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Pressing need for basics overtakes Chch 'smart city' plan

Pressing need for basic infrastructure overtakes Christchurch 'smart city' plan

By Jonathan Underhill

Sept. 1 (BusinessDesk) - A plan to transform Christchurch into "the world's smartest city", taking advantage of the earthquake rebuild to incorporate 'intelligent infrastructure' that could monitor and optimise use of services like energy and water, has missed its initial targets because stakeholders were more concerned to restore basic services.

The Sensing City project was heralded by Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce in December 2013 as "a world-leading project to transform Christchurch into a smart city of the future and create opportunities for New Zealand's tech sector" and received $250,000 seed funding from Callaghan Innovation.

Sensing City, which had financial backing from Infratil and Z Energy, had intended to integrate a network of digital sensors into the physical infrastructure of the Christchurch CBD as it was rebuilt, "generating data sets with multiple uses and benefits". The city was in a unique position to be future-proofed during the $40 billion rebuild, having been forced to repair basic services like water and electricity. But the man driving the concept, innovation expert Roger Dennis, said the reality of the rebuild forced a change of direction.

Stakeholders had under-estimated the complexity of rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, and "complexities with insurance, central and local government has meant there hasn't been much of a focus" on intelligent infrastructure, Dennis told BusinessDesk.

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"It would have been a great legacy to be able to have a smart infrastructure component built into the rebuild," he said.

Infratil chief executive Marko Bogoievski cited lessons learned in attempting to incorporate intelligent infrastructure into the core rebuild of Christchurch in a speech to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle in Wellington today, entitled Infrastructure for the New Economy.

"Sad to say we were not successful in getting that into the first tranche of infrastructure in Canterbury," he said.

"We weren’t successful in executing on the underground and horizontal infrastructure, but there is still active engagement today with the council and remnants of CERA around vertical infrastructure and in-building technology," he said in emailed comments. "The reality was that the city had more pressing issues despite the strong interest and the relationship remains very good."

Sensing City's Dennis said there was now a commercial focus on the concept: "what are the problems you can solve in the city using data and who is going to pay for that?"

Joyce and Brownlee had been bullish about the potential for Christchurch to be a city of the future, saying back in 2013 that the initiative "aims to be the catalyst for the creation of new information-based services and solutions to improve how cities are managed."

It could also "kick start a new data-focused export industry, encourage inward investment, and attract talent to the region, as well as position Christchurch at the global forefront of future cities," they said.

Bogoievski cited windfarms as an example of infrastructure capable of delivering productivity gains with the smart use of data. Third-party weather data could be incorporated into a system that would measure the output of turbines in real time, allowing the blades to be pre-positioned to optimise performance. He painted a picture of the future as "a much more industrial, connected world".

Bogoievski said he is optimistic for the future and the possibilities of using data and smart infrastructure to wring productivity gains out of transport and services such as energy. He said the Sensing City project "has developed further into working relationships with both Wellington and Auckland, and a number of potential future local and global corporate partners interested in the smart city space."


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