Australia Creates Minister for Cities

With the recent Australian Government cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a Minister for Cities with the aim of creating more liveable, vibrant, and future-embracing cities in Australia. It would appear that Mr Turnbull’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, is one key driving factor behind this decision. Lucy is currently heading a project with Arup that examines how to build a more female-friendly city.

Having two such influential and future-minded people can only mean well for Australia and the 66% of Australians that live in its cities. However, the lack of modern digital infrastructure needs to be addressed before any kind of smart city technology can be fully appreciated or implemented in Australia. This highlights the need for an increase in funding to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) industries, which, with the amount of money lost in paying for bureaucratic waste, may unfortunately be difficult to find.

Regardless, it is refreshing to finally see a move by the Australian Government that shows they are thinking beyond their three-year term of office and getting themselves re-elected.

The Rise of Urban Technocracy

Technocratic governance is a form of governing whereby subject matter experts are put in charge of policy and decision-making (i.e. engineers in charge of government). This is not necessarily a bad thing, however it does present some issues – particularly for smart cities.

As cities become smarter they will inherently become more reliant on technology. Depending on the rate of technological evolution, this reliance may reach a point where today’s politicians no longer have enough expertise to fully understand how the city functions, and therefore how to run it and maintain the systems it relies on. The governance of such a city could then fall into the hands of the engineers that created them, as the management of cities becomes more technical rather than political.

technocracy

So why might this cause problems? Engineers and technologists tend to have a very analytical and system-focused mentality. With all the data being produced by smart systems, it would be very likely that the management of the city would become very technical. Issues that arise may be looked at from a purely mathematical or technological perspective and solutions might be overly functional in nature. Effects on qualitative aspects of life, such as culture, politics, and humanity may either be neglected or treated as a secondary priority.

The main concern here is that technology rarely solves deep-rooted issues. It can only generally solve the problems that arise from deeper complications, not the complications themselves.

As modern urbanism delves deeper into the technological sphere, we must always remain vigilant that we keep one eye on the bigger picture so that we are able to recognise when technology is actually helping to solve issues, and when it is simply masking systemic issues that need to be addressed at a different level.

Are Smart Cities Invading Our Privacy?

Privacy has been a hot topic of debate in recent times. In light of controversial events such as the ‘leaking’ of celebrity nudes and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, a lot people have become much more aware of the implications technology presents to the security of their personal information. Hence it is quite understandable that some people are legitimately scared of this prospect of having everything and everyone connected to the internet.

The way we interact with our environment tells us a lot about ourselves. The meta data produced by a city of sensors could actually prove to be a greater intrusion of privacy than if we were each simply being filmed 24/7. If the petabytes of confidential data thrown into the ether by networked sensors recording every detail of our environment and our movements are not secure, then the privacy of all city-dwellers may be open to compromise.

By taking a step back and putting smart cities aside for a moment, we are able to have a much clearer view of what the root fear here actually is. Firstly, looking at the mobile phone industry, the number of active mobile phone services almost outnumbers that of the entire human population on earth. So what. Well, if you break a modern-day phone down into its individual components this statistic actually reveals quite a lot. nophone.pngA smartphone is literally an internet connected, voice recording, GPS tracking device that we use to store a bunch of our sensitive data such as calendars, contacts, passwords, photos, and communication logs. Not only has all of this been proven vulnerable to exploitation, but we have literally been given proof that it is already being actively and consistently exploited. And yet, the widespread use of smartphones is actually GROWING! Even further to this, wearable technology is a new massively growing trend. People are actually buying and wearing watches and accessories that physically connect them to the internet!

So what does this tell us about our so-called fear of privacy? It tells us that most humans are more than willing to sacrifice their privacy in exchange for convenience and efficiency – even if some do enjoy grumbling about it in the process (usually on the internet, ironically). With this in mind, are smart cities really going to generate that much more personally identifiable information than we are already freely giving out? The answer is no. The data produced by smart cities are, in general, designed to give information about the population as a whole as opposed to individuals.

There is, however, one key difference between smartphones and smart cities. No one is really forced to buy a smartphone. With smart cities on the other hand, the average citizen may not get quite as much of a personal say in what data is or isn’t collected about them. This is where the focus needs to be placed. According to the chief globalisation officer at Cisco, Wim Elfink, “we have to first give the citizens the right to opt-in or opt-out [of the use of their data]”. I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

Citizens need to first be reassured that the smart technologies being introduced into their cities are about making the government more transparent and making their lives better. Not the other way around. Cities are for people, and we need to ensure we keep this in mind when rolling out any new technology. If the people don’t feel safe or comfortable, then nothing should be done until they do. After all, if a product you know nothing about is forced upon you, could you trust it?

Real-Time Analogue Electricity Meter Monitor Feasibility Study

JJ Plotnek, M Tutek, L Andrew (Swinburne University)


This thesis details the processes undergone to develop and test a system that digitises the data produced by an analogue electricity meter. This was done in order to solve a problem raised by an industry contact that currently only has devices that work with digital meters in the Australian state of Victoria. The primary goal of the project was to test the feasibility of implementing such a system, with the secondary goal of creating a robust product…