Michelle Fitzgerald, chief digital officer, City of Melbourne: interview
Michelle Fitzgerald is Melbourne’s first ever chief digital officer, heading up the city’s newly-formed Smart City Office. Six months into the role, she tells Winnie Agbonlahor what she’s doing to help future-proof her home town
Last autumn, Melbourne city council joined the latest urban planning craze by launching a Smart City Office and announcing that it would appoint its first ever chief digital officer. And in November, Michelle Fitzgerald left a successful career in the private sector to take up the job. The chance to shape her home town “and make it an even better place for the next generations” doesn’t come along every day, explains Fitzgerald, who is herself the mother of young children.
The idea of creating ‘smart’ cities, making full use of the potential of digital technologies and big data, has taken regional and national governments across the world by storm. The government of India, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, has awarded smart cities funding to more than 20 cities; IBM has been running its ‘Smarter Cities Challenge’ for more than four years; and in 2012, the European Commission launched the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities – a high level group now working on 370 projects in 31 countries.
The aim of a smart city is to integrate digital technologies across networked infrastructures, offering resource efficiencies, strengthening competitiveness and safety, and ultimately providing much greater control over the built environment and everyday life. What does this mean in practice? For Fitzgerald, the smart city agenda is about enhancing Melbourne’s “liveability, prosperity and sustainability by thoughtfully connecting people, physical environments and technology: It’s all about people, first and foremost.” Her task as Melbourne’s chief digital officer is, she says, to “future-proof the city.” She’s responsible for attracting tech and biotech start-ups; driving the take-up of digital, agile development and open data across customer services; and leading the shift in infrastructure management towards a smart city model.
How is she doing that? In many ways. For a start, the city has just introduced ‘BigBelly’ bins, fitted with compressors that increase their capacity sevenfold and transmitters that signal when they’re full. This, Fitzgerald says, cuts the congestion and pollution caused by bin lorries, which now visit only full bins rather than driving a fixed route.
Another cause of congestion and pollution is motorists trying to find somewhere to park. Melbourne already has sensors in many parking spaces, introduced to help the council enforce parking time limits. They don’t currently transmit information in real time, but Fitzgerald says that “we will be moving to real-time data over the next 12 months.” Then the city will make the data available and try to “entice businesses, start-ups and established organisations to use that data to create apps to predict where the parking spots are going to be and to tell drivers where to go” to find a free spot.
Free wifi is also being rolled out across the city centre this year – something that Fitzgerald says “should open up and unlock a whole load of new opportunities for people in our community.” And the council is using digital standards produced by the federal government’s Digital Transformation Office (DTO) to improve public services. The ultimate goal is seamless integration so that “if one of our residents is having a baby or moving house, we should allow them to give us all their relevant details with only a couple of clicks, and then we should just proceed to re-register their pets, re-register their cars, re-register their gym memberships, maternal health, child care spaces, and so on. It’s all about the council becoming a seamless part of the experience.” Using tried and tested standards from the DTO, she adds, will ensure “that we’re taking a consistent approach across different layers of government.”
Asked about Melbourne’s smart city spending, Fitzgerald says she “can’t put a number on the budget,” because “smart is everyone’s responsibility.” The Smart City Office, she says, tries to “encourage everyone across the council to incorporate smart into everything they do.” One ‘smart’ programme led by a different part of the city council, for example, is introducing LED street lights that brighten as someone passes and dim again when the road is empty. “That’s a major programme for us, but while we influence it, it’s being run by another area.”
Other projects being pursued by the Smart City Office include the extension of an urban area called Fisherman’s Bend. Here, the city is working with neighbouring authority Port Melbourne and the state government to “accommodate smart manufacturing and other smart things.” The area will expand from 250 to around 455 hectares, accommodating about 40,000 jobs and 80,000 residents by 2050. Another large-scale initiative is the $250m (USD$180m) redevelopment of Queen Victoria Market. This will feature “a lot of new technologies”, including virtual reality tours to give people a “look into the past, present and future of the market” and sensors providing data on visitor movements. “Things like how many people exactly visited and at what time is great information for planning,” she says.
In order to test and develop new digital technologies, the authority wants to “define a physical innovation precinct that we will use to concentrate a lot of the pilots, prototypes and trials that we’re running.” This neighbourhood, Fitzgerald predicts, will “bring together some of the major players in our local economies, including universities, small business start-ups, and a major retail precinct” and “will become our test bed, our living lab, our launch pad for initiatives we might then roll out more broadly across the city”.
So what does the future hold? Melbourne’s population, currently at around 4m, is expected to double over the next 25 years, “and over that period of time global temperatures may rise between two and four degrees, plus we’re facing a whole wave of technology changes,” Fitzgerald says. “Driverless, electric shared cars, wearables, the ‘Internet of Things’, artificial intelligence and big data.” Her office’s job will be to “look at how we create a kind of governance structure and regulatory environment that enables us to protect what people value about the city, but also enables these technologies to thrive in such a way that we can access new opportunities.” Not an easy job, by the sounds of it. But Fitzgerald is enthusiastic about the challenge. Helping to shape Melbourne’s future is why she became a public servant, after all.
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