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The Quest for a Smarter Community

The Quest for a Smarter Community

West Australia's Bunbury City Council is embracing broadband infrastructure in a bid to boost the local economy and push the local comummnity into the digital era.

As governments, businesses and citizens rethink their cities in response to new community challenges, West Australia's Bunbury City Council is one body that is embracing broadband infrastructure as a way to help its citizens to prosper in the digital age.

Just one small cog in a growing worldwide movement, the council hopes the Smart Community strategy it is implementing progressively will allow strategic harnessing of information and communications technologies (ICT) to enhance the quality of life and community wellbeing of its ratepayers and to help overcome the digital divide.

First developed in Canada and Northern Europe, the "Smart Community" concept involves deploying community-wide Internet connections to allow people to use the Internet to conduct business and social activities according to their needs. The World Foundation for Smart Communities defines a "smart community" as one in which members of local government, business, education, health-care institutions and the general public understand the potential of information technology, and form successful alliances intent on harnessing technology to transform their community in significant and positive ways.

Those unified efforts let the community leverage resources and projects for quicker returns on investment in telecommunications infrastructure, theoretically leading to a transformation where communities win greater choice, convenience and control.

Smart communities or regions, while all uniquely defined by the characteristics of their community, aspire to compete economically in the new global economy by building an advanced telecommunications infrastructure to attract and promote commerce. Their vehicles are community collaboration, ICT training programs, industry development and community and business demonstration projects, along with advanced technical and physical infrastructure.

The aim is to make communities that become economically, socially and environmentally sustainable through business strategies that optimize advanced ICT. But smart community efforts all around the world are being constrained by deficits in skills, content and infrastructure, and difficulties in uniting business competitors with competing self-interests.

"The talk is often distinct from the reality," says Larry Stillman, a senior research fellow at Monash University's Centre for Community Networking Research. "I think building a Web site is one thing, but actually knowing what happens is another. There's been an incredible amount of utopianism and expectation about this.

"There's a guy at Melbourne University who's been involved in studying a project in Williamstown. And the developer has been quite utopian about this and yet people are not actually using it for what it was supposed to be used for, because Australians I think are more interested in barbecues - and businesses themselves are competitive so they don't necessarily want to cooperate on these things."

While acknowledging the difficulties, Bunbury's elders plan to implement a sweeping strategy for developing local IT and communications infrastructure and resources to boost the city's economy. The strategy, recently endorsed by the council, outlines a framework for turning the city into a smart community by enhancing broadband connectivity, reducing telecommunications costs, driving up IT use in the community and commercial sectors and transforming the city into a regional hub for IT services.

"The focus of this Smart Community strategy for the City of Bunbury has been on initiatives to promote the uptake of information technology by the community, position Bunbury as the ICT services centre for the South West and to improve the competitiveness of local business," write Phil Poole, Miles Pedder, Chris Hill and Sirie Palmos in Bunbury City Council's February 2004 Smart Community Final Report, prepared by Sinclair Knight Merz.

The City of Bunbury is the commercial and residential heart of the prosperous South West Region of Western Australia, one of the most diverse and dynamic growth regions in the nation. A port city located 175 kilometres south of the Perth metropolitan area, Bunbury ranks in the top 10 ports in Australia by tonnage.

The city has been transformed over the past 10 or so years from an industrial city to the "lifestyle capital" of Western Australia.

Under the strategy, Bunbury is exploring the possibility of forming its own community telco to aggregate local demand for telecommunications and substantially slash communications costs. And by modifying and upgrading existing technical infrastructure it intends to ensure the availability of high bandwidth Internet access across all sections of the city, thus enhancing the city's IT skills base, presently growing slower than the national average.

From an initial project goal of reducing "communications costs to business, with a flow-on benefit to the whole community . . . and facilitate business and community uptake of new and emerging technology", the scope has been broadened in pursuit of a more integrated and sustainable approach to developing the smart community concept in reponse to encouragement from project and community stakeholders.

Overcoming the Digital Divide

Like other regional areas around Australia, Bunbury is responding to the uncompromising reality of geographic boundaries that threaten to limit future growth, a growing technology divide between computer literate community members and others, and expensive regional communications that damage competitive equality with city-based businesses.

Melbourne-based National Economics' comprehensive State of the Regions Report 2004-2005, prepared for the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), called like others in the series before it for a massive boost in infrastructure support as the driver of economic development in regional Australia in light of the continuing "digital divide".

