Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city after Sydney. The rivalry between the two takes many forms but while Sydney can lay claim to being the financial and media capital, Melbourne is seen as the country’s capital of sport and culture.
The capital of Victoria also takes great pride in being named the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s ‘most liveable city’ since 2011.
It attributes this success to its multicultural and youthful population, its cuisine, the high number of green spaces, the walkable nature of the city, the presence of the world’s most extensive urban tram system, its museums, its arts and its sports.
It has the largest number of students in Australia and two thirds of its jobs are knowledge related.
Melbourne wants to retain its title and believes smart city technology can help it achieve this. There are 4.5 million people in the greater Melbourne region, a figure which is expected to reach eight million by 2050.
Chief digital officer Michelle Fitzgerald oversees the city’s smart city team which comprises 45 people. These include researchers, knowledge teams and an open data team tasked with turning Melbourne into a city of the future. It’s the largest such team in Australia.
She told Smart IoT London that her team have deployed all the “usual suspects” in terms of smart city projects such as LED street lights, smart bins, an open data platform and pedestrian counter, but wanted to employ a “people-led” approach.
Research conducted by her team found that the majority of people were concerned about congestion (traffic and housing) and safety. Fitzgerald wanted to engage with citizens to see what their priorities were and how to strike a balance between technological advancement and other considerations like privacy.
“We don’t feel comfortable investing in hi tech when we can see people sleeping rough,” she said. “There needs to be a balance.”
It’s this philosophy that led to one of her favourite smart city projects: the Internet of Trees.
Melbourne can suffer from extreme weather conditions like strong heat and flashfloods. Bushfires are also a concern, but more people die from heatstroke than fires, she said.
The shade afforded by trees can therefore offer protection to citizens and help bring the city’s temperature down. This is why the city has catalogued every tree in the city and attached a dollar value to it. Each has an individual ID and can be seen in an open dataset which also has details such as life expectancy.
“This data was used to create email addresses for our trees,” she said. “You can start a conversation. It does take a couple of days for it to respond. It attracted global attention as people wrote love letters.
“The press thought this was fluffy but it came from a genuine need to improve our tree canopy.”
It was this dataset that was used to win a city hackathon in which participants were asked to prototype something they felt would belong in a future Melbourne. The winners used the database to communicate in real time to people, using sensors to help direct users or play their favourite songs.
“The whole idea was the tree would act as a point of bringing people together, added Fitzgerald.
“The more people become connected, the more isolated they become. I get the tram every day and everyone’s looking at their phones.”
Other projects have been low tech, such as smart laneways (Melbourne is famous for its alleys and arcades) and the installation of backboards in basketball courts that absorb noise.
Melbourne’s ambition is backed by other parts of the Australian establishment.
Central government funds are available for smart city projects, smart metres are rolling out across Australia, while the troubled National Broadband Network (NBN) and the development of academic networks are improving connectivity.
The idea is to create a future Melbourne that sees residents gain tangible benefits. And Fitzgerald isn’t concerned that people don’t know what the term ‘smart city’ means. Research from The Economist suggested that just five percent of people in Melbourne knew what it meant, compared to 50 percent in India.
She said that so long as projects are working, it’s not an issue
“I thought, does it actually matter?” She said. “Do people need to know?”