ASCA Smart Communities Summit ‘Catalyst’ speech

Notes from my speech to the inaugural Smart Communities Summit held in Caloundra in March 2016

Thank you all for coming along this evening.

I was asked by ASCA President Michael Whereat to give a short presentation this evening as the Summit Catalyst. I’m not quite sure what the means, although I seem to recall some knowledge of the role of a catalyst from high school chemistry. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to blow anything up this evening – not literally, anyway.

But a catalyst is something that can facilitation a reaction, and in a metaphorical sense I would like to start that process this evening, and hopefully see it carry through over the next two days.

I first came across the ASCA – or the Broadband Today Alliance as it once was – after co-authoring a book on the evolution of broadband technology called A Faster Future. At that point I’d already spent 20 years researching and writing on the impact of digital technology on business, society and individuals as a journalist, working for titles such as The Australian and BRW.

And over that time I learned certain truths about the role that technology plays in our lives.

For starters, technology does not exist in a vacuum. History is littered with technical failures, and those that succeed have strange and unintended consequences. Take the current era of digital disruption – it would be hard to believe Tim Berners-Lee could have imagined what is happening now when he first wrote the World Wide Web protocols back in 1989.

I’ve experienced digital disruption first hand working in newspapers, and it is something now being felt across industry after industry – accommodation and taxis being the two more prominent examples right now.

Few sectors are immune, but even those not facing direct digital competition – such as local councils – will know that customer expectations are changing.

As a tech journalist, I’d spend my time writing about technology. But there was always a human story underneath. So when someone devises a better way of distributing books around the world from their office in the US, a bookstore dies in Ipswich. It starts as a technology story, but it is a human being that feels the impact. And when enough stores close because someone invents and brings to market a better technology, it is a community that feels the impact.

This is not to suggest the story of technology is a tragedy. Technology very clearly is a force for good in communities, providing access to global markets to buy and sell, or to education resources, or to skills and services – particularly government services – in a way that is more convenient than was previously possible. It also provides opportunities to participate in a global labour market.

But these opportunities can only be grasped if a community knows how to. Without awareness, and without skills, leaps forward cannot be made.

To this end much of my work now is focused on driving awareness and building skills. Hence I’ve spoken in several of your communities, and two weeks from now will be running a series of digital education workshops in the Bowen Basin and Longreach region of Queensland

My learning from all of this is that the story of smart communities is more a story about people than technology. Without smart people, there can be no smart community.

Which leads me to my own thoughts and definition of what a smart community is. After all, who comes from a community that isn’t smart?

Often when looking at smart communities we get caught in a discussion around technology. I know that myself and my colleagues in the media are often dazzled by the bright shining lights – of smart lighting and smart signage. Of the dream of traffic-free roads, or at the very least, free community Wi-Fi.

These things are important – but they are only a part of the puzzle.

A few years ago I did some research into smart communities for an article I was writing, and specifically looking at some of the nominees in the ICF Intelligent Communities awards. One that caught my attention was Riverside in California. It was a story of technology and smart cities, but really it was a story of a community in crisis – declining population, falling education rates. rising crime and so on.

Yes – they saw technology as a part of the solution, and raised money to create a smart city initiative. But the real story was in the human aspects, and in how working together they were able to reverse the declines.

And it became clear that many of the discussions I’d be having about smart communities were approaching it from the wrong end. The story of smart communities is not a story about technology, but a story about communities.

Closer to home we have the example of Adelaide. In recent conversations with Adelaide City Council CIO Peter Auhl I was struck by a real commitment to improve the lives of citizens of the city, and also by thinking that would see the smart community project as a means to foster innovation by providing to the community access to infrastructure and data to generate new ideas and new services – indeed, to act as a catalyst to make Adelaide a much smarter, more entrepreneurial and more vibrant community. It is initiatives like Adelaide that truly define the thinking that should like behind s smart community

So what is my definition of a smart community?

A smart community tears down that the barriers preventing their people from becoming smarter.

It promotes and rewards innovative thinking and ideas through the creation of innovation spaces and hubs, through fostering connections between established and start up business, and by providing access to data and other assets that can spawn and accelerate that new thinking

But most importantly, a smart community is a chance to get in front of the wave of technology change, and to prepare a community through creating the appropriate infrastructure to adapt and benefit from change.

That means providing the technical infrastructure, but also the ‘soft infrastructure’; of awareness raising amongst the business community; of training of individuals from all walks of life to understand and wield the tools available to them; and creating a commitment to innovation and business development.

Bringing all of these elements together is not easy. But you do not need to do this alone. Network amongst your peers, and learn from the examples such as Adelaide.

And there is an urgency to this. Every community is now competing in a global market, and this is not the only country that is striving to make its communities smarter. My greatest concern is that we are in a multi-horse race, and our horse was not the first out of the gate. The rest of the world is doing this – so we have no choice

Many communities can implement technology, but technology alone won’t improve a community, and not everyone can do it well. We have to get both elements right – the technology and the human element. Get both of those right, and we might have what it takes to call our community smart.

And that is where the paradox lies – you can’t build a smart community without smart people. It always starts and ends with the human element, because in the end that is why a smart community exists.