The City of Melbourne’s Future Melbourne Digital City Hack threw one hundred super-passionate civic/city-tech disruptors into a room together, and asked them to rapidly prototype ideas for a digital Melbourne in 2026. As a judge at the design hack, pondering the final pitches provided a great insight into the maturity of Melbourne’s ‘smart ecosystem’, and the trajectory of our city.
Melbourne as a smart city in 2026 will not just be a well-oiled machine based on cookie-cutter tech that could be implanted into any city. It won’t just reflect the image of hyper-efficient smart cities espoused by some technology firms.
It will be a bespoke smart city, blending technology with unique Melburnian values and institutions. It will be driven by more fundamental human needs — social connection, democratic participation, and connection with nature — just as much as it will be driven by efficiency and productivity.
It Will Be Uniquely Melbourne
Anthony Townsend describes how the best smart cities will be bespoke — not defined by cookie cutter ICT system roll outs, but rather local values.
The best pitches last Saturday shifted beyond the sensors, predictive algorithms, control rooms, city dashboards, and other one-size-fits-all measures that are often pushed by technology firms. They provided a technological twist on unique Melburnian values and institutions.
One of the best examples came from a team that mashed online democracy together with our city’s cafe culture. Melbourne’s cafes, famous for their coffee quality, are the source of much pride for Melburnians. They also provide the setting for a daily ritual amongst much of the citizenry. The team imagined how technology, inserted into these ritualistic physical places, could provide the medium for more active democracy. Screens would promote voting and debate on current issues while one is waiting with strangers for a takeaway coffee.
Rapid movement from problem statements to ideation
The pitches told us that Melbourne is unlikely to be the queen of fintech, or a hardware innovation hotbed. It’s much more likely to be a leading centre for human-centered-tech — a mix of social entrepreneurship, cultural startups, online marketplaces, and skills in holistic user experience design.
As the smart city evolves, it is becoming a more localised concept, just as Townsend has promoted. Melbourne’s local ecosystem is quickly finding its niche within the global smart cities movement.
It Will Be Human, Not Just Efficient
My colleague from Arup UK, Léan Doody, defines a framework for assessing the outcomes of a smart city. In her compelling defense of the smart city she describes how ‘smart’ provides the means to achieve multiple ends — functionality (i.e. infrastructure or service efficiency), humanity (i.e. social connection), economy (i.e. productivity), sustainability (i.e. saving our world) and political (i.e. democratising the city).
The pitches showed that Melbourne is using tech to aim for a better humanity. The best pitches last Saturday focused on the social and human, not just increasing the efficiency or usability of public services.
The winning team, Superglue, focused on Melbournians yearning for interaction with urban nature. They imagined sensor and mesh networking technology that promotes new ways of connecting citizens with trees (#IoT = Internet of Trees) and the Yarra River. Their proposal focused on the need for urban residents to connect with nature in a growing city that is increasing in density.
The winning team at the Digital City Design Hack, Superglue
The runner up team from Deloitte Digital didn’t just focus on the emerging technology of energy tiles (that harvest energy while people walk on them). Their real focus was on how to socialise this technology into the city — how to make it fun and how to stimulate social connections, mostly through gamification. It’s focus was on promoting new social connections in dense, international cities that are often anonymous for new residents. It was about this connection as much as it was about harvesting energy.
Several teams toyed with how Artificial Intelligence (AI) might change the way we physically interact with the city — the way it might shift the city’s personality – make it more interactive, more fun and adventurous. These proposals engaged with what makes cities so great, their variety and spontaneity.
The digital hack reflected a different narrative to what we observe in our work in Singapore or Sydney. Sydney’s smart city agenda has a strong undertone of what Léan identifies as the economic function. Singapore is driven by a desire to optimise both functional efficiency and economic productivity. Melbourne a smart city in 2026 will be much more focused on people, their interaction with each other, and their interaction with nature.
Matt is a digital consultant and city planner that is passionate about applying technology to solve urban challenges. He leads the development of Arup’s digital programs, data analytics, and digital strategy projects in Victoria and South Australia.