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Welcome to the most densely monitored urban environment in the world

Submitted by Adam Beck on September 17, 2018

The devastating 2011 earthquake in Christchurch took 185 lives, resulted in the demolition of 1,300-plus buildings, destroyed many homes and delivered a $40 billion hit to the New Zealand economy.

In the years since, Christchurch has been future-proofing its systems and services against future earthquakes and other resilience challenges like climate change by becoming a testbed for technological innovation.

Teresa McCallum is Christchurch City Council’s Smart Cities Programme Manager and leads a team whose mission is to “make people’s lives better and easier”.

McCallum says Christchurch City Council has established more than 20 partnerships – both local and global – with the private sector, tertiary institutions, governments, community groups and volunteer organisations to drive an ambitious smart cities agenda.

Among the projects is Christchurch SmartView, a web platform that pulls together real-time data from a range of sources – “essentially any data we can get our hands on” – to put real-time information in people’s pockets.

McCallum hopes that SmartView becomes an “everyday digital destination” for Christchurch’s residents and visitors, whether that’s to find the best mountain bike trail or the nearest bus, assess air quality or the availability of parking.

Council has also partnered with local innovator PiP IoT to test new sensor technology in the war against waste. PiP IoT has installed devices – which include GPS location, tilt and shock monitoring capability, and temperature sensing in case of fire – on 100 bins around rubbish trouble spots. Alerts are sent to contractors’ phones and bin status across the city can be viewed in an online dashboard.


Smart, data-driven decisions

Meanwhile, Council is working with Canterbury Seismic Instruments on EQRNet – a system which improves post-quake decision-making with a detailed picture of building-by-building earthquake shaking.

Seismic activity rumbles on in Christchurch, with more than 20,000 aftershocks since the 7.1-magnitude quake in September 2010.

EQRNet consists of more than 150 ground shaking measurement points in the city and a processing system that instantly compares every building’s design limits to the shaking beneath it. Results are sent in real time to building service managers and structural engineers, and city-wide data is instantly available for emergency management teams.

EQRNet helps make critical safety and commercial decisions after a quake and supports evidence-based discussions with insurance companies, McCallum explains.

“Our pilot showed significant variation in earthquake shaking across the city. An accurate ‘shake map’ enables us to make timely, accurate data-driven decisions.”

It’s a world-leading solution, and one that makes Christchurch arguably the most densely monitored urban environment in the world.

The data is especially important for marginal quakes. “With real-time data, we can send the correct response to the right places at the right time and minimise disruption to business, schools, and the general public. With the data gathered from the EQRNet system, we will have valuable information that will show us how different structures cope on various soil types and with different types of quakes,” she adds.


Disasters drive different thinking

Christchurch’s built form has changed immeasurably since the earthquakes, and the city’s population only returned to pre-earthquake levels in 2017 – six years after the 2011 earthquake.

But McCallum says one of the biggest changes was to the city’s collective mindset.

“Our experience after the earthquakes fostered a culture of doing things differently”.

She points to a host of innovative ideas that rapidly became reality. Greening the Rubble, for example, sprung up to beautify spots in the voids where buildings had been. A shipping container mall made international headlines. And a community-led bike share trial led to more than 20,000 trips around the city.

“As the buildings came down, the community engagement stepped up.” And that’s part of the story behind Christchurch’s smart cities success, McCallum adds.

“It’s not about big companies coming in to solve our problems. It’s about the community working out what smart and resilient means to Christchurch.”

Christchurch is one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. McCallum argues that a resilient city is not just able to withstand environmental shocks like earthquakes, fires and floods. It can also adapt to cyclical stresses that weaken the fabric of a city, whether that’s high unemployment, job changes due to technological changes and globalisation, or increasing demands on inefficient public transportation systems.

“Smart technology and innovation are critical enablers of resilient cities,” McCallum adds.

“But smart and resilient cities aren’t built in isolation. We need to partner with education, business, infrastructure providers and the community to prepare for what is coming in the 21st century.”

In May, Council hosted the Smart Cities Christchurch Innovation Expo, for example, which brought together local and national innovators to improve the urban experience.

“We know we are experiencing the results of exponential technology, and that means our workforces will change dramatically. In Christchurch, we are trying to build a culture of innovation – to show the world that it is easy to innovate here so we attract innovation jobs and companies.”


Small city, big impact

Small cities have a huge advantage as they start using smart technology to enhance resilience, McCallum explains.

“Our program is lean and efficient. We have limited resources in both funding and people. But we can turn good ideas into reality really quickly. And we can pivot when we need to.

“Bigger is not always better. Being small enough to fail fast – to learn quickly, adapt, evolve and improve – is a real advantage in a smart city.”