Do you want to know whether you are better off leaving for work now or in 15 minutes?

How about your shop? Should you close now or at 6 p.m.? When does the most foot traffic go by?

If you live in Newcastle, help to these questions may soon be at hand. Under the Smart Move Newcastle project, a city-wide analytics platform which corrects data from sensor networks, vehicles and people will be created and delivered to businesses and residents via apps.

Other aspects of the program include an electric vehicle hub at the city’s CBD fringe, bus stops which provide users with real-time information such as how long the next bus will be and how many seats are available, roads and intersections with real-time traffic analysis, sensors installed in older buildings to monitor and manage energy use, and cameras in light poles to analyse cloud coverage and estimate solar energy production. Last November, the program was awarded a $5 million grant under the first round of funding for the Australian Government’s Smart Cities, Smart Suburbs program.

Newcastle is not alone in making things happen. A glance down a list of 52 projects which received $28.5 million worth of funding under Smart Cities, Smart Suburbs demonstrates the degree of initiatives going on.

The City of Darwin is undertaking a $10 million program to ‘switch on the city’ and boost its economy. This includes installing CCTV cameras at entrances to the city, along Daly Street and Bennett Street; upgrading of street lighting to LED on ‘smart’ columns which have the capacity to adjust lighting to reduce street crime; smart lighting and sound monitoring in Bicentennial Park to detect people in distress and notify police and emergency services; expansion of free Wi-Fi in tourist and shopping areas and smart parking sensors to indicate available parking spaces (and thus reduce congestion and emissions).

In Moreton Bay, local streets are being upgraded to include digital signage which tells drivers how many free car parking spaces are available on each street. A smartphone app is being developed to show a virtual map of fee and occupied spaces in real-time.

Several initiatives are happening in health and the environment. Fremantle is undergoing an $8 million trial which will examine how the city can use blockchain technology alongside data analytics to integrate distributed energy and water systems. The trial will see resilient, low-carbon, and low-cost systems installed and connected using blockchain technology. A large solar photovoltaic (PV) plant, rooftop solar PV panels, a precinct-sized battery, an electric vehicle charge station, and precinct water treatment and capture systems will also be orchestrated using blockchain technology and data analytics.

In Bendigo (Victoria), an urban heat mapping project will enable cyclists and pedestrians to determine the best routes to take to avoid extreme temperatures and will help the city identify priority areas for urban greening.

In the Perth city of Joondalup, smart environmental sensors, satellites and drones are being deployed at Yelloagonga Regional Park to enable monitoring of the park’s environmental conditions in near real-time and ensure that timely action can be taken to maintain amenity and make better decisions to preserve the health of the wetlands.

In short, ‘smart cities’ have moved beyond fantasy and are firmly enmeshed in reality.

“It’s not a pipe dream,” Adam Fennessy, a partner at consultancy EY said. “It is coming our way and is here.”

Merrick Spain, smart cities lead at Telstra, agrees.

“All of our research over the last five years is underlying the fact the digital aspirations of people, business and other stakeholders are rising,” Spain said. “Smart technologies is about the transformation of human experience in the context of people and place. Cites and communities are the lens through which people’s aspirations and expectations are rising.”

This raises questions about Australia’s progress in developing smart cities and challenges going forward. Such issues were fleshed out recently at a panel discussion at the Green Cities conference in Melbourne hosted by the Green Building Council of Australia. The discussion featured panellists Fennessy and Spain along with Federal Minister for Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity Angus Taylor, Austrade senior trade advisor, future cities, Meredith Hodgman and Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand executive director Adam Beck.

Several themes arose.

First, whilst the traditional focus has historically revolved around widgets and technology, efforts in this area have moved beyond this and now centre around community and partnerships or ecosystems within the city. What is critical, Fennessy says, is that community aspirations form the driving force behind smart city planning.

In EY’s case, he says the firm’s research arm EY Sweeney started out by talking to 1,000 people across Sydney and Melbourne and asking them what they wanted from their respective cities. Not surprisingly, key themes included security, open space and ease of getting around.

Processes involved in city deals – where all three levels of government sit down with local business and community and map out a strategic plan and infrastructure funding priorities for the city – are a good opportunity for this dialogue to occur. Other opportunities can be realised through other means. During the course of preparing Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure plan, Infrastructure Victoria ran two citizens juries. Voices of the people can also be activated through smart phones and data collection.

Technology, Fennessy said, is an enabler. People and communities, however, are what smart cities are about and they must be at the heart of smart city planning.

Next, the built asset community is finally getting on board. Until 12 to 15 months ago, Spain says, ‘city builders’ had been largely absent from the smart cities conversation and had been wrestled out by technologists. Over the past year, that has changed. A recent forum in Canberra saw the involvement of a large number of plumbers and electricians. The sector, he says, increasingly understands that smart cities is a concept about which they need to be cognisant and involved.

Third, there is the importance of talent. On this score, Taylor says we need not only technology people but also those with skills in problem solving, data science and other analysis who can connect technology to real world problems and apply data to solving challenges in the real and physical world.

Further issues surround privacy and security. As things stand, Taylor says back doors are opening both for any hostile government who wish to impact or shut down critical infrastructure or for thieves who steal the identities of private individuals. On this score, he says the government needs to do more. A Productivity Commission recommendation that customers should own and control their own data represents an important first step. Getting cyber security around that to ensure this happens will be vital.

Further to this, Spain says use of data has to be mutually beneficial. Privacy, he says, is not about secrecy but accountability and setting up a chain of value. It is one thing for governments or private companies to ask for data, it is another for them to approach customers and explain how use of that data would benefit the customers in question.

On Australia’s performance, Hodgman says we have been too inclined to criticise ourselves. Whilst criticism is important, she says we need to look to our strengths and appreciate where we are doing well. In fact, she says, Australia has several initiatives around technologies such as simulation and augmented reality which apply across a spectrum of transport, energy, environmental and critical infrastructure spaces. In these areas, she says, we have a competitive advantage and many other countries are looking to us for how to apply these things in their country.

There are many ways in which smart cities and IOT can improve environmental and health outcomes. On the subject of energy, Hodgman says it is not just taking energy out of the grid or distributing it through microgrids but working in combination with other energy sources such as solar glass to enable fallback systems should one form of energy fail.

On health, Fennessy says the cooling effect of greening cities has a significant impact (note, for instance, the Bendigo urban heat mapping program mentioned above).

Regarding the environment, Spain says transport mobility is a ‘gorilla opportunity.’

“Think about how much time we spend stuck in traffic and the environmental impact of that – the kind of impost which is going to be upon us to spend big on infrastructure to have another land and another road,” he said.

“We can’t do that. There are smarter ways to do that.

“That is being to have a big impact on our environmental footprint.”

Australia has many challenges to unleash the potential of smart cities.

Nevertheless, smart cities have moved from being a pipe dream to being a full-on reality.