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Martin Powell at Siemens Digitalise 2019 – how smart cities can be sustainable

Martin Powell leads the Urban Development practice for Siemens at the Centre of Competence for Cities in New York.

Martin Powell is a city-making guru. He’s worked with mayors in over 100 cities, including former mayor of London and new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson. Here is what he told The Fifth Estate at the Siemens Digitalise conference in Brisbane this week.


Speaking at the Siemens’ Digitalise 2019 event in Brisbane, Powell outlined the power and potential of coupling electrification and digitalisation to create genuinely smarter cities.

“If you can combine this trend of electrification and digitalisation, of connecting that technology, you can now really start fixing tiny little problems across all cities. Making them more agile, more resilient, fairer, more equitable and connected.”

Powell is a city-making guru. He’s worked with mayors in over 100 cities (including former mayor of London and recently elected UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson) to provide technology advice and support cities with their ambitious economic, social and environmental targets.

He says cities are adapting to a number of mega-trends, including increasing temperatures from climate change, as well as population growth, poverty, terrorism, urban unrest and flooding.

Another ballooning problem is air pollution. All of Australia’s major cities exceed safe levels of pollutants at certain times and locations, he says.

“Our children are breathing in toxic air in these places with exceedances.”

Action is happening though, with widespread electrification occurring – in some places faster than others.

How to tell when you should keep kids at home and penalise drivers (or polluting vehicles)

The challenge now “is to make it smart.”

For example, bad air quality days could be predicted five days in advance based on weather forecasts and data from air quality sensors.

In this scenario, children might avoid schools on bad air days or people might be penalised for driving in these toxic environments with higher tolls.

There’s also applications that can measure electricity outage events so that they can be resolved much more quickly, and trains and railway systems could soon guarantee 100 per cent accessibility thanks to digitalisation.

Digital twins are the new indicators

These applications already exist and can sit on top of a single data platform that leverages IoT data from physical infrastructure assets and combines this with analytics.

The likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon use Siemens for this type of work because the company has the underlying understanding of the physical infrastructure to be able to create accurate “digital twins” of assets.

Smart cities are moving on

Ten years ago, smart cities involved a connecting systems together, rather than data.

Powell says we’re now at the stage of extracting data from the underlying infrastructure and connecting that on a separate layer.

“So now you can do that much cheaper, much easier, and with zero risk to the underlying physical infrastructure.”

The benefit of this middle layer is being able to do whatever you want with this data. “You can analyse it, develop new business cases, and then ultimately enact a use case application that’s going to benefit somebody in the city.”

“By de-risking that whole thing I see the whole smart cities thing taking off.”

He says it’s taking off in the US now faster than anywhere else.

Greening the built environment is a precinct level opportunity

When it comes to greening the built environment, Powell says it’s more effective and financially savvy to take a holistic view across a precinct or collection of buildings.

“If you try to make a single building sustainable, you can only get so far.

“But if you have a collection of buildings, you can then retrofit a solution to a much bigger area.”

He says the opportunities you have are much greater and the business case stacks up in a much better way when you can have shared energy systems. There’s also additional benefits of increased resilience and reliability.

“This makes buildings more attractive for businesses to use.”

Powell says universities, in particular, are increasingly moving in this direction and tying their buildings together and designing building management systems that run across all their buildings.

Happiness might be a stretch too far but you make day-to-day things easier

For Powell, good city-building is about improving the day-to-day for citizens, such as keeping the daily commute at a reasonable length.

“You should be trying to improve people’s lives. You can’t actually control happiness but you can improve lives.

“I’m a big fan of making things better. Let the citizens decide how they define happiness.”

He says it requires a combination of improving efficiency of infrastructure, as well as planning for new infrastructure requirements. “You’ve got to do both.”

“If you talk about a smart city it’s not just about sweating an asset so it does more for you, it’s about having a vision of where you want the city to go to and working towards that.”

Great cities have long term plans

Although Powell is positive about the way Australian cities have been planned, at least “on paper”, he says what separates “great cities” from the rest is a long term plan.

“They have long term plans up to 2050, and are sensitivity about energy, infrastructure, transport infrastructure, and allowing for long term growth.”

Powell says there’s no city in the world that’s planning its infrastructure “particularly well”. Los Angeles is a forerunner and many German cities are taking leadership, as are some Asian cities such as Hong Kong, as well as Melbourne.

“But you can’t copy exactly what other cities do anyway. What digitisation does is allow you to customise, and customise quickly.”

The Fifth Estate travelled to Brisbane from Sydney as a guest of Siemens for this conference. Siemens also provided one night’s accommodation.

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