Wednesday, 25 September, 2019


Cities around the world, including Newcastle and Lake Macquarie in the Hunter, are embracing ‘smart city’ technologies. The City of Newcastle’s multi award-winning Smart City Program, for instance, envisions a connected, digitally-enabled, and sustainable future for Novocastrians. The City has successfully received significant funding from both State and Federal governments in support of Newcastle’s smart city transition.

Newcastle is increasingly part of a global economy, created by smart cities, that is predicted to amount to $US507 billion by 2020. Investment in this burgeoning economy by local businesses and governments can benefit with guidance from a practical framework developed by Dr Ellie Cosgrave, keynote speaker at this year's Smaller & Smarter Cities: international symposium.The Symposium will be held in Newcastle from 9 to 11 October.

Dr Cosgrave is a leading civil engineer, director of the Urban Innovation and Policy Lab, and lecturer in Urban Innovation at University College London. Her work explores how smart infrastructure impacts social, political and economic processes.

It is not all plain sailing creating a ‘perfect’ city, she warns. Advances in technology-orientated urban design and policy have the capacity to magnify existing inequalities in our cities. This risk is particularly prevalent in a political context where private interests are more protected than public interests, Dr Cosgrave says. In other words, smart city technologies have the potential to create an urban landscape that results in increasing social divisions according to wealth, gender and race.

That can occur just through the process of gathering and presenting data, according to publications of Professor Rob Kitchin, an international expert on city indicators based at the National University of Ireland. The selection of key indicators of urban mobility or rental prices, for example, has integral to it the politics of power groups aiming for particular investments or outcomes.

However, it is possible for digital technologies to transform cities for the better if designers are cognisant of these sorts of social impacts, Dr Cosgrave says. She explores how, and where, more conscious design is possible as co-presenter with renowned urbanist, Professor Greg Clark, of the BBC podcast, My Perfect City.

The podcast opens with the greeting, “If you’re listening to this while battling against city life on a packed commuter train, headphones on to block out the noise of outside, running in a park while breathing in the fumes, well perhaps you would like to join us in imagining what a perfect city would be like to live in.”

The podcast highlights examples from global cities with solutions to modern urban issues. For example, Seoul is increasing employment opportunities in health, education and caring industries to compensate for jobs lost to technology. Paris has introduced participatory budgeting, where citizens can democratically vote on funding to improve their city. Glasgow has more than halved its homicide rate through a public health intervention that tackles crime as a product of inequality and disenfranchisement in urban life.

Central to these successful innovations in city life is the design paradigm that posits that inequality reflects a choice, Dr Cosgrave proposes. She says that public space and infrastructure professionals design for their own experience. The majority of these professionals are men. They imagine possibilities and places based on their own understanding of what is good, what works for men like them. That can mean neglect for considerations of women, children, the aged, disabled, and those from other cultural backgrounds.

Examples of exclusion in public spaces abound, she explains. Globally, women make up fewer than 30 per cent of cyclists in cities. Within that cohort, older women and those of Asian and Latin descent were disproportionately under-represented. However, women cyclists are over-represented in the Netherlands and Denmark. In those countries, more inclusive cycling infrastructure has resulted from public planning that takes seriously the safety concerns of women.

To support more inclusive design, Dr Cosgrave co-founded ScienceGrrl, an organisation to attract and retain women and girls in STEM fields.

Dr Cosgrave’s work tells us that the success of any city is contingent on its ability to serve all of its people, making that a central focus of design rather than an afterthought.

Dr Ellie Cosgrave’s keynote address, Designing inclusive cities, is on Thursday, 10 October. Register your place now at

This opinion piece by Professor Will Rifkin, Director, HRF Centre, was published in the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday, 25 September 2019