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4 Principles to Guide Smart Projects in the Built Environment

4 Principles to Guide Smart Projects in the Built Environment

Cities today are having to deal with the issue of adding technology to an already-built environment, requiring city leaders to plan around and work with the existing infrastructure and layout of the city.

At the Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator at Melbourne, the head of the City Lab team in Melbourne, and representatives from Estrella Group who are working on the master planning process in Campbelltown (55 kilometers outside of Sydney) shared insights on how they are tackling smart city projects in the built environment.

Gathering their ideas together, one gets a sense of four important principles that should guide these smart projects in the built environment. Here are the four main elements of success.


“Do we allow that change to happen to us? Or do we proactively seek change with our city and help guide it to a better future along the way?”


Lay Out Guiding Principles

Both the Melbourne and Campbelltown speakers mentioned the importance of laying out principles to guide and inform smart projects and planning. Some of these principles may include:

  • Delivering Impact: Making sure that the city chooses projects that are not only desirable for the community but also those that are feasible and viable to make happen in reality.
  • Asking Why: Being committed to test every assumption and dig down to understand the root causes of the problems the city is exploring.
  • Creating New Realities: Pushing the boundaries of what people think is possible and creating new realities in the city.
  • Design for All: Making sure that smart city solutions are planned and designed with every single person in the community in mind; the principles of universal design and accessibility are essential.
  • Learn by Doing: Taking an action-oriented strategy, including building prototypes, testing solutions, and being prepared to fail fast.
  • Bigger than Ourselves: Realizing that the best ideas won’t always come from small internal teams. Leveraging the great ideas within and across the organization, networks, and cities nationally and internationally.

Of course, the exact principles chosen by a city will vary by the specific goals that the city is pursuing in its smart projects. The important point is to contemplate these principles before starting projects, and use them as a guiding light along the way.

Get the Council on Board

With guiding principles laid out, it is important to then get the council on board because it is hard to move forward with smart city ventures without the buy-in from councilmembers.

Of course, this can be tricky because smart projects involve technology and data that might be foreign to those on the council, plus it requires a shift in mindset, where it is okay to take risks, think outside the box, and even fail from time to time.


“Just trying to define the problem is a challenge. We may not even know the questions we need to ask or the inherent solutions until we uncover it and test it ourselves.”


In Campbelltown’s master planning process, they arranged several council leadership workshops in order to help council members understand what they are trying to do and embrace the process. They used the metaphor of the cookbook, where data are the ingredients, and the recipe includes some sort of magic behind it, which may be algorithms, calculations, dashboards, etc. They also explored examples so councilmembers could learn while contemplating different scenarios about how data may or may not be used to solve the problem at hand.

Taking time to get the council members on board is helpful because it sets a standard of ‘this is how we do things’ that can be replicated in all smart projects. It also helps the council understand data from a practical sense, so the data can be used effectively to find solutions to city problems.

Test Assumptions

With everyone on board, it is time to get to work on the first smart city project, but that doesn’t mean diving in with solutions that have not been validated yet.

One example in Melbourne is that the City Lab was tasked with the challenge of tackling the disruption problem in Melbourne. The city is currently booming, with cranes and construction projects, road closures, events (both planned and unplanned), and infrastructure upgrades happening all over the city. This leads to a significant amount of activity across the city that may impact residents. Government officials asked for the City Lab’s help in solving this problem, but more specifically, they asked them to develop digital tools to inform city users, businesses, residents, and partners of all significant road closures and disruptions within the municipality in real time.

The City Lab did not get right to work creating those digital tools. They first took the time to test the assumptions of their assignment. The assumptions include that it should be a digital solution, that the solution is for specific people in the city, that it should use real-time data, that the disruption is impacting the community, and that the city has a role in providing a solution.

To find out if these assumptions were correct, the team spent four weeks engaging with over 70 city users across the municipality to get answers and validate some of those assumptions. In the process, they found that some assumptions were correct—for example, the community was indeed being negatively impacted by the disruptions, and they expected the city to play a role in solving that problem.


“A key part of understanding this process is to make sure that the people are first in everything that we do.”


However, other assumptions were not necessarily correct. For example, city users said that real-time data is not necessarily helpful or critical because they’d actually have to know about disruptions in advance so they can plan. They also learned that solutions don’t need to be exclusively digital, because when people first experience disruptions, it’s a non-digital, real-life experience. Thus they needed to also consider solutions that could help residents if they didn’t have a screen in front of them at the moment.

Design Solutions

Testing assumptions gives a lot of insight into what possible solutions might actually help city residents and business owners. From the data gathered in that phase, the Melbourne team was equipped to brainstorm and design several solutions that could help ease the burden of city disruptions:

  • In-Place Signage: This non-digital solution can help people when they first encounter a disruption within the city. Signage can provide better communication about what is happening and why, and it can also be used as a channel to make people aware of (and get them to use) the digital tools the team was proposing to develop.
  • ChatBot: The chatbot is a two-way tool because it can help inform residents about disruptions that the city knew about in advance. However, there is a lot going on in the city that is not known in advance. When that happens, the chatbot can be used by residents to report the disruption in real time and improve the city’s data on current disruptions.
  • Directory: The directory is also a digital tool, one which will help people explore disruptions by place and plan their journey. It is a map-based tool that allows people to see the nature of disruptions within a location, as well as city services and local activities.
  • Aggregating Data: The City Lab also decided that it would be helpful to aggregate strong disruption data and push it into the solutions that people are already using. These are the apps, tools, and platforms that are already being used on people’s mobile and smart devices, so it would offer an even more convenient means of accessing information about local disruptions.

These four principles set up the structure for how city leaders can implement technology and smart solutions in the built environment to improve decision making and quality of life in the city. We are at a moment in time when cities around the world are changing drastically and rapidly. These examples from Melbourne and Campbelltown demonstrate that city leaders don’t have to wait passively by while changes happen to the city…instead, they can proactively seek change, approach it in a calculated manner, and use it to create a better future.

These are insights from the Smart City Innovation Accelerator in Melbourne 2019

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