LAURIE PATTON. Smart people make smart communities.

Oct 26, 2017

Many of my friends and colleagues have remarked on how my new role as inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association (ASCA) is a natural extension of the work I’ve been doing promoting the need for #BetterBroadband. Connectivity is the cornerstone of Smart Communities. Innovation cannot occur without it, and innovation is key to creating more intelligent cities and enriching their communities. 

As I’ve been contemplating the move to ASCA, I’ve taken the opportunity to discuss with people what really makes communities smart. The answer, of course, is smart people. Technology will underpin the future as we become an increasingly connected world, but technology alone will not provide all the answers. Indeed it will be the smart use of technology that will make the difference. We learned from the so-called ‘dot com’ era that creating new products is pointless if they fail to satisfy a genuine need and therefore nobody wants them.

ASCA is focussed on smart communities rather than smart cities. That appeals to me. Communities can encompass regional areas that include more than one city. Conversely, large cities invariably contain discrete and identifiable communities. I once ran a community television station. It quickly became clear that within a large city like Sydney, for instance, there are numerous communities.

Geography sometimes determines a community as do cultural ties, for example. Understanding what people want from their community is clearly important. So as we consider how we make our communities smart, we need to keep firmly in mind that the purpose is about better serving the needs of the people that make communities. So a fundamental question is how we move further along the pathway to smart communities and who should decide what that means. Clearly there’s a case for professionally managed community engagement – something that’s increasingly being adopted by government and industry. Who knows better what matters than the people who’ll live and work in tomorrow’s smart communities?

Even the term ‘smart’ is up for grabs, it seems. The New York-based Intelligent Communities Forum, as in its name, prefers the term ‘intelligent’. Either way it is about making things better. It’s about making our communities more liveable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered. In my view it’s also about putting people first – viewing things from a local perspective while also drawing on international experience.

It’s not just about big cities either. Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where I lived for two years while running Seven’s regional TV network, is in fact a community of communities. I have relatives living in the NSW town of Young. There are no traffic lights in Young, nor are any needed. But the people of Young and the businesses there are quick to bemoan the lack of connectivity – both mobile phones and broadband. They, too, deserve to see the benefits of being part of a smart community.

While there’s already a good deal of energy at local government level, we’ll need the States and Canberra on board if we are to be world leaders. The Federal Government’s initiatives led by Angus Taylor will provide additional momentum and the Opposition, too, is doubtless developing its policies – so we need to be gearing up to ensure we take full advantage of opportunities to press our case as we approach the next federal elections.

Much of my focus as the CEO of Internet Australia was on advocating for a bipartisan approach to the creation of the NBN. I’ve cited the Snowy Mountains Scheme as an example of a project that succeeded with support from both sides of politics. In the case of smart communities what’s required, it seems to me, amounts to the ultimate “unity ticket”. We need politicians from all parties and from every level of government to come together on this one.

Laurie Patton was CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia from 2014-2017. This month he became the inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association.

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