Darwin takes a holistic approach to smart city technology

The Northern Territory capital has rolled out Australia’s largest smart city project, targeting public safety, environmental factors, and quality of life enhancements.

Darwin takes a holistic approach to smart city technology media 1


As far as capital cities go, Darwin is pretty laid back. Set on the balmy tropical coast in Australia’s Northern Territory, it’s a popular tourist destination — a jumping off point for thrills like exploring $ Kakadu National Park$  or $ swimming in a glass cage with crocodiles$ .

While Darwin has a long history — it served as a trading hub for Aboriginal Australian people and was bombed by the Japanese during World War II — its local government does not. The first Mayor of Darwin was elected in 1957, and the first Lord Mayor was named in 1979.

Yet in a few short decades the city has catapulted to the front of Australia’s smart city movement, recently rolling out the $ country’s largest smart city infrastructure and technology project$ . The results have been impressive, leading not only to a more efficient, more sustainable community, but also driving economic growth and urban development.

As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with growth and development workers in Darwin to talk about how innovation is driving their smart city strategy.

Introducing Australia’s largest smart city project

Darwin city officials introduced an ambitious $ SmartDarwin$  strategy to promote and enhance the city as a place to live and work, particularly within the CBD. The various projects target quality of life factors like community safety, environmental sustainability, and the improvement of public spaces.

The first phase of this effort, $ Switching on Darwin$ , focused on the introduction of smart technology, and the development of a platform to leverage this technology.

This included the installation of over 900 smart LED street lights around the CBD, the addition of 138 CCTV cameras, the expansion of a free public Wi-Fi network, sensors to monitor climate and environmental data (including humidity, dust, and noise), and smart parking and mobility sensors. Running behind the scenes is Darwin’s smart city technology platform, where data from all of these initiatives is captured and used. This, says $ Joshua Sattler,$  General Manager for Innovation, Growth and Development Services at the City of Darwin, is a key to the city’s innovation strategy:

“We’re on the journey of making informed decisions within the local government space based on data, which is, which is a new play for local government.”

Not only is this the largest effort of its kind in the country, it also rolled out the fastest. The project, which won the Smart Cities Awards’ ‘Smart City of the Year—Regional’ award in 2019, began in November 2018, and was completed by May the following year. This was due in large part to project management, says Sattler:

“This project involved over 10 different vendors who were accountable for many distinct project objectives. It was crucial to continually review performance and deadlines, for each of the deliverable items, to adhere to the project plan. Consistent stakeholder engagement was key to succeed.”

So what did this cost the City of Darwin to implement? Overall, Switching on Darwin cost A$10 million, but the city took advantage of a $5 million grant from the Australian government. That was matched by funds from the City of Darwin and the Northern Territory Government, both of which contributed $2.5 million. Says Sattler:

“That really enabled us to accelerate some outcomes within our system development for a smart city.”

The results are in

After a little more than a year of operation, Switching on Darwin has delivered in both ways that were expected — and not.

Take the smart LED lights, for instance. By swapping out nearly a thousand lights to LED bulbs, which last longer and require half the amount of energy to run, the city has made a positive impact on its environmental footprint. And given Darwin’s relationship with the environment — from cyclones to warming oceans and atmosphere — this was a critical move. Sattler says:

“We’re so bound by what the environment is actually doing to what we can do as a community. It’s always at the forefront of our decision making. So sustainability is a big part of what we put in place.”

The new lighting efficiencies also saved the city upwards of $600,000 in the first twelve months. But beyond the cost and energy savings, the lights are transforming the city itself, says Sattler:

“When you replace lights, you create a whole new illumination, a different ambiance, to a place.”

Suddenly with the new lighting, people were frequenting streets and areas that were previously too dark at night. Sattler says:

“It’s been fantastic for the city. We’ve got cafes popping up where they wouldn’t have normally been before. They’re opening up at nighttime when they usually would’ve been closed at 5 o’clock. People are falling in love with the city again, based on illumination.”

Some in local government argue that smart lights are overhyped. On its own, their adoption isn’t a new concept — we’ve seen them implemented across the globe, from Darwin’s neighbor $ Palmerston, NT$ , to $ Glasgow, GB$  to $ Syracuse, NY$ .

The important thing, stresses Sattler, is not to have blinders on when looking at individual solutions, but to always think about the transformative efforts being made holistically.

“We don’t look at technology as, it does X and Y and that’s it. We look at how it integrates into our whole ecosystem.”

That’s fairly easy for Darwin, due to their smart cities ecosystem. But Sattler says other cities that aren’t as far along on their innovation journey can still follow suit:

“Don’t just look at efficiencies. Don’t just look at what it’s going to cost and what the asset maintenance is on it. Look at what effect it has on your community or your municipality or your city, and bring in some of those multipliers. You can’t look at tech in isolation, you have to look at how it integrates.”

Bringing in the community

Not everyone was completely on board with the Switching on Darwin initiatives. Some critics of the project expressed $ concerns about data privacy$  and the increase in surveillance. Others were slow to accept that things like LED lights would change the way their city looked.

To address citizen concerns, the Darwin local government opened up. Says Sattler:

“It’s about engaging the community, taking them on the journey, being transparent but also being explainable.”

The government was transparent with citizens, sharing how much things cost, and how data was being used. They opened up the data collected in $ an open data portal$  so anyone can access it.

Here again, says Sattler, it helped to keep the big picture in mind, and share with residents why the city was making the changes overall, and how each element fit into the larger goal:

“Don’t look at it as individual elements. Look at how we can all bring this back together to make it all work and then build from there.”

What’s next for Darwin

Switching on Darwin was the first phase of a series of smart city enhancements. The city has $ published a roadmap for future plans extending beyond 2021$ . This includes drone deliveries, autonomous vehicles and augmented reality headsets that give more info to tourists or residents.

There are also some elements of the first phase that the city is still adjusting. One example is the data Darwin collects from all its new IoT devices. The city has succeeded in taking in all the information from its smart devices, unpacking it, and visualizing it within an intelligence platform. Now, they need to figure out how best to get that data back out into the community so that others can use and add to the information:

“We started a data exchange that enabled people to push and pull information with widgets, etc.”

But the process was clunky, and wasn’t prompting the cross-pollination of data that Sattler and team had hoped for:

“Moving forward, we know to create a place where that all happens. Instead of people sitting in their lounge rooms and doing it on a digital data exchange, let’s bring them into a room and go from there.”

The city is looking to create a space that will incubate the exchange of data and the ideas and solutions that can come out of that.

Darwin also has some innovative funding methods under way, beyond its smart city work. Through the $ myDarwin program$ , the city is offering discount vouchers for use at local businesses. The consumer gets a discount, and the city pays the business for offering the discount, which puts money back into the local economy.

In the first week of the program, 7,200 vouchers were redeemed for over $600,000 in qualifying purchases. The program has since been adopted across the territory and Darwin is now in discussions with several other states in Australia to adopt nationwide for direct small business stimulus activity.

Overall, while innovation is a new component in Darwin’s local government DNA, Sattler says it’s been quite a disruptive one. And the city is in good company. Through groups like the $ Association of Smart Cities, Australia & New Zealand$ , which is led by $ Adam Beck$ , Sattler says Darwin has been able to learn from and share ideas with other regional communities:

“There’s an active community within local government across Australia and New Zealand who are happy to share. It’s a good feeling.”

At Govlaunch, we’ve seen smart city initiatives explore similar solutions around the world. By understanding the thinking behind the initiatives, and learning about their successes and challenges, other local governments can learn from examples like Darwin. This is the catalyst for further innovation.

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