Smart cities encounter roadblocks in NZ

Former IBM and Siemens executive Steffen Schaefer, from Germany, has worked on mobile internet and sensor networks – what today is called the Internet of Things – since 2000. He was involved with IBM’s global Smart Cities initiative from the outset. But he says that many big tech companies have since scaled back, or refocused, their smart city projects.

“IBM was the initiator globally and had a good vision, but it is hard to quickly turn it into revenue,” Schaefer told me. “There seems to be less marketing compared to five years ago.”

My own impression of smart cities is that there is no shortage of talk about them, but scant evidence of implementation – at least in this country.

New Zealand’s biggest opportunity yet to create a genuine “smart city” was in Christchurch, with a project called Sensing City. The genesis was the February 2011 earthquake which devastated inner city Christchurch. After the initial shock had worn off, there began to be talk of rebuilding Christchurch into a world-leading smart city. In May of that year, I attended a TED conference called TEDxEQChCh, which aimed to come up with solutions. It was one of the most inspiring events I’ve been to; and humbling too, seeing the destruction first hand. I left the conference feeling more optimistic about Christchurch’s future.

A couple of years later, in December 2013, an ambitious project called Sensing City was announced by the Government. It was heralded by Ministers Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce as a “world-leading project to transform Christchurch into a smart city of the future.” So it seemed like the initial talk was being translated into action.

Unfortunately, less than two years after that, Sensing City failed. The planned “intelligent infrastructure” – such as a network of sensors to measure pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow, and water and air pollution – did not eventuate. “Stakeholders were more concerned to restore basic services,” a September 2015 news report bluntly stated.

I reached out to Roger Dennis, who ran the Sensing City project, to ask what happened? “It was a lack of traction,” Dennis replied. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) had “failed to recognize the opportunity.” So the project ran out of money and had to be stopped. There was one silver lining to Sensing City though. The air quality part of the project was delivered and continues to this day, under the management of the University of Canterbury. But the much bigger opportunity to incorporate other smart city technologies into Christchurch’s $40 billion rebuild was missed, much to the frustration of Roger Dennis.

I should add that Christchurch has had other smart city successes since then. A couple of Christchurch projects were winners in IDC’s 2016 Smart City Asia Pacific Awards, so some progress is being made. Even so, the reality is that many smart city initiatives in New Zealand find it difficult to gain traction.

The good news is that we have the ideas, thanks to people like Roger Dennis. We also now have ex-IBMer Steffen Schaefer, who recently moved to New Zealand to take up the role of Chief Digital Officer at Auckland firm HMI Technologies. I asked Schaefer what are some of the roadblocks for smart city projects, and how can we overcome them?

“The smart cities concept is being implemented slowly,” Schaefer said, because “each of the subsystems for transport, environment, energy, water, waste, etc. is quite complex and interconnecting them doesn’t bring so much value yet.” This means that typically projects are done in silos, which isn’t a formula for success in large, complex systems such as modern cities.

Despite the implementation problems experienced by the government, city councils and big tech companies in regards to smart cities, companies like HMI and NEC are busy undertaking smaller, pilot projects across the country. For example Schaefer’s company, HMI Technologies, has been running a trial of roadside beacon technology over the past year. The hi-tech beacons, situated between Christchurch and Queenstown, relay audio alerts about road safety, road conditions and journey time information to rental car drivers. The results of the trial haven’t yet been released, but this kind of technology could help improve transit throughout the country.

Take Auckland’s transport woes, as one example of a big city problem crying out for a technological solution. Schaefer has lived in Auckland less than two months, but already he’s noticed problems with its traffic. “We think the beacon system can be used to disseminate data to drivers, to inform people about local delays,” he told me. While he recognises there are navigation devices and apps on the market already, he thinks more real-time data would be very useful.

In addition to transport, Schaefer listed other areas where smart city technologies could improve efficiency: water quality control, environmental monitoring (such as air and CO2 emissions), energy (smart meters, intelligent micro grid, alternative energies like solar, wind and geothermal), and civil defence (earthquake detection, bush fires, etc.).

The challenge for these projects is to get concrete support, including money, from governing bodies. Then, ideally the projects should be co-ordinated and interconnected. Of course, that is what Sensing City attempted to do in Christchurch. So it’s easier said than done, especially when dealing with the inevitable red tape of governments and city councils.

We should be doing better though. Other countries of comparable size, like Singapore and Norway, have gotten smart city projects up and running. So there’s no reason why New Zealand can’t do it too. We just need to get smarter about the implementation.