For technological solutions to Auckland's growing pains, we could take some clues from what our neighbours are doing, writes James Penn.

As New Zealand's largest city continues to grow and experiences the pains that come with that — from housing unaffordability to transport and infrastructure challenges — it would seem logical to consider technological solutions as a component of the response.

Australia provides an idea of what this might look like. The Federal Government released its own Smart Cities Plan in 2016 and the City of Sydney laid its own vision out late last year as part of its Toward 2030 Digital Strategy document.

The Australian Smart Cities Plan is made up of three central pillars: smart investment, smart policy, and smart technology. In terms of investment, the heart of the strategy is about ensuring infrastructure investments keep pace with population requirements and are oriented to long-term economic goals.

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"In cities this means prioritising infrastructure that improves accessibility, promotes agglomeration economies, and enhances amenity, housing affordability and sustainability."

A particular focus is on funding these investments through value capture, which involves capturing a share of the value that land surrounding major infrastructure projects is increased by once the project is completed.

For example, when new metro rail systems are built, selling development rights around the stations can help fund the investment in the systems themselves. This is a large source of funding for the Hong Kong metro system.

The second pillar, smart policy, involves components that many have been advocating in New Zealand for years: co-ordinated investment by central Government in cities of all sizes, promoting regulatory reform to streamline land, environment, and business processes, and taking a data-driven approach to measuring the success of city investment.

The Labour-NZ First Government here have spoken at length about the need to increase investment in regional New Zealand, and the Australian plan's focus on "City Deals" could provide a useful, structured approach to this.

Though the focus of these deals are more on metropolitan areas, there may be scope to apply the approach to mid-sized regional cities in New Zealand, providing a more structured, less ad hoc alternative to Shane Jones' current Provincial Growth Fund.

"Through City Deals, governments, industries and communities will develop collective plans for growth and commit to the actions, investments, reforms and governance needed to implement them," the report outlined.

"Many of our regional cities, where there is a single local government responsible for metropolitan planning, are especially well-placed to take advantage of City Deals."

Finally, the plan advocates a "technology first approach" to city planning, an open and real-time approach to data to foster novel applications that enhance planning and the day-to-day lives of citizens, and a drive to use more energy efficient technologies throughout government and the private sector.

"The Australian Government is releasing more non-sensitive public data for private sector innovation, and is using this data to improve service delivery and to inform policy," says the report.

"Governments at all levels hold a vast amount of valuable and unique data. We will work across state and local governments to encourage greater access and use of anonymised, machine readable data that will help make government more citizen-focused and stimulate innovation in service delivery."

5G enables

A key enabler in turning Auckland into a smart city will probably be the roll out of its 5G network. The new spectrum will enable far more devices to be connected and to transmit information at far higher speeds. This is crucial for widespread autonomous vehicle networks, emergency service drones, and utility pipe data feeds, for example.

Spark recently opened a 5G test lab in the Wynyard Quarter innovation precinct to help businesses understand the potential applications of the new network, and say they expect the Government to auction the spectrum at some point in 2019.

A full suite of innovations such as those found within Singapore's Smart Nation programme will also become more feasible. For example, the city-state is currently rolling out a Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP).

The SNSP is described as "an integrated nationwide sensor platform to improve municipal services, city-level operations, planning and security". One practical application are drowning detection sensors for public swimming pools.

According to the Smart Nation website, "The system uses computer vision for drowning detection and continuous surveillance of activities in the pool, and is able to alert the lifeguards and help them react faster to swimmers in distress and prevent drownings."

The potential of these technologies to help citizens seems vast, but privacy concerns are an obvious issue.

To take an extreme case, the Chinese Government is currently working on a "Social Credit System" which will apply a score to each citizen based on their economic and social reputation, which will be informed by a variety of data sources, including public CCTV cameras and sensors.

Such a system would not conceivably be replicated in New Zealand, but the consequences of any data breach become exponentially larger as our cities become more digitally connected. If our cities are to become smarter, they will also have to become more secure.

These concerns are likely part of the motivation behind the decision to ban Huawei equipment from being used in 5G network rollouts in both New Zealand and Australia in recent months.

Concerns such as these highlight the need for integrated digital strategies at national and city level: maximising the potential of smart cities as well as limiting risks requires foresight and planning, rather than siloed initiatives and policy-making on the fly.