Quality of life ultimate goal for ‘smart’ communities of any size

The knowledge of what is going on with infrastructure in a city helps city managers to anticipate and plan for changes needed to investment and operations. For this, good geospatially-referenced data is crucial to making good decisions. City managers also need the capacity to analyse, diagnose, and communicate in order to improve quality of life for citizens – the ultimate goal of being ‘smarter’.

The management of public assets faces a similar challenge of ensuring that the goal of managing assets is to improve quality of life for the communities they serve.

A Building Better project by WSP’s Vivienne Ivory, Kai O’Donnell, and Phil McFarlane investigated how smaller local authorities can harness the power of smart data to analyse and diagnose infrastructure performance and allow communities to participate in decisions over the whole life of assets.

“While cities with large populations and complex built environments yield high volumes of digital information, smaller centres can struggle,” says Vivienne.

“The smart agenda has primarily focused on large urban centres where the data possibilities, information needs, and built environments, are large and complex. Yet the need for good quality information to manage and govern assets efficiently and effectively is as great in smaller towns and cities.”

Getting ‘smart’ on a budget

Vivienne says a lack of economies of scale for collating and managing data, and the struggle to attract the interest of technology providers with services that are fit for purpose, are real barriers for smaller centres.

“Smaller budgets mean that affordable ways of being smarter are now needed and this is the area we focused on.”

Getting community buy-in

Vivienne says the project also looked at how information could be shared with communities to engage citizens in decisions about assets.

“For communities to be engaged in asset decisions, they need to be informed about the status of assets (current and future) and be able to understand the inevitable trade-offs. Both experts and citizens need information about the diversity of perspectives and values across the community so that decisions about assets are transparent and fair.”

Designing digital tools

The research team invited two small regional local authorities to participate in a research pilot run over three workshops to develop tools. Both organisations were identified as grappling with asset management challenges, a drive to engage more fully with their communities over asset decisions, and a desire to use data and technology more effectively but with limited resources in terms of funding, technology, and expertise.

Three questions were posed:

  • How can we tell whether our infrastructure is giving us what we need?
  • What information, processes or tools do we need to tell us whether it is giving us what we need?
  • What can we make that is meaningful, accessible, useful, and affordable to help people making decisions?

During the workshops, the data needs, availability, and gaps were mapped into a matrix, revealing challenges to using the knowledge, closing data gaps, and making decisions.

Positive Outcomes

Affordable digital tools that harness the power of integrated geospatial data were recognised as critical to facilitating a community-centric approach to asset management over the whole lifecycle of infrastructure.

“What emerged from the pilot was that telling stories about infrastructure and environments through digital tools can engage the community in meaningful decisions with the council about the ongoing management of those assets,” says Vivienne.

Several other insights were gained through the pilot – particularly on the use of digital tools to reduce compartmentalisation or silos within councils, and between council and community. They could also reduce inter-regional silos by enabling multi-council cooperation where data themes cross regional boundaries, such as water quality and traffic volumes.

“From a council perspective, more effective use of data through affordable, integrating digital tools can increase the ‘smartness’ of managing assets through enhanced capacity to analyse, diagnose, and communicate about assets.

“Ultimately the research showed that if councils are to move from the rhetoric of people-focused consultation, they need information tools to collate, connect, and communicate between asset managers and the communities they serve.”

A paper by the research trio, Enhancing liveability through community-centric approaches to asset management and affordable digital tools, was presented by Phil at the World Engineers Convention in Australia in November 2019.

Vivienne also authored a WSP White Paper on the project.

Read the research

Ivory, V., O’Donnell, K. & McFarlane, P. (2019). Enhancing liveability through community-centric approaches to asset management and affordable digital tools. In Proceedings WEC2019: World Engineering Convention 2019, 20-22 November 2019, Melbourne. ISBN: 978-1-925627-25-1

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Date posted: 17 March 2021