I like Carl Skelton’s idea that a city is ‘always in beta‘; always in the process of change – of making and remaking. Being in Beta means protoyping a better model & being prepared for the gremlins and glitches. Beta is also no guarantee of perfection. It comes with the disclaimer on the box.

If only cities did too. Like at no other time, Australian cities are reverting to Beta.

If the ABS statistics on population growth are accurate, we need to build 16 more Adelaide’s in the next four decades across Australia. Or four Sydneys. This at a time when we are just beginning to understand the enormous resource constraints facing the planet, and the desperate need to secure our critical supply lines of water, energy and food.

Rewriting the code for cities won’t be easy, and the hurdles will be many. Rewiring our cities will need new thinking, and new tools.

The Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector has already ‘got’ this. Worldwide Cisco, IBM, Google, Fujitsu and others have all invested in initiatives that seek to meet the challenge head on. Many organizations have been the first to explore the pathway to solutions.

At the ‘Partnership for Urban Innovation’ conference in Shanghai mid last year, the agenda centered on Sustainable Cities, Smart and Connected Urban Mobility, Economic Growth in Cities and social innovation.

The conference explored how to deliver successful global cities of the future from the angles of urban planning, social innovation, real estate and technology development.

One of the take aways was the call for a more “integrated urban approach to IT deployment”. Underpinning much of this is the concept that our cities need to be smarter in how we use them, and how we ask them to respond. Smarter use of our existing infrastructure, smarter application of new infrastructure and smarter ways of using this new infrastructure are all essential. Broadband is great. So is a new 4G network. Together they are a critical backbone.

But what big things can we DO with that backbone?

Cities need better tools to more effectively process data if we want more dynamic and tailored policy. Better, more accessible tools that enable more informed decision making by governments, businesses, and individuals. The challenge is to draw together the silos and operate more fluidly. To integrate.

The challenge of integration

COAG’s first priority in their now famous Communique of December 2009 highlighted the need for better integration of processes that shape our cities.Since this communique, summits, papers and working groups have been convened to offer advice; leading to the release in January of the National Urban Policy discussion paper. The National Urban Policy is strong on the need for our cities to be more productive, and more sustainable. But arguably, the work of COAG and the National Urban policy is about us working better and more effectively with existing tools.

In South Australia, our question is; can we build new tools, and demonstrate the lift in productivity, sustainability and the quality of life they enable? If we can show the model works here in Adelaide, can we also show the place for ICT in the developing conversation occurring at a national level around urban policy?

The challenge is not just one for ‘Gov 2.0′. Good moves are occurring in this area, but we all know that Gov 2.0 alone is not the answer. In May 2009 the Guardian estimated that 70% of all information in the digital universe was created outside of government; in emails, photos, online transactions, social media etc. So the majority of content is controlled by the private sector.

So how can a common digital framework integrate government and non-government data? More integrated knowledge platforms deliver higher quality, more efficient and effective services, better information and access creating new applications.This integration is essentially a question of design.

Integrated Design Commission South Australia

We know that better design builds better cities. And that design is essentially a synthesizing process – mashing up data for a creative new response that imagines a possible future rather than being constrained by the limits of the day.

As the only one of its type in Australia, the Integrated Design Commission sits within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, working across the fields of Design, Planning, and Development. We advise government and we are a resource to industry. In practice, we often seek to reverse engineer industry knowledge back into government.

But rather than seeing design as a product outcome, we see design as a way of seeing and thinking about a problem. A bit like the successful models shown by Google and Microsoft. The innovation in the ICT sector in the last decade hasn’t come about from incrementalism but radical re-conceptualizing.

We think this radical thinking has a place in the current focus on how we can make our cities more responsive to the everyday needs of its people. One of the roles we hope to play is to build a more effective way of thinking that starts with People. Around ‘People’ we build a series of intelligent data sets, that can be used to inform more intelligent design responses in the city, that help visualize smarter policy responses to a specific need (not the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the past), and to create a genuinely human-centered Built Environment.

5000+

So how do we hope to beta-test this approach in Adelaide?

Through one of the most ambitious urban projects in Australia at present that does the unthinkable. A project that fuses the Federal, State and Local government around a common opportunity. And one that reaches out to industry as a critical partner.  5000+ an  integrated design strategy for Inner Adelaide was funded by Minister Albanese in late 2009, with a delivery in mid 2012.

5000+ is intended as a national pilot for how Australian cities of the future might think ahead, optimize chance and dictate, not react to circumstance. It’s about designing for choice not chance. And to do this by demonstrating how city strategic plans can be linked to outcomes using design as a primary implementation tool.

5000+ will deliver an urban design vision across 8 inner metro council areas, backed by state and federal government. But it will also deliver a new ‘model’ for how others can do this, based on Adelaide’s experience. Adelaide was Australia’s first planned city. 175 years later we hope we can again show the way on exemplary urban outcomes. Australia needs a new model for how we design, plan, develop and govern our cities. 5000+ is the best hope yet of developing this new model.

This project is a collaborative venture, and one that has already shown the value of new collaborative tools. Asking partners to work together, but on separate platforms, has its problems.

