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If smart cities is the answer, what was the question?

Submitted by Adam Beck on September 19, 2016

“We have reached a stage in the development of our technology where we have the power to create the environment we need, or destroy it beyond repair, according to the use we make of our power. This forces us to control this power. To do this, we must first of all decide what we want to achieve. And this is far from easy…”.

I extracted this quote from the depths of a speech penned by Sir Ove Arup in 1970, as he prepared his partners for the inevitable change they were likely to see in the world over the coming decades.

A structural engineer by trade, part-time philosopher, but humanist at heart, Arup’s view of technology shaping us, and our environment, remains as true today as it did more than 45 year ago.

But have we decided what we want to achieve yet? Yes. No. Maybe?

Imagining life in a Sydney of eight million people, Melbourne with six million, and the Gold Coast at nearly 700,000 residents is not short order.

What might this look like? What’s the plan? What’s the enabling strategy?

I’m not sure we truly have a grasp of what this could, should, or would mean for the generation who will take control of these urban masterpieces in 2050.

But what I do know is that extrapolating the past and backcasting to the future will only give us some glimpses, at best. Not all algorithms can dodge black swans. Just ask those toll road operators in Brisbane!

I have some hunches. Greater velocity of change, more unknowns, and continued disruption – to our business models, to the way we work, and to the way we live.

I don’t think many would disagree with me. You know, the kind of disruption that results in the world’s largest taxi company owning no taxis, and the world’s largest hotelier owning no real estate. We didn’t plan for Uber or Airbnb, did we? I don’t remember seeing the ‘sharing economy’ section of the Brisbane City Plan 2010, did you? Hello WeWork, goodbye 10-year office leases. Pokemon come, Pokemon Go! And cars, with no drivers, let that one sink in for a bit.

Keeping our aspirations for a better world real in such as era of disruption is both a challenge and a blessing. Owning this force, and shaping it for good, is the first order of business. But ‘how’ is the key.