Exclusive: Inside Melbourne’s high-tech vision

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Ben Rimmer, Chief Executive, City of Melbourne.

Take a walk down one of the trendy little laneways in the heart of Melbourne, flat white in hand, and imagine: What will the city look like in five years?

“The thing that people love about Melbourne is Melbourne as a place and an experience”, says Ben Rimmer, Chief Executive of the City of Melbourne. We are sitting in his office overlooking bustling Swanston Street, right in the heart of the city. It is the perfect vantage point to watch the world go by, accompanied by the sounds of trams and tourists.

The city is cosy, charming and highly liveable, but all these are made possible by its high-tech vision, he says. It is one example of how technology in smart cities doesn’t have to be obtrusive, but rather, can work seamlessly behind the scenes.

The changing face of Melbourne

Melbourne now has a visual tool that displays buildings that are to be developed. “You can visualise the city not only as it is now, but also as it will be when the construction is finished,” Rimmer says. “It's increasingly something that we're using to communicate with the community about what's happening to their city.”

The 3D model of the city is based on an open dataset that anyone can access online. While obviously useful for urban planners, developers, and architects, it is also creating another means for the city to reach out to its people. “It helps them be less scared about growth and development, or have a better argument if they're concerned,” Rimmer continues.

The next step, Rimmer says, is to add Augmented Reality to the whole experience, so that people on the street can hold up their smartphones to see overviews of planned buildings over current ones. This platform could catalyse conversations around how future buildings will feature into the existing streets: “Instead of people looking at architectural plans, and saying, ‘Oh, I think that's going to be terrible’, they can look through their phones.”

City officials are using this platform to kickstart discussions and engage citizens. There was a recent controversy surrounding the amount of construction taking place near a childcare centre, which was worrying parents. City officials showed them what the area would look like over the next few years, so they could understand why the construction was necessary, Rimmer says.
“It’s not about the technology, it’s about supporting the community to have better discussions about the future of the city.”
If citizens are concerned about the impact of buildings and developments, they can use these data to run awareness campaigns, he adds. “It’s not about the technology, it’s about supporting the community to have better discussions about the future of the city.”

Driving away congestion

Among the city’s key challenges is traffic congestion, according to Rimmer. “Something like 30% of congestion in the CBD is caused by people looking to park,” he notes. So Melbourne has built a network of parking sensors that feed into an open data platform, which shows residents vacant car parks throughout the city.

Another challenge is increasing accessibility for those with disabilities. Earlier this year, the city ran an Open Innovation Competition on Accessibility, inviting innovators, entrepreneurs and communities to develop tech-driven solutions to make the city more disability-friendly. The first prize winner had developed an app that was “effectively a Siri or an Alexa but specifically designed to interact with someone who has a disability”. It provides information about Melbourne to users via voice, text and screen readers.

Another finalist had developed an app that ranked restaurants based on their accessibility for four disability groups: mobility, auditory, visual and cognitive. “It can show that this place has three steps on the way into it, whereas this place has a ramp; or this place has a braille menu,” Rimmer explains.

Innovation districts

The city has partnered with the University of Melbourne and RMIT University to create Melbourne Innovation Districts in the north of the CBD. The area plays host to 21% of Melbourne’s knowledge sector jobs, and central campuses of both aforementioned universities.

These districts were designed to encourage innovators and creators to explore the city. They are made up of plug-and-play spaces right on the street where people can set up prototypes and trial projects. The city is trialling sensors in these districts, and working with Australian telco Telstra to set up 5G.
Instead of building an R&D hub, the city made the conscious decision to take things outdoors. “We have to build it out of liveability, a great place for people to experience buildings and parks and design," Rimmer remarks.

The city runs the Knowledge Week festival every year, and the physical space where it is held is also a test site. “If a research institute is running an open data day, they can use the physical design and the physical infrastructure and plug in,” Rimmer says. Through these initiatives, the city hopes to attract more small businesses, startups and social enterprises to the area.

Rimmer is excited about the future of Melbourne, which he envisions will have more green infrastructure; better public transport; and fewer cars and more pedestrian space. There will be more trees and greenery, too: Melbourne has a target to increase tree cover from 22% to 40% of the city by 2040.

No matter what Melbourne will look like in five years, citizens can keep up with its progress, and take part in shaping the future.