We need to build a new common digital framework. And we can think of it as an ‘urban operating system’.

A lead model – an urban operating system for Adelaide

When we talk about building an ‘urban operating system’, and explore the role for technology in the city, too often it’s interpreted as a means of imposing some standardizing ‘big brother’ that will leech the spontaneity and the humanity from the city.

But of course, it’s the reverse.

Technology is infrastructure just like sewers and roads. It’s an enabler. Done well, infrastructure should ‘disappear’; allowing the life of the city to occur.

ICT is the essential infrastructure of the decade. It collapses distance and makes scale irrelevant. It’s when size no longer matters. It connects the Barossa Valley winemaker to his Japanese buyer, the North Adelaide scriptwriter to Hollywood. The teenager in Gawler to her cousin in Ceduna.

But it can also do much more. It can transform the way we think about our collective future. It can mediate the fractured arguments that grow around city form, public amenity and the reason we do things in cities.

An urban operating system can be many things…. most interestingly it can be framework for experimentation. For speculating on multiple possible futures, and understanding the trade offs that are a fundamental part of city life.

Take Carl Skelton’s ‘Betaville’; (http://bxmc.poly.edu/betaville) an online speculation tool for New York. It’s an attempt at including everyone in the conversation on the future of New York. Everyone is a speculator. There is no cost to entry. and feedback is immediate. In Betaville, the future is crowd sourced.

But most importantly it should be a tool for better city governance. More reliable, more responsive, more inclusive. A combination of government and crowd sourced, of real time and historical data. Constantly re-configured to overlay data sets.

Why do we need it? Because our cities need to get smarter.

IBM research tells us that in the US, inefficient urban systems cost $78bn in lost work hours each year. That inefficient traffic management accounts for around 10bn litres of petrol annually.

That inefficient supply chains cost $40bn each year – lost productivity thanks to unconnected monitoring and tracking through the city system

By locating these lost opportunities in (real) space, and (real) time, we’re more able to develop solutions. If we can’t see, we can’t solve them.

The shift comes through the vast network of Sensors embedded in the fabric of the city. Every building is managed by a centralised digital nervous system. Every vehicle, every phone, most appliances. Smart cards and security systems. They measure and report in real time.

But it’s not just about reacting in ‘real-time’. Can we build a model that is sophisticated enough to simulate possible scenarios, and anticipate? What if we pedestrianized lane ways? What if we created more lane ways? What economic opportunities might this open up? What if more people lived around the edge of the city? Where would the infrastructure hotspots be? How can we design around the impacts in advance?

How might this model help enhance the quality of life for those who live in cities? How can technology make seamless what is increasingly becoming a ‘chore’ in navigating the everyday?

Can we mash the combined power of GIS, the 3 dimensional form and physical layout of the city, and layers of real time data to build Australia’s first real time interactive urban model?

If we did, what might we overlay?

Traffic conditions and transport options (where are the real time dramas? And how can real time inputs translate over time into a better understanding of long-term trends?). Singapore is looking at trialling more accurate short-term weather forecasting in how it dispatches taxis ahead of the afternoon downpours.

How can we better anticipate extreme weather events? And how can we respond when they occur? Telstra’s creative response to the South Australian bush fires in 2008 showed

the reach of the personal mobile phone in emergency situations. A design response to a situation that has now gone national.

If not understood before, the role for social media and digital networks was confirmed in Queensland’s floods, the instantaneous reaction times of social media outstripped conventional lines of command.

Some meterologists have started using rapid response radar to track the migratory path of birds, bats and butterflies – as a way of understanding the impact of climate change & urban development on these natural weathervanes of environmental health.

What if we could visualize the energy efficiency of our major buildings, harvest energy or water from where itʼs least needed, and divert to where its most needed? How much water could we save? What costs could we save?

These are the same questions asked by Cisco in its Real + Connected Communities Initiative, and IBM’s Conversations for a Smarter Planet. The difference here is we have a real testing ground. Adelaide.

And if we can build this platform, what can we actually DO with this data?

Data visualisation

Besides having a more reliable stream of data to feed-in to create smarter, more targeted policy, we can also start to publish the data we collect in different ways. Why would we? Increasingly we face the challenge of taking the public with us. Of engaging and educating the citizens in the ‘why’.

If you ‘google’ “data visualisation”, youʼll see itʼs already transformed the way we communicate complex issues like IT, like globalization and climate change.

Digital inputs also mean digital outputs. And then the ‘interaction design’ starts. The way we graphically interpret data, and how we ask people to interact with it.

So not only does an Urban Operating System offer the chance for more integrated evaluation of real time inputs, but also a critical related benefit of better, more reliable and visual data outputs. A “dashboard” for the city.

A system that delivers benefits at all points along its path

So we’re asking; can we build a “system architecture” to prove this concept that is scaleable, replicable and relevant not only to Sydney, Melbourne, South East Queensland and Canberra but also to Christchurch and Johannesburg, and those economies in South East Asia and regions in the mid east and Africa with whom we share the same constraints in climate and industry?