Last week Arup arranged an event “Is Data… Shaping our City?” as part of it’s Shaping Our Cities initiative; co-hosted by the City of Melbourne and Engineering Australia.

Whilst I might not be a data technician or data specialist, I am a data consumer and a data maker. Data is all consuming and all prevailing and it can also be hidden; data can make one suspicious, assured and optimistic- all at the same time. There seems to be a paradoxical thread to this data story and its relevance for our city hence why it’s an important topic to consider in the Future Melbourne 2026 conversations.

Some of these paradoxical narratives explored during the post panel discussions included the aspiration for sharing data and allowing open access data platforms balanced with the need for security and whose security –ie privacy for whom? (The individual versus the organisation). Another question posed was whether data building or destroying communities? Was it creating more for those that have or allowing participation for those that don’t have ? Finally how to balance governance using data with the will to self- organise; ie providing data then “getting out of the way”?

To offer a different perspective to the Melbourne data story and to help answer the question “Is Data shaping our city”, I shared at this event not a ‘tale of two cities’ but rather a ‘data tale of two nations’, far north-west from here:

The first is Belarus- Following the collapse of the Soviet Union it became an independent nation in 1991. 25 years later, it is one of Europe’s most statist economies with inefficient, government-run businesses from the Soviet era dominating its markets. 30 of its 31 banks are government owned and the nation still runs collective farms and state-owned companies that manufacture vodka, chocolates and car tyres whilst spending billions every year on populist handouts, tariffs and subsidies.

Internet censorship is not uncommon, its economy is contracting year after year. The World Bank highlights a nation in crisis.

Now lets directly compare this tale to that of its neighbour Estonia. For rarely does one get a chance to see the consequences of how truly embracing data and technology can impact and shape a nation and its people so significantly.

Estonia, that little country that could (and did) is now regarded as one of the most innovative and data embracing societies globally. Founded also in 1991 it has radically transformed itself from an impoverished backwater with inflation rates over 1000%, production in decline worse that the US Great Depression and a society in meltdown. Estonia is now a nation where data has transformed political, social, and cultural life of its citizens across most domains.

Technology and e-education starts at kindergarten; children learn coding in primary school and participate in programs where they pitch ideas and are rewarded for entrepreneurial mindsets. It is a nation where school enrolment and literacy is around 100% and the nation spends more of its GDP on education that US, UK and many other EU countries.

It is the birthplace of Skype and many other successful tech start-ups.

In 2000, its parliament passed a law declaring “internet access” a fundamental human right with resources to expand across the countryside. It now has the world’s fastest Internet speeds and universal medical health records, something many other cities and nations can only aspire to.

About 10 years ago it became the first country to allow online voting in a general election and over 95 % of its citizens file their tax returns online in a process that takes about 5 minutes from whoa to go.

Significantly just over a year ago Estonia made the bold move to offer “e-residency” to anyone in the world. For a flat subscription rate the digital identity allows you full rights to do business in Estonia and across the EU bypassing many other countries more inefficient systems. Clearly the benefits for this country is that is can foster entrepreneurship within its borders and, at the same time, generate income through its e-residency subscription (already over $500M alone since it was established). What’s even better for the public purse is that there are savings as the e-residents pay taxes but don’t cost the state the same expenses a general citizen incurs and imposes on the system as a ‘present’ citizen.

This is using data to shape and also using data to disrupt for impact and good of the state. Estonia is not only using data and digitization of the e-residency model to make the road to entrepreneurship more efficient and quicker but is also creating and leveraging a new market (ie new type of citizenship) to capture new growth. Estonia expects 10 million e-residents over next few years. Even without doing the maths this is clearly a “data-shaping” story to watch.

So what do these data tales mean for our “most liveable city Melbourne? Do they help us answer the question of whether data is shaping our city? By data here I mean advanced analytic tools, data modelling, machine learning, Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communications and all the ways technology can be used to make our cities better, more functioning and more liveable and maybe, hopefully more fair and more just.

Why care if data shapes? What’s behind this? There are numerous reasons of course and include the fact there resources are limited and sometimes heading towards scare; there is the ever-growing population especially focussing on the urban centre and the fact mother nature offers natural disasters whenever and wherever she wishes.

Using data to create smart transport systems, assist with disaster management systems, cut red tape and offer citizens an opportunity to co – create solutions clearly makes sense.

To conclude let’s go back to that original question proposed- is data shaping our cities and I would say no- it is not the data per say- but it is people- leaders and communities who are shaping the data that ultimately shapes our cities.

It was not data that caused the stark divergence in the quality of life for local Estonians and Belarusians. Rather it was the decision of the nations’ leaders and consequent actions of citizens using the data offered (or not offered in the case of Belarus) that shaped their lives.

Social commentator/Journalist Jane Jacobs once observed that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because and only when they are created by everybody.” Data clearly has a role to play here in our city story.

We must be excited about what the data at our fingertips can be used for. We should not be afraid to offer a callout for solutions from young people born digital and data natives. The massive global challenges of our time such as climate change get discussed at the nation-to-nation leadership level but indeed it will be in the cities where many of these battles will be fought and lost. Data will be up front and centre in these struggles- it offers cities not only the challenge to use its data to transform and shape its own environs but offers cities (and the people who make them) the opportunity to shape the world in general.

Let’s discuss! Comments please!

Jacyl Shaw
Director of Engagement
Carlton Connect Initiative
The University of Melbourne