by Philip Davies, Chairman, SMART Advisory Council, University of Wollongong
It would appear beyond dispute that infrastructure will be at the centre of almost all our major investments as a nation for a generation to come. Not only is the efficient use of infrastructure crucial to our economic growth, but it also lies at the heart of our day-to-day lives and quality of life in the form of transport, health, education, telecommunication, water and energy services.
Earlier this year, Infrastructure Australia launched Future Cities: planning for our growing population, a report that identified the choices we have to make as we face very significant population growth.
In the next 30 years, Australia will be home to 36 million people, most of whom will be centred in our largest cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
There are many obvious economic advantages to this, but the speed and magnitude of the coming change means we now need a smarter, and far more sophisticated, systematic and integrated approach to the way we plan our cities.
While Infrastructure Australia has identified a $55 billion pipeline of nationally significant priority projects, with an additional $25 billion now under delivery, the bigger opportunity — though often ignored — is how we optimise the use of our existing infrastructure.
Using data to make the most out of current infrastructure
Part of the problem here is political. Too much of our planning is project led and short term, dictated by political objectives rather than long-term need. New infrastructure projects win elections where finding ways to optimise infrastructure is hard to translate in media opportunities and political capital.
The irony here is that improving services and reliability, without the significant expense and inconvenience of building new infrastructure from scratch, is exactly what voters care about most.
So the question is, how do we optimise the infrastructure that we already have?
A decade ago, there may have been a good argument to say that this was a question too complex to address. These days, however, this is no longer the case.
We now have access to far more data and much more sophisticated analytical tools thanks to the advances in sensors, the Internet of Things and the increasing use of data collection systems in the design and implementation of infrastructure.
Our ability to optimise infrastructure services through the use of data lies at the heart of the mission of the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong, where I have recently taken up the role of advisory council chair.
Researchers at the facility are already pushing the boundaries of infrastructure optimisation and creating smart solutions to make our cities more liveable, despite the demands of increasing population.
Applying strategies in Australia and overseas
One example of this is the work done with MTR, one of the world’s largest providers of mass transit systems in global cities including Melbourne, Hong Kong and Stockholm.
For the past two years, SMART has been helping devise information systems to support and enhance MTR’s “learning organisation” strategy.
The aim is to foster in-house innovation by promoting creative thinking amongst its employees, through knowledge sharing, as well as collective assessment and maturation of innovative ideas.
After an initial in-depth review of existing cultural and technological obstacles, SMART designed information systems aiming to enhance the effective implementation of the strategy. These tools include an online, crowd-sourced and automated assessment system of innovative ideas posted by MTR staff based on meta-moderation principles.
This system allows for a fast, fair and anonymous maturing and ranking process that doesn’t require the costly assignment of specific human resources to the task. This system can easily be transferred to a wide range of organisations that want to unleash the collective creativity of their staff.
Further away, SMART is collaborating with CSIRO-Chile and local partners to address acute water management issues in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. SMART has developed an interactive model of groundwater access and management in order to reach a consensual agreement on sustainable water rights allocation amongst farmers, mine operators and water companies.
Closer to home, SMART is currently collaborating with Liverpool City Council in Sydney to support its ambitious city centre renewal through the use of smart sensing technology. Researchers have already developed a ‘smart visual sensor’ using IoT technology as part of their Digital Living Lab that automatically processes street footage and sends only data points of pedestrian or vehicular mobility patterns, avoiding privacy issues usually associated with video surveillance of public spaces.
Furthermore, this technology can be easily retrofitted onto existing CCTV networks and complemented by other ubiquitous data sources such as mobile device connections.
SMART was established in 2011 and has ambitious plans for growth over the next five years, fuelled by a combination of a rapidly growing capability, and the growing needs of governments and infrastructure owners.
Never has the need been greater for smarter use of existing infrastructure to meet unprecedented population growth over the coming decades.
For more information on SMART and its projects, visit smart.uow.edu.au.