"Access to the knowledge economy - an end to the 'digital divide' - would revive regional Australia," says the president of the ALGA, Councillor Mike Montgomery.

"The report clearly shows the need to boost infrastructure to guarantee investment in development, make local government areas more attractive to industry, so increase productivity in regional areas and allow us to join the global economy."

One of the architects of the report, the principal economist with National Economics, Dr Craig Shepherd, says the clear finding in this report - as it was in previous reports - is that all levels of government in Australia are failing to adequately resopond to globalization and the rise of the knowledge economy.

"These inadequacies are particularly noticeable in the continued divergence between regions.

"To respond to globalization and the knowledge economy local government must be involved in creating local economic advantage, including creating advantage through infrastructure investment."

In the report, Shepherd and his co-author, National Economics' executive director, Dr Peter Brain, advocate a pressing need to make projects for economic infrastructure such as roads, rail, power and the communication/telecommunications network top priority to boost Australia's - and regional areas' - international competitiveness.

"I think the 2001 State of the Regions report discussed the fact that in telecommunications and communications there's becoming a greater divide between the metro areas and the regional areas," says Bunbury City Council business development officer Trevor Ayers.

"It noted Bunbury and Mandura, which are the two major regional centres in WA, as being good examples of places that are one level off Perth, but still getting a great divide. Now Mandura has sort of been incorporated into the metropolitan area since then, but even though we're only an hour and a half or two hours south of Perth, and even though we're the second largest centre in WA, we are still going backwards against the metro area.

"And that's a standard thing happening across all of Australia. So this really is our effort at trying to arrest that."

At the time of writing the council was exploring the feasibility of adding a data centre, IT incubator and e-commerce training centre to its e-library as part of its far-reaching Smart Community strategy.

Ayers says a feasibility study will determine whether there is sufficient community demand to turn the online library, being built with South West Online funding, into a super facility.

"The new library is going to need a lot of the same infrastructure, because of the technology bent it's taking, as a lot of the other projects that require specialized infrastructure for them as well," he says. "So what we're trying to do is hit them all at once by saying obviously if we need to build facilities it's going to be a lot easier to do that in one go, and cheaper to build them all at the one time.

"In that document we've identified a range of things that could work, but we can't afford to go and build them until we do some proper feasibility into whether there is enough market share or market demand in Bunbury to make them work."

Global Effort

Bunbury's efforts are being replicated in numerous cities and regions around the world, although no one seems to have a handle on the exact numbers. In many regional areas especially, civic leaders are paying significant attention to the emergence of the "knowledge economy".

The World Foundation for Smart Communities says what constitutes a smart community depends on the particular requirements and objectives of each community, but the common theme is: "the practical application of information and communications technology to transform life and work within a region on a community-wide basis". It says a successful smart community can be built from the top down, or as a grassroots effort, but requires active involvement from every sector of the community.

"This united effort creates a synergy which allows individual projects to build upon each other for faster progress, resulting in the involved, informed and trained critical mass necessary for transformation of how the entire community carries out its work," it continues.

"Unlike towns and cities of an earlier era, built along railroads, waterways or interstate highways, smart communities will be built along information highways - broadband systems of communications connected to every home, office, school, library and health-care facility in the region and through the World Wide Web, to millions of other institutions across the globe.

"Most striking is that these information-age metropolises are not cities or counties or townships in the usual sense. They are instead powerful regional economies built on a shared sense of mission and a recognition of the values of collaboration and cooperation. Nor is their future dependent upon cyberspace, the Internet or the World Wide Web for their existence. Smart communities are real places inhabited by real people whose interests and needs have changed as all things are changing or must change in the face of a dramatic shift in the basic structure of the world's economy and society.

Growing Interest

Interest levels in the smart community concept are high. Speakers at the fourth Annual National Technology Innovation Conference, hosted by the City of Whittlesea to the north of Melbourne in February 2004, included Professor Robin Williams, executive director development at RMIT; Dr Hugh Bradlow, managing director Telstra Research Laboratories; and John Johnston, director information and technology planning at the City of Toronto, Canada, who outlined the Canadian Intelligent Cities experience.

The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) says the Australian government has funded a number of smart community initiatives, particularly through its Networking the Nation program. The DCITA Web site Telinfo provides information on relevant projects funded under the NTN program, as well as information on related ICT initiatives and case studies. The Telinfo Web site is located at: www.telinfo.gov.au.

