On Monday I attended the Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce KPMG Internet of Things (IoT) & Smart Cities Briefing in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It was an event that left me worrying about how the nation’s governments are dealing with the connected society.
The event was held under the Chatham House Rule so I’m unable to attribute quotes or identify the views of individual speakers however the conversation was mainly around the difficulties of getting Australia’s three levels of governments working together and their reluctance to share data.
Probably the most worrying comment was how Australian public servants aren’t empowered to make decision that would take advantage of smart cities technologies.
When politics eats everything
If anything this view illustrates a deeper problem in Australia where public policy and decision making is subsumed by politics. Exacerbating this is the insistence of opportunistic ministers and their chronically unqualified party advisers to micromanage decisions that should be made by qualified professionals.
A fear of delegating decision making quickly morphs into tendency to avoid accountability with decisions being made behind closed doors and contracts hidden from public view by the ‘Commercial In Confidence’ fiction that put contractors’ privileges over the public good.
That reluctance to share information also feeds into implementing smartcity technologies. With data being jealously guarded by government agencies, city councils and often corrupt ministerial offices, the currency of the smartcity – data – is locked away rather than used for the public good.
Accidental releases of data
One of the participants pointed out how in Australia government data is often released by accident and the siloing of data between government agencies and private contractors makes access difficult.
The real concern though was at during the question and answer session, in a response to a question from the writer asking if Australia’s business and government leaders are oblivious to the global changes, one of the panellists stated “boards are now convinced digital has a seat at the table.” That is hardly assuring.
Probably the biggest concern though for this writer was after the lunch. One of the other attendees, the CEO of a major supplier to Australian councils, mentioned how the equipment he supplies was ‘pretty dumb’ and he was closing down the overseas operations of his business as they were losing money.
Inward business cultures
That inward looking attitude of catering to a domestic market that’s oblivious to global shifts seems to be almost a parody of the management books that talk about Kodak’s demise earlier this century or the fate of buggy whip manufacturers a hundred years before. Yet that is the mindset of many Australian businesses.
Exacerbating industry’s insular mindset, Australia’s planners seem to have a fantasy that the nation’s cities are like Barcelona rather than Chicago. The truth is Australia’s car dependent cities have more in common with their North American counterparts than European centres, something planners are reluctant to admit.
Being car dependent doesn’t preclude effectively applying smartcity technologies, in fact there might be more benefits to sprawling communities as vehicles becomes connected and driverless automobiles start appearing. However applying what works in Amsterdam to Sydney, a city that is more like Los Angeles, is probably doomed to failure.
“A smart city needs smart people to succeed” is a mantra I’ve heard a number of times. The question right now is whether Australia has enough smart people in positions of power to execute on the opportunities in the 21st Century. The roll out of smartcities may prove to be an early test.