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16 July 2020

Making Our Smart City Wiser

Imagine a city where an integrated digital system runs sensors that transmit data in real time for more efficient management of everything - from rubbish bins, pollution levels, construction waste, traffic flow, housing, drones and water usage to energy consumption.


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Cities around the world, Auckland included, are becoming smarter and more connected as the internet of things collects, sends and acts on data it acquires from various sources.

With a focus on becoming the world’s most liveable place, our city, led by Auckland Council, is working towards being more efficient and less energy-hungry, monitoring the environment and enhancing our lives by leveraging clever information technology.

The council has incorporated multiple low-cost sensors into many areas and developed an open-source network to send data and inform decision-making on subjects like kauri dieback, air quality, rubbish bins, urban parks, car parks, farms and water tanks.

For example, smart technology has helped the council roll out award-winning programmes like Safeswim, which catches real-time data on Auckland’s wastewater and stormwater networks so we can make informed decisions on how safe it is to swim at beaches and sites around the Auckland region.

Some other projects where the council is working on utilising smart technology include:

• Innovation Ecosystems is establishing a number of key ecosystems to help mitigate future and existing problems. They are around climate change, the circular economy and the construction industry. They provide support, services and funding for communities, entrepreneurs and start-ups to stimulate innovation and generate solutions to our most pressing issues. The first will be climate change in the new year.

• The Auckland Airshare programme looks to proactively manage safety issues related to drones to minimise the likelihood of an accident and prevent another ‘lime scooter moment’ in our airspace.

• Infrastructure prioritisation is a project to help CCOs align their strategic delivery of infrastructure to ensure best value for money and the timely delivery of critical infrastructure for urban growth and housing. It facilitates information sharing and consolidates into a visualisation platform so various individuals can agree on sequencing of projects, ensuring the most valuable are prioritised first.

• The council is working with Housing New Zealand to understand more about housing infrastructure requirements and how to manage some of its services. The consents team aims to automate part of the consent process to make building easier for residents.

• In the Farms & Food for the Future programme, the council is helping farmers get better value from the produce they are providing by becoming better connected to those who buy the produce.

• Working with Beca, an engineering consultancy, the council is designing system interventions to work out how to eliminate waste in the construction process over the next 10 years. It is also working on an organic collection programme for food waste to create compost that can be returned to the soil.

Technology can overcome some of the problems caused by the massive pressure a growing population puts on urban development, but how we gather and use the data is of concern to some.

The smart city concept has been widely criticised in recent years. The problem, says Professor Wolfgang Dreschler, an expert in technology innovation and governance who recently visited Auckland from the Tallinn University of Estonia, is that data is fallible and can easily be manipulated by those who collect it.

“We have little reason to trust big corporations and government. There are also problems with privacy and security,” says Dreschler.

Community advisor and age-friendly advocate Judy Blakey notes that as citizens we should be cautious about the current dominance of supply-driven smart city solutions, which often result in smart city strategies that are disconnected from their social context.

"Special attention should be paid to issues of accessibility for all, avoiding digital disparities and spatial polarisation,” she says.

"In the design of any smart city strategy and with its strategic planning, Auckland Council should make an intensive effort to meet the expressed needs of society - which pre-supposes effective engagement with residents.”

So, as we head into the future, is Auckland creating a smart city that serves the environment and its people better, yet avoids the unwanted consequences?

Matt Montgomery, head of innovation at Auckland Council, says yes, but with a caveat. He agrees we have to be careful how we select solutions and only pick out what is valuable.

“We must always be aware of the risks and downsides. Being smart is not enough. We need to be wiser.”

In a complex city with lots of interacting parts, “there are project-specific risks and broader risks around technology – privacy, surveillance, data harvesting – so we need to be careful about how we plan,” he says. “Being smarter means making better decisions and having the data to back up those decisions.”

He explains that the concept of a smart city has evolved to one where it’s not just a technology focus, but where the city puts people at its centre to promote better decision-making.

“We look at policies, systems, processes, people and skills as well as data. It’s how we use that technology to be better informed.”

The key is putting engagement and inclusion at the heart of smart city thinking.

That’s why teams at Auckland Council are helping city leaders, businesses and residents of all ages and from diverse communities to collaborate to identify city needs, applications and unique solutions.

Over the past year, Montgomery has been involved in setting up the infrastructure to allow the council to put the right processes in place.
In a series of cross-agency workshops, he has developed systems and tools to work with communities so they can maximise the opportunities that data provides.

“We’ve been testing the best approach to make this work for Auckland. Now we want to go hard and faster. That means formalising a Future Lab – a space where government bodies, businesses, communities and academia will have formal partnerships.”

The Future Lab will become an information growth hub, but it won’t just be about conversation. Funding will be available to kick-start successful applicants, along with various tiers of support. It will connect with others who work in this space, such as The Southern Initiative, ATEED, Callaghan Innovation, the schools’ environment programme, citizen science modules and other routes to employment.

In the next year or two, the council will push hard on increasing productivity to give access to information and grow skills.

At the same time, it’s genuinely embracing diversity to ensure social inclusion and equitable outcomes. Community groups will work with Democracy Services; a directorate within the council that’s responsible for engagements to ensure the voice of individual customers is heard.

There will be partnerships with the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum – which gives Iwi control and puts them in the driving seat in terms of programmes.

Says Montgomery: “We’re beginning to push boundaries about what’s possible. It’s a crowdsourcing online platform that lets us engage with audiences in a better way. The classic example is UpSouth from the Southern Initiative.”

This digital platform connects the South Auckland community by sharing creative ideas and feedback. UpSouth is building digital skills while promoting civic participation, especially among marginalised youth.

The council will continue to look at opening up forums so people can have a say to ensure their rights and opportunities are carefully managed.

With so much information gathering, how does the council manage the data it collects to protect the privacy of its citizens?

“We’re covered by a number of processes and policies,“ explains Montgomery. “We have a privacy manager who ensures we’re not using the data for anything other than what it’s meant for. This ensures we’re not opening up any privacy concerns for ratepayers. It’s always opt in for us. It’s never a default to opt out.

“We don't allow and we’re considering putting in policy to prevent future use of facial recognition. There is no justification for it from a city operating and planning perspective. I’m really confident we’re doing things in the right way.”

However, he is concerned about the idea of businesses harvesting data on us through our interactions with them as we go about our daily lives.

“There is a gap in areas we don't control or manage. For example, in the private realm in shopping centres, retail spaces, through corporate technology providers harvesting data. There are issues around surveillance capitalism that we need a collective response to. How do we prevent, control, regulate, and govern companies like Google or Facebook harvesting Auckland data?

“It needs a national and local response with greater education and engagement with the risks of opening up your data to the market. On the face of it, it’s quite innocuous, but you can see where some of this technology is going. Maybe we want to be a bit more proactive in terms of permissions we give businesses to use data. We may need a regulator with a bigger role in that space.”

The council is keen to have conversations about data privacy and security in a public forum.

A considerable amount of technology is now available which helps customers retain ownership of their personal information.

“We’d also like to create different conversations with people through engaging tech software to gauge how the city wants us to respond.”

Montgomery says it’s important to help Aucklanders gain trust between organisations and customers by using data sovereignty technology such as that being developed by Spark, a founding steward of the Sovrin Network, which is enabling the development of self-sovereign identity (SSI) on the internet. But that’s a whole other story. Watch this space…

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