A spokesperson for DCITA says the Coordinated Communications Infrastructure Fund (CCIF) and the Demand Aggregation Brokers Program, under the Australian government's National Broadband Strategy, are contributing to regional and remote communities enhancing their broadband infrastructure and capability.

In August 2005 the United Nations and the Queensland state government will together host the International Conference on Engaging Communities, in Brisbane. Key focus areas for the conference are: new technologies and engagement; multi-stakeholder partnerships - the role of the market and private sector; good corporate citizenship and engagement; community building, active citizenship and social capital; and sustainable development and participation. Further information is available online at: www.engagingcommunities2005.org.

Other cities and regional areas are joining Bunbury in seeking a knowledge economy future.

For instance the master plan for Ipswich, in south-east Queenland, is to become a city of centres and job generators in support of Ipswich's vision to be recognized universally as a great place to live, work and visit. A typical Australian city with a community of "battlers", Ipswich's Global Info-Links program is focused around a new "library" or Ipswich Global Information Centre, which provides inexpensive Internet access to the community.

Similarly Pittwater Council on Sydney's northern beaches recently initiated a Smart Community pilot project in conjunction with the Scotland Island Residents Association (SIRA), under which SIRA and the council have been working with Telstra to investigate providing high-speed Internet access to Scotland Island and the council's western foreshore communities.

The Monto Information Technology Resource Centre (MITRC), an initiative of the North Burnett Regional Economic Develop Council (NBREDC) in Queensland, is working to develop MITRC into a centre of excellence for use by the general community. From Crows Nest Shire Council, 170 kilometres west of Brisbane, to Uralla Shire Council, in the New England district in northern NSW, similar efforts are under way.

In fact Monash's Stillman says since no one has yet funded a study into the number of initiatives under way, no one is sure of the exact numbers.

However, Michael Arnold, computer applications coordinator with the University of Melbourne Faculty of the Arts, says smart communities face many barriers, not least the conflict between centralization and decentralization.

For instance he says a council or an urban developer can centralize by setting up Web servers and software and take advantage of the "reach" that IT has from a centre, but at the same time, the success of the enterprise is dependent upon a decentralized response; it is determined by the extent to which the constituency populates that constructed facility.

"So the first step is reasonably easy and straightforward to take," Arnold explains.

"To use an example, you can have a group of telcos with a local council, with perhaps some academics who determine that such and such a target group can be supported through the use of IT, through the use of some sort of network. And often a deficit model is applied: often it's a community or a group deemed for one reason or another to be struggling or disadvantaged or to be in need of some sort of support. So IT is a way if you like of getting something on the ground that you can point to, that you can get it up and running, and you can demonstrate that you're acting and that you're dynamic and things are happening. And all of that is good.

"Then comes the second stage, where people have to actually appropriate the technology. Now they have to actually make it theirs, and make it run for their purposes. That takes a much longer time than the initiation and the set-up does, and that's the point at which it often falls down."

The Economic Development Advisory Committee, which devised the Bunbury strategy, highlights another barrier common to smart community efforts around the world: a lack of local IT training opportunities. Bunbury Council's Ayers is exploring the feasibility of developing a state-of-the-art multi-use technology training centre for use by the IT industry, business and community groups.

"We are currently getting background information to determine whether there is enough demand and community support for an IT incubator," Ayers says. "We know there is a demand, but is there enough to make it worth building the facility? We don't want to be left with a white elephant.

"Is there enough demand and potential success out of building a data centre? Is there going to be enough other people using it to make it worthwhile? . . . Yes, we know there is interest in town from a number of people, because they know it won't happen through private industry in a regional area like Bunbury, but is there enough demand to make it worth going down that path?"

Ayers says a major thrust of the effort is to involve local businesses and other organizations in the development effort, finding synergies and opportunities for local businesses to work together. He says community ownership of the project is likely to be the most important predictor of its success.

Like other councils and regional bodies, Ayers and his council will be watching with interest to see how far the community will go to embrace the strategy. In other parts of the world, some communities have gone a fair way. There is good reason to suggest Bunbury may enjoy similar success.

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More about Computer ApplicationsDepartment of CommunicationsHISIslandMonash UniversityMonash UniversityRMITSinclair Knight MerzSpeedTelstra CorporationUnited NationsUniversity of MelbourneUniversity of Melbourne

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