What it takes to be a sustainable, smart city: Urban innovation

11 November 2015 | By Andrew Chew (Partner)

Urbanisation is one of the mega-trends of our time. While less than a third of the world’s people lived in cities in 1950, now more than half of us call a city ‘home’. By 2050, urban dwellers will make up seventy percent of all people on the planet [1].

Cities are the engines of the global economy. But they are not always pleasant places to live in. Congestion, aging infrastructure and pollution are common issues.

Finding solutions to these problems has been the focus of intense research across industrialised nations. Now, innovations in sustainable energy and multi-modal transport networks are setting the foundation for more sustainable and livable cities.

The energy-smart city

Solar panels on rooftops have been a highly visible, and successful, energy-saving innovation. Now Smart Grid electricity networks can integrate existing and new infrastructure (renewable, storage, heat pumps etc) to improve overall network efficiency.

In Amsterdam’s New West district, a Smart Grid network uses sensors and meters to monitor and control power delivery. The system integrates network-provided electricity with consumer-produced electricity from solar panels, discharging additional power back to the grid.

The latest green energy efficient buildings integrate renewable energy with smart meters to monitor energy use and energy management technologies.

With energy being provided by the private sector, there is a fresh need to provide a new risk allocation framework that strikes a balance between encouraging innovation and expansion of new initiatives while managing compensation claims of consumers for power outages.

At ground level, mobile internet services can now communicate with road management to predict traffic conditions and relay information directly to drivers. This will improve traffic congestion and help reduce the millions of litres of fuel wasted each year due to people sitting in traffic jams.

Further reductions in fuel consumption can be achieved when road systems are combined with mass transport modes such as driverless trains.[2]

The promise of electric cars with accompanying charging stations is also close to becoming a reality.

Mobility and transport infrastructure

City dwellers are wasting more time sitting in traffic than ever before. In the US, city commuters spend 42 ‘unnecessary’ hours sitting in traffic every year.[3]

The Mobility Opportunity report which studied the transport systems in 35 major cities around the world concluded that cities which invest in developing an efficient public transport network can generate economic value of up to US$28 billion annually by 2030.[4]

Public transport is often a difficult issue for city leaders. The upfront investment is substantial and experience shows that a piecemeal approach to transport planning and investment usually fails to encourage commuters to use public transport more.

One of the issues is the need for seamless multimodal urban transport options. The ultimate goal is a fully integrated mobility platform and transport infrastructure using smart cards, multimodal trip planning tools and real time information for door-to-door multimodal transport. This applies to both the movement of people as well as urban freight logistics and distribution.

How can rush-hour traffic be better managed? Cities like Singapore and Tel Aviv are using road pricing to manage congestion with electronic toll charging that adjusts prices according to toll volumes, vehicle types, time and location. This has reduced both traffic in the charging zones and pollution.

The right investment and planning mix for public transport is essential. Options include allowing transport operators and property developers to develop retail and commercial buildings at rail and bus interchanges and associated residential development over rail corridors.

The result is easier access to transport hubs and better customer experience in using urban transport modes.

Halting the traditional car-based urban sprawl is a focus for many cities. Dense mixed-use development patterns in urban areas which are well connected to public transport is an important option (eg building over rail corridors). 

An interesting scheme was proposed over the Central Station and Eveleigh rail yards but appears to be postponed. Whilst there are critics to adopting high rise developments, pragmatism is needed in dealing with growing urbanisation needs.

Policy and Regulation

Real progress toward sustainability requires smart policy-making and legislation.    

Late last year, the NSW Government released its A Plan for Growing Sydney, which articulates the vision and plan for the Sydney Metropolitan Area over the next 20 years. The Plan is an excellent guide for Sydney’s future productivity, environmental management, and liveability – but making it a reality will require innovative thinking and new funding approaches.

Options for delivering on the city’s infrastructure include the PPP model, unsolicited proposals, bundling smaller infrastructure packages together into a PPP and/or private sector development of new commercial and residential hubs over railway corridors, etc.

The European Commission has released a draft Strategic Implementation Plan for Smart Cities and Communities. Australia needs its own strategic plan for our cities to make them smarter and liveable for this century.

The Smart Cities Summit to be held on 12 November is presented by the Future Cities Collaborative (an initiative of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney) and Parramatta City Council.

The forum is an opportunity for city leaders in New South Wales to explore the opportunities and challenges in creating Smart Cities. It will be interesting to see the outcomes.

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says, “livable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity.”

[1] Data from the UN and Worldwatch Institute.

[2] The 10 cities with the most horrific traffic.

[3] Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, Inquiry into the Utilization of Rail Corridors, Feb 2012; NSW Legislative Council.

[4] Siemens, The Mobility Opportunity – Improving public transport to drive economic growth, 2014.

The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.

Related Content


Andrew Chew

Partner. Sydney
+61 2 9210 6607