Christchurch’s Sensing City project shelved

Christchurch’s Sensing City project shelved
What started with a bang has ended with a whimper, with Christchurch’s ambitious ‘Sensing City’ project, that would have seen a network of digital sensors integrated into the physical infrastructure of the CBD, put on ice to return focus to the restoration of basic services.

In 2013 the Sensing City project was heralded by Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce as a “world-leading project” that was set to transform Christchurch into a “smart city of the future”.

Now that future has been abandoned, as the realities of a complex city rebuild hit home.

The non-profit project was to have used data collected by an integrated network of sensors, focusing on pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow, water and air pollution, to improve how the city functions. The project would have also provided open access to that data bolstering the city’s analytics and development capabilities.

The group set up around the strategy – the Sensing City Trust – received $250,000 seed funding from Callaghan Innovation as well as financial support from Infratil and Z Energy.

“We are still on track to deliver some really interesting things around air quality,” says Roger Dennis, founder of the Sensing City Trust.  “The money that Challaghan granted us initially with still get some good results, but opportunities have been missed”.

Image: Roger Dennis, founder of the Sensing City Trust

Among those missed opportunities says Dennis is the large-scale incorporation of seismic sensors into large buildings, which could have provided both increased safety and huge cost savings for business in the earthquake-prone area.

“Whenever an earthquake of a certain size hits a structure ­– significant enough to make people leave the building – you want to understand whether it is safe to occupy again,” says Dennis.

“The way we do that at the moment is to call an engineer out and have them come to the building and make their best guess. That process can take three to four weeks – that’s a huge cost – and many building owners want more than a best guess.”

“We can equip a building with a range of sensors that tell you how much energy that building has absorbed. And they have a dashboard system and that can tell you if it’s safe in seconds. That’s the kind of thing that could have been taken up at scale.”

So with so much to gain, what explains the missed opportunity?

“On reflection, I think it’s around the fact that the concept of Sensor City was spearheading a really future-focused initiative that triggered longer-term outcomes. It’s much easier for people to understand what’s been done before than what could be.”

“One of the things we’re constantly asked is ‘who’s done this before?’ and we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. We’re trying to think about multiple-generational outcomes instead of reducing capital expenditure.”

“It’s that but with an extremely complex stakeholder environment.”