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Bringing the smart city agenda to the regions could help Australia’s straining cities

Among the issues considered at a recent Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat conference was how to deal with increasing urban density without destroying communities’ liveability, and how to increase people’s accessibility to their workplaces.

In The Fifth Estate’s report on the conference, it said: “By 2053, about 89 per cent of all Australians are expected to live in capital cities. As more and more people enter these cities, residents are becoming increasingly concerned with impacts on liveability.”

One of the solutions proposed was to build more public transport systems within cities, and specifically in the case of Sydney to continue the current trend for building new metros.

But does it makes sense for most of us to be jammed into a handful of overcrowded cities?

Improving “liveability” is one of the key outcomes that can flow from the deployment of smart city technologies and concepts, along with more sustainable and more empowered communities. The current smart city – or smart communities – focus tends to be on large existing cities, but why not apply the principles to every community, large or small? With modern online communications we have the opportunity to create a larger number of major cities or regional centres.

There’s been quite a deal of media coverage lately about the need for better internet access in regional, rural and remote Australia. Numerous commentators have highlighted the communications challenges facing everyone living outside our major population centres, while pointing to opportunities for improved delivery of health services and education using emerging online technologies.

However, the discussion has largely centred on those already living and working in the bush. Maybe it’s time to consider the advantages of encouraging more businesses, and the people they employ, to move to regional centres. Rather than seeing the demand for broadband outside our capital cities as a problem, perhaps we could turn it into a solution.

Four decades ago the Whitlam Government envisaged a more decentralised nation, establishing the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation. There are many reasons why the Albury-Wodonga decentralisation experiment failed to spur a dramatic shift of our population. Arguably, the biggest stumbling block was the lack of communications services at the time. It’s a long way from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and even further to Sydney. In an era when meetings were habitually held face-to-face, and before we even had fax machines, this was an insurmountable hurdle.

The question we need to consider now is: Has the internet provided the solution – people working with each other without necessarily having to be in the same room, or even the same city? We’ve already seen the creation of numerous internet-based jobs that can be carried out remotely. This is a trend only likely to continue.

The authors of the recently released Greater Sydney Commission strategy believe we can create more liveable communities within the existing city footprint. Under their scheme Sydney will morph into a “tripartite metropolis” – with distinctly separate eastern, central and western cities. The core of the idea is that people are able to commute between home, work and other key locations within 30 minutes. However, critics of the plan point to the need to create a massive number of extremely high-rise apartment buildings, which may or may not be how people wish to live.

The Greater Sydney Commission has said it will take 40 years to complete the transition. We could do a lot of other imaginative things over four decades if we started working on an innovation-led decentralisation plan rather than continue with the current urban consolidation.

In addition to improving transport within cities we could look at improved transport connecting cities. A fast train from Sydney to Newcastle, or from Melbourne to Geelong, Ballarat or Bendigo, for example. We are already seeing people moving out of the capitals of their own accord to these and other places where housing is more affordable and lifestyles more appealing. Why not encourage this via policies that see more infrastructure spending allocated to regional areas and on better interconnecting them?

Above all, in my opinion we need to involve more people in the decisions we make about how we manage our communities. You can build as many metros as you like but, just as in the US, most Australians would prefer to drive to work. That remains viable if we adopt a long-term move to create new smart communities right across the country.

Urbanists will argue it is more economically efficient to contain people in existing cities rather than build new ones. However, given the costs of continuing the urban sprawl it might be timely to conduct an analysis of the respective costs of building homes and providing the associated utilities in outer areas of large capital cities compared with moving people to smaller centres.

But, in any case, is it all about economics? What about quality of life?

One of our largest telcos has several high-rise buildings in both Sydney and Melbourne filled with thousands of employees who only leave their office to buy lunch. Yet they all struggle with congested transport systems, which means hours spent getting to and from a workplace that could, in most cases, be located pretty much anywhere.

The US provides a case study worth considering. Rather than all fighting for space and labour in a handful of places, US businesses are spread across hundreds of regional centres. One or two major employers can provide the demand for a skilled workforce that makes a city viable.

As we envisage our future we need, more than ever, governments that listen to the people. More community engagement in decision-making processes might help us strike the right balance.

Combining smart city concepts with greater community engagement will help create communities that are more liveable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered.

Laurie Patton is inaugural chief executive of the Australian Smart Communities Association (ASCA). From 20142017 he was chief executive of Internet Australia (IA). This article contains material previously published by ASCA and IA.

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