by Brian Middleton, Vice President ANZ, Bentley Systems
As Australia’s population grows and accelerates, its demand for city living and its urban infrastructure needs to expand capacity – and fast. The easiest way to do so is to build outwards, constructing new buildings and infrastructure in a steadily growing radius around current urban centres. But what if doing so under legacy horizontally based planning models creates more long-term issues for our cities than it solves?
If we want our cities to sustain population growth and enhance quality of life in the future, we need to consider both “building out horizontally” and “building up.” The latter involves optimising the space that our major cities currently occupy, whether literally extending today’s buildings upwards or deepening the capabilities of our current public infrastructure. Both approaches will benefit substantially from smart city developments that digitise the design, construction, ongoing operations, and optimise the maintenance of urban infrastructure. From our experience, however, building up offers stronger long-term liveability and economic prospects for every major city in Australia.
Save now, pay later
Most Australian cities have built outwards because of a simple dynamic: land is plentiful, and relatively cheap. Doing so, however, brings with it a range of costs further down the track. Some of these costs come from additional infrastructure: any greenfield development requires new substations, waste management facilities, and transport infrastructure to service it. But many go well beyond financial measures. Sydney’s rapid outward expansion, for example, has brought with it not only significant road congestion issues, but also – according to a recent government report – enhanced health risks for those in satellite suburbs with limited access to public transport.
Building upwards, by comparison, typically results in faster, more long-term relief to population and service delivery pressures. Digitising existing infrastructure takes up far less time and costs than constructing entirely new assets – which, the further out they are from urban centres, also require new network and services infrastructure for going digital. Sensors, analytics, and modelling technologies allow urban planners and citizens alike to get the most from current infrastructure. Helsinki’s smart grid, for example, gives citizens real-time metering and remote control of their power bills without large changes to their homes, and Bentley’s project to produce a 3D representation of the city to improve Helsinki’s internal services and processes, promoted smart city development.
The smaller a city’s footprint is, the quicker it is to also develop new and sustainable infrastructure to support growth needs. Singapore’s land constraints, for example, have not only forced but also enabled its ambitious transport infrastructure plans – including at least one MRT rail station within 10 minutes’ access of 80% of its population by 2030. In urban development, necessity usually proves the mother of invention, and building upwards tends to drive both faster innovation and more sustainable urban infrastructure.
All of Australia’s major cities will benefit from building upwards, even if they continue to build out to some extent. Some, like Melbourne, have already embraced this approach. But to do so as effectively as possible, urban planners will need to apply a wider range of smart city technologies to how they renew and raise the capacity of their cities.
Out with the old, in with the new
First, developers and owner-operators must be ready to give up legacy policies, processes and technology and embrace new digital platforms. While many might claim that these older systems work perfectly fine, the state of Australia’s infrastructure and often reported budget blow outs suggest otherwise. Those involved in building our cities must acknowledge they need better digital systems and data to avoid future inefficiencies in urban design – and their huge ongoing cost to the public purse.
Integrating those new systems into the fabric of cities will take not just time, but also collaboration among a range of parties. Successfully building upwards requires data from transport, utilities, housing, and a range of other city functions to ensure that any change to the status quo not only improves performance in its intended area, but also avoids any negative impact to any others. Cities need platforms that can collate and translate these various streams of data into a single picture for planners and developers to work on.
With such platforms, governments can immediately construct 3D reality models of their cities in the same way as Stockholm, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Tokyo, which take real-time data and provide predictive insights into future challenges or opportunities. They should not only build such models, but make them available to all parties directly involved in infrastructure development – and beyond. Many smart cities, such as Helsinki and Toronto, have achieved success by making their data open to the public, encouraging greater collaboration with both independent innovators and private-sector firms in the process. Australia’s councils and urban planners should do the same.
Lastly, all those involved in urban development should take a long-term view of maximising the potential of their current infrastructure. Short-termism favours building outwards, often without sufficient regard for the whole of life future costs of maintenance, service delivery, and other externalities that might well outlast those who design and construct the infrastructure. For building upwards to work, those who manage our cities must aim to constantly introduce new systems and innovations that help them better predict liveability pressures, and prevent them from ever-reaching critical levels. Australia has the technology to build smart cities that will stand the test of time – but only with the right policies will its infrastructure reach that next level.