Regional Cities, does smarter equal better?

To remain relevant, cities must demonstrate how they plan to become smarter if they are to sustain their financial, human, social and environmental capital.


Leah Sertori

Chief Executive Officer


Australia’s cities are home to two thirds of our population and account for more than 80% of gross domestic product (GDP).

In Australia, cities do not currently have a single policy framework under which they can strategically plan to meet that increase in population growth and fund the enabling infrastructure to ensure a high quality of life for citizens and supportive conditions for business.

The Australian Government, informed by the experience of the United Kingdom, several European and Asian nations announced a Smart City Policy Framework in April last year.

The goal of a smart city is to become self-determining. That is, to set a bold vision for its optimal population and to attract investment, talent and technology to realise that vision. A city deal, the funding instrument that defines the outcomes of a smart city policy, typically sets out a range of projects that will be funded to help make a city smarter.

City deals in the UK, Europe and Asia typically include three key components: a strategic, bipartisan agreement to provide long term investment in infrastructure, a major focus on communications technology and the synthesis of information or ‘big data’ to inform decision making. In countries as over-governed as Australia, all three tiers of government agree to share the responsibility for investment in enabling infrastructure. Sound utopian? Perhaps it does, however in practice the speed at which small, medium and large cities transition to a city deal and adopt world class technology directly affects their competitiveness, liveability and attract the best talent. City deals typically include investment upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars (Townsville, Western Sydney, Australia) to billions (Glasgow, United Kingdom.)

To remain relevant, cities must demonstrate how they plan to become smarter if they are to sustain their financial, human, social and environmental capital. Cities compete on a global stage to increase investment, attract talent and make the best use of natural resources. The race to understand the metrics of smart cities, apply them locally and thrive is now on.

When the Australian Government announced it would enter into city deals, a group of business and community organisations in Bendigo came together to develop a strategy for a smarter Bendigo.

We pondered the question – does smarter necessarily equal better?

We looked at city deals in action in the UK, China, India and Europe and reached the following conclusions:

  1. Long term, bipartisan commitment to invest in infrastructure supporting regional cities is good for Bendigo. Government investment in critical infrastructure for the regions too frequently relies on perceived wins during an electoral cycle. A strategic move away from the short-termism of band aid infrastructure funding, toward 15-30 year plans to grow regional centres would be transformational. Long term commitments from Commonwealth, State and Local governments to deliver the infrastructure cities require would reduce months if not years of lobbying at COAG, to facilitate joint funding arrangements under well considered city deals in Australia.
  1. The private sector can and should play an active role in developing city deals in Australia. Strong, long-term partnerships between business and government deliver best value where businesses involved share a common vision, purpose and values with their local community. In Bendigo that has proven to be the case, with local organisations investing $100,000 in seed capital to develop a strategy for Smarter Bendigo and to commence implementation of demonstration projects. In Bendigo, our shared vision is for a self-determined, prosperous and sustainable city, where all citizens share in the prosperity generated through smarter technology, policy and investment. In a city of a hundred thousand people, it is easier to hold our leaders to account. We run into each other and the stakeholders we represent at school, sport, at the supermarket, in the park, at work – there is no escaping a commitment to deliver. City deals will be more sustainable and deliver better outcomes where public and private interests are aligned and the human and financial capital of the private sector can be leveraged to inform and support the delivery of major projects. For that reason, Smarter Bendigo is a consortium-based approach, as opposed to a solely public sector driven agreement.
  1. Cities at the forefront of communications technology will attract the best talent, business start-ups and derive the best value from big data.While in China in February, our Mayor Cr. Margaret O’Rourke, Acting Smarter Bendigo Project Manager Glenn Pomeroy and I visited Smart Cities now established for three years. I must confess that at times I felt like a visitor from a developing nation. We travelled on trains capable of reaching 450kms per hour with mobile latency of 2%. We observed cities with Wi-Fi services offering download speeds of 2GB per second. If you would like to compare the download speed your business currently enjoys in Bendigo’s CBD please visit – I rest my case. The extent to which our businesses can participate in the fourth industrial revolution will determine our regional prosperity for generations to come. Take agribusiness – the central channel through which our farmers can obtain best value for their product in Asia is e-commerce. Professional services? Can we meet the needs of clients physically located outside of Greater Bendigo without fast connectivity and intelligent communications? How about now or in ten years time? Education? Health Services? Ageing in place? Real time monitoring of energy, water and gas consumption?

As a regional city competing for talent and investment, our Smarter Bendigo Team concluded that we couldn’t afford to rest on our laurels. We must channel our energy and capital to ensure we remain at the front of the pack when it comes to communication infrastructure and intelligent applications to connect and synthesise data. Smarter Bendigo’s Strategy includes augmentation of our existing communications network to deploy super-fast Internet connectivity through Wi-Fi and to develop a platform to collect information about the city from smart sensors and devices. Such investment in communications infrastructure would place Bendigo at the head of pack in Australia as a smart, connected city.

  1. Bendigo is an ideal test bed for the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is a concept where devices talk to each other and the cloud, in a Jetson-like fashion, sharing their data and location, determined by settings established by their user. Smart bicycle helmets are a great example of the power of IoT to improve our quality of life – Smart helmets can alert both the rider and passing motorists to each other’s presence and alert the cyclist to any imminent danger. The Internet of Things will transform the way we live and conduct business to the same extent that the introduction of mobile phones and email did fifteen years ago, if not more so. The challenge for Australian cities, particularly regional cities is to get ahead and stay ahead of the curve, so that we benefit from new products and services developed in our city first. The first mover advantage for smart cities builds ecosystems for start-ups and established organisations to cooperate and create new value. In doing so, we benefit from the change instead of becoming dragged along by it. There is no opting out of this shift to ‘massive IoT’, not unless you fancy living in a commune in Nimbin. We needn’t be anxious about the change – but seek to cultivate a curious mindset about how our city and businesses could benefit.
  1. Economically and socially marginalised people in Greater Bendigo do not stand to gain anything from our regional city falling behind in the race to a more connected, digitally capable city. One of the core values of Smarter Bendigo is the notion of inclusive prosperity, that we can only be truly great when we all benefit. Finding ways to share improved services for people who are unemployed, for those who traditionally could not access vocational or higher education and selected health services at home should be easier as a result of living in a more connected city. Ensuring that Smarter Bendigo delivers pragmatic benefits to vulnerable members of our community is at the heart of the strategy and the diverse range of business, government, education and community sector organisations involved will ensure our team is accountable for holding true to those core values.

There are burning questions about data security, privacy and ethical decision-making. About the corporate governance model to facilitate data sharing and even machine learning. Many of the cities we are now learning from around the world have thought long and hard on these issues and implemented effective policies to address them. The City of Greater Bendigo Council will officially sign up to the Global Smart Cities Alliance on March 9, enacting cooperative communication between established and emerging smart cities tackling these policy challenges.

The bottom line is, Bendigo cannot opt out of the fourth industrial revolution. We can either be an early adopter and benefit from our early participation as a Smart City, or allow capital to flow to our competitors.

The conclusion our Smarter Bendigo Team reached is – Yes! Smarter does equal better and the sooner we cement a city deal for Bendigo, better still.