The City of Yarra is emerging from COVID-19 with a different set of smart city priorities, with city-wide free wi-fi and digital wayfinding among initiatives to be afforded elevated importance.
Yarra City Lab’s strategy and transformation lead Megan Turnley told the recent Smart Cities 2020 virtual conference that when COVID-19 hit, “literally overnight, things for Yarra City Lab changed fundamentally.”
Yarra City Lab is the council’s delivery vehicle for its smart city vision. It has a “zero resource strategy”, meaning Turnley is its only staff member and must look elsewhere in council to secure budget for projects.
“Yarra City Lab is actually myself, so 'we' operate as an internal consultancy,” Turnley said.
“The thing that's impacted on my provision of the smart city office due to COVID-19 is that my remit is to deliver a big impact with minimal investment.
“What that actually equates to in real terms is that I have no staff and no budget, and so the way that I fund projects is by negotiation with established business units to get access to their action plans on their established strategies, and I use their funding then to source those solutions.”
Pre COVID-19, Turnley said the Lab was “in a really good space”.
“We were just off the back of the 12 months prior where we'd delivered 14 partnership projects,” she said.
“We were able to quantify the value of our zero resource approach, so we've delivered or returned over a million dollars from that strategy.
“We'd [also] just released our really exciting ‘Yarra smart city approach’ document, laying out 30 exciting projects that we had planned; and I was about to implement Yarra Science Play, which is a STEM program I developed for our state schools here in the City of Yarra.”
Many of these activities were frozen or “de-prioritised” as COVID-19 hit.
“Instantly, Yarra Science Play was shut down until further notice,” Turnley said.
“Nine of our 30 smart initiatives that we'd identified instantly went on hold. And sadly for Yarra City Labs so myself, the actions for me in our climate emergency plan and advocacy action plan were removed.”
One thing that did not change - and actually increased in importance - is the “digital equity’ lens that is used to frame much of the planned smart city work.
Turnley said the City of Yarra has “the second highest population density” of the IMAP councils - IMAP stands for Inner Melbourne Action Plan - but that it is a “city of polar opposites.
“We've got a highly affluent, very young population, so lots of professionals in the science, technology and healthcare fields, while we also have the largest population of public housing as well,” she said.
“Digital equity is extremely high on our prioritisation list. We're making sure that all of our technology or smart city solutions are focused on the real needs of our community.”
Turnley said there was greater reception to “tactical urbanism” ideas that could solve for specific challenges that emerged during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
“I had floated some quite 'out there' concepts such as tactical urbanism 12 months ago and had no response at all, then suddenly [post-COVID] it was a conversation that I was having,” Turnley said.
“I was also fielding inquiries to Yarra City Lab about how we could look at smart technology solutions for physical distancing challenges.
“We’re an inner urban municipality, right next door to the city of Melbourne, so we're dealing with quite a few challenges in this space like very small streets.”
Turnley said there was a renewed - and new - focus on digital equity and safety in public spaces.
She said she had worked with Yarra libraries “and a number of external bodies and community centres” to ensure families could access computer hardware, software and connectivity during the lockdown period.
“I know school has gone back, but there is every indication that the education system will be a lot more virtual going forward,” she said.
“So, while they're back in school now, we want to make sure that if things do change in the future that we're able to support them in whatever way that might be.”
In addition, what were formerly “exploratory projects” have now been pushed into the foreground.
“We’re exploring city-wide free wifi,” Turnley said.
“We’re looking at smart wayfinding for pedestrians to enhance access and mobility, and then how to implement smart technology into the design and activation of our public spaces.”
Turnley said that new potential sources of state and federal government funding had also emerged post-COVID, and that Yarra City Lab was busy applying for them.
“When I'm looking at how COVID-19 has impacted us, it has been the best of times and the worst of times,” she said.
“It was quite shocking for myself initially with the shutdown of so many of my projects, and the removal of funding through those strategic plans, but where I find myself now is in a whole new world with different funding sources and different things coming to the forefront.
“For myself the focus is always going to be on the people of Yarra and what I can do from a smart city perspective to really support them.”