Looking smart: addressing the digital divide between urban and rural communities
A UNSW partnership with the University of Sydney and Regional NSW is delivering smart digital resources for regional councils as part of the Smart Places Acceleration Program.
A new UNSW, University of Sydney and NSW government partnership will create a roadmap for introducing smart technologies in public spaces across regional NSW. The research team will co-design resources with three regional councils to assist the rollout of smart technologies across all 91 regional NSW councils.
Smart or “responsive” technologies, such as picnic tables, bubblers, bins, even barbecues with digital sensors, allow real-time monitoring of their use. They improve engagement in public spaces, through the provision of wi-fi, power, water and charging facilities, and inform decisions on town planning and management.
“There has long been a digital divide between the state’s urban and rural communities. This partnership will develop resources to assist all NSW communities to participate in the smart places movement,” says project co-lead, Associate Professor Kate Bishop from UNSW’s School of Built Environment.
“Local councils need effective, affordable and relevant smart systems to inform decisions related to open-space and asset management, urban design and public infrastructure.”
The project, Smart Regional Spaces: Ready, Set, Go!, will develop tools, templates and modules for regional councils to use become “smart ready” to facilitate healthy and connected regional living.
“The resource toolkit will assist regional areas to be able to enjoy the social, economic and environmental benefits associated with well-designed and implemented smart place initiatives.”
The project is funded through a $2.2M grant from the NSW Government’s Smart Places Acceleration Program in line with the NSW Smart Places Strategy, to accelerate the development of smart places across NSW.
Digital uplift is a key pillar of the Smart Places Strategy, especially making sure regional communities can take advantage of emerging smart technology, says Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government Victor Dominello says. “In partnership with local councils, the Smart Places Acceleration Program continues to deliver smart technological capabilities to fix problems that people are facing every day,” Mr Dominello says.
The project translates knowledge from previous urban research to the regional context. The projects, Smart Social Spaces: Smart street furniture supporting social health and ChillOUT: Smart Social Spaces Creating Connected Green Places, designed, developed and evaluated a range of smart solutions in urban parks and plazas in partnership with Smart Street Furniture Australia and the Georges River Council.
An interdisciplinary team installed digital sensors to measure microclimate conditions and the use of water, lighting and power consumption, picnic tables, bins, barbeques, seats, cigarette ash receptacles. Some of these sensors provided real-time data to council, via a Smart Asset Management Dashboard, also developed as part of this project.
ChillOUT Hubs, custom-designed outdoor social spaces with lighting, power, wi-fi, water and seating, were installed at three sites in Georges River Council – Timothy Reserve, Hurstville, Belgrave Street, Kogarah and Macquarie Place, Mortdale – and the Healthy Living Hardware Pole, with lights, power, water and some bench space, was installed at Memorial Square, Hurstville and Olds Park, Penshurst.
A/Prof. Bishop led the behaviour mapping research pre- and post-product installation, examining changes in patterns of use through systematic observation. “Where we introduced the technology, it did support engaged use of place,” she says. “It enhanced the amenities and the opportunities that were there in the space.”
Following the evaluation of the pilot, the ChillOut Hub has been commercialised by industry partner Smart Street Furniture Australia.
The projects were funded by grants from the Smart Cities and Suburbs Program from the Australian Government, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. The ChillOUT Hubs received the 2021 National Planning Institute of Australia Awards: Best Planning Ideas Small Project and the 2020 NSW Planning Institute Awards: Best Planning Ideas Small Project awards.
The project offered mutual benefits and tangible wins across the partnership, she says. “It was a really good nexus between academic research, government and industry.
“The point is to try and get the rubber to hit the road and [to] test ideas and solutions that could potentially be beneficial to policy development, if you're a planner, and practice, if you're design oriented,” she says. “For me, it's always about social benefit, outcomes, end-users. What's the relationship with the environment going to be like if we enhance it in these ways?”
A/Prof. Bishop is driven to improve the social experience of place, notably through the smart places movement, social design and child-friendly cities. She specialises in children, youth and their environments, including inclusive playground design; children, young people and hospitalisation; and young people’s participation in planning and design.
The concept of child-friendly cities was initially introduced by UNICEF in the early 2000s building on the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that championed children’s participation in social processes that affected their lives, she says.
“Despite this, we haven’t seen a shift to regularly involving children in urban planning and design… We need to recognise children as citizens in their own right who need to be involved in co-designing urban spaces,” she says.
Urban planners need to realise their own childhood experience, or that of their children, does not qualify them to define children’s needs today, she says. “Our own reference points are not enough to understand how children today are experiencing life. We need to talk to them.”
A/Prof. Bishop, who worked previously for the then-NSW Commission for Children and Young People as a senior researcher and policy officer, says advocacy and education are an integral part of the role. Her research publications harness global leaders in research to galvanise action on issues crucial to improving the wellbeing and lived experience of marginalised populations, including children with special needs.
While the empathy and recognition of the need to improve public space accessibility has advanced significantly over the last thirty years, there is still more to be done in translating this thinking into reality, she says.
“We have willing councils who have adopted processes for developing child-centred environments but they’re reliant on individuals championing the cause. We need to replace this approach with an institutional culture that regularly sees children involved in co-designing the projects that affect their lives.”
A ChillOUT Hub in Hurstville as part of the 'Smart Social Spaces: Smart street furniture supporting social health' and 'ChillOUT: Smart Social Spaces Creating Connected Green Places' projects. Image: Jackie Chan.
This article was originally published in 2022.