any potential harms.

Companies such as Airbnb allow homeowners to earn money on the side and for a city to make use of its building stock but may have to be regulated to prevent accidents such as house fires arising from weak health and safety rules, he says.

Similarly, Uber may improve customer service or reduce prices in the taxi industry, but courts in the UK and US grapple with whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors to minimise downsides such as a fragmented workforce with worse social security.

“If Uber did become a monopoly that would be a problem for a city,” Mulgan says.

But Mulgan says there are “interesting compromises” private companies can make to help citizens who are not their customers. For example, Uber could share its data to improve transport and traffic planning and Airbnb could help governments house people after natural disasters.

It’s not just about making cities smarter, it’s about making people smarter too
Geoff Mulgan
And yes, the talking statues really do exist. They’re another bright idea come to life in London, Manchester and Chicago where swiping or tapping a smartphone or scanning a code on a statue will prompt a call with historical information for the curious passerby.

“It’s not just about making cities smarter, it’s about making people smarter too, to have a more stimulating and intelligence-enhancing environment,” Mulgan says.

But progress is not inevitable. In its issues paper the Committee of Sydney noted that “the fractured and siloed nature of governance in Sydney has held back momentum towards a ‘Smart Sydney’”.

The committee praised the NSW government for establishing metropolitan planning body the Greater Sydney Commission to improve coordination across government agencies and councils.

It described developing an efficient transport system as “one of the most pressing challenges cities face”.

“System-level innovation is required to overcome the fragmentation that results from the diverse array of transport operators.”
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It’s perhaps fitting, then, that better governance is another promise held out by smart city technology.

Mulgan says technology has helped mobilise citizens through programs such as Fix My Street and See Click Fix, which allow people to alert authorities to street lights or potholes that need fixing.

In Madrid, Barcelona and Helsinki, digital technology is being used to get citizens more involved in proposing policy, he says.

“There are are better ways to tap into citizens’ brainpower, ideas and intelligence, and involve them in a lot more conversational way in democracy,” Mulgan says.

Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities February 22, 2016 11:49