Sensing City: transforming Christchurch into the world's smartest city

Sensing City: transforming Christchurch into the world's smartest city
Roger Dennis' Sensing City will use sensor technology to transform Christchurch into a 'smart' city

Serendipity Architect Roger Dennis is a man with a plan, and that plan is to build a high-value industry literally​ into the roads and walls of Christchurch. That plan is called Sensing City.

Dennis says that Big Data is taking off and sensor technology is going “down in cost, up in functionality, up in size.” Sensing City is going to show the world how a city really works.

The Christchurch rebuild is a rare opportunity to cultivate a city that will attract talent, visitors, and develop an industry for New Zealand that cannot be shipped off-shore.

Sensing City will see Christchurch carpeted with sensors that will monitor pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow, water and air-pollution in real time.

Dennis’s master plan is stop the 'brain drain' and attract smart people to New Zealand with a product that cannot be taken overseas. He hopes to help make Christchurch a great city, one that his grandchildren will want to stay in, not just a nice city. 

“There are lots of nice cities in the world, and the worst thing we could do with $40 billion for Christchurch is create a nice city. Smart people don’t go to nice cities. They go to places which are unique and compelling and interesting ... Embed the very reason they’re here in the infrastructure and they can’t take it [offshore]," explains Dennis.

Dennis wants to avoid New Zealand “becoming Fiji with no sun.” He says we have two main industries which stop that: tourism and exporting milk powder. "We take whatever price we can get ... Price taker, rather than a price maker, is not the way for a sustainable long term economy,” he says.

Sensing City would be costly endeavor for most cities, however, most are not in the process of rebuilding their CBD. A similar concept was floated in London and, according to Dennis, it took three years just to get the decision makers in a room together. But things are happening fast in Christchurch and the project already has investors, as well as support from local and national government.

Christchurch Sensing City

Sensing City will start in the heart of Christchurch

The project is being backed by investment company Infratil, and Arap Engineering, the engineering firm responsible for the Sydney Opera House. In fact, the only thing stopping this from becoming a reality is rounding up the rest of the funding.

Sensing City has three goals: to create a high-value, exportable IP, become a magnet for talent and attract international investment. They are currently working on three projects, and Dennis expects, “momentum to pick up very rapidly” once these are delivered.

One of these projects is a collaboration with pharmaceutical solutions company Nexus 6. The plan is to lay a grid of air-quality monitors across Christchurch and when a patient with a respiratory condition uses their inhaler, their location, medication and ambient air temperature can be geotagged.

“We can be the first place in the world that correlates air pollution or poor air quality with incidences of COPD, which is a respiratory illness, in real time.”

Dennis is already prepared to ward off any Big Brother fears people may about being tracked. Sensing City is not interested in tracking individuals, he says. There’s more value in tracking flows of information.

“If you’re going to be scared, it shouldn’t be Sensing City that scares you.”

The data will all be open source, with a stepped licensing scheme that will allow small startups to have the same access to data gathered as a company such as Intel. The result, Dennis hopes, will be an innovation ecosystem.

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Graph of products to be derived from Sensing City

The technology could also help prepare the city for the increasing scarcity of certain resources, including water.

“In London, they lose, I think, 20 percent of their water through cracks and leaks in pipes ... [you could] actually have the IP developed where you can isolate a 50 metre section of road and say 'the leak is there'. Rather than starting at one end of the block and digging.”

Not only will this data create opportunities for startups, it also means a whole new area of expertise in interpreting the data of big cities. New Zealand and Christchurch can become a hub for this kind of talent.

Sensing City is a charitable trust; all the revenue made from commercial activities will be reinvested back into the project. And it’s not all tech and big data, Dennis wants to incorporate artists into the process. The plan is to invite artists to Christchurch every two years to re-imagine the urban landscape based on real-time data.

Sensing City is now at its most critical stage; the rebuilding of Christchurch is underway and Dennis and his team need to have the right processes in place to run parallel with this, which means getting the funding to make this happen.