“The street of the future is going to look very different,” says Melbourne city councillor Jackie Watts.
“Melbourne is facing a critical juncture with a rapidly growing population, climate change, and now digital disruption.”
By 2036, Cr Watts predicts, autonomous vehicles, drones, delivery robots, sensors and 5G infrastructure will be present throughout the city.
Next week Prototype Street, an exhibit that is part of Melbourne Knowledge Week, will provide a glimpse into a future where emerging technology and digital infrastructure help solve city challenges.
Visitors will be able to ride on a driverless bus, see a drone that can live-tweet the weather, inspect an RACV tiny home and learn how temperature sensors can activate cool spots on very hot days.
This all might sound like the stuff of science fiction — but the future is coming faster than you think.
Last month Washington became the eighth US state to legalise robots delivering food and goods, provided they can’t travel faster than six miles an hour, will yield to pedestrians and bikes and only cross the street at the crossing.
Meanwhile, a lawmaker in San Francisco wants to ban them, saying public spaces should not be commercialised and the hilly city should be accessible and safe for children, people with disabilities and the elderly.
Only in America? Nope. The future is knocking here too.
In late 2017 Australia Post trialled a delivery robot nicknamed “Billy the Box” in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm, reportedly chosen because its residents were some of Australia’s biggest online shoppers.
Australia Post’s strategy and innovation general manager Michael Oates said the community and customer response from the trial had been “overwhelmingly positive”.
Australia Post’s 2018 annual report said more than 100 deliveries were made over the four weeks of the trial, in which the robot travelled 140 kilometres autonomously.
“There were no technical or safety incidents during the trial and we have secured community and regulator support to keep exploring this technology,” it says.
In March last year Elaine Herzberg became the first pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car. She had been crossing a road in Arizona.
University of Melbourne professor in transport for smart cities, Majid Sarvi, believes some countries have “jumped the gun to the future”.
Professor Sarvi is the founder and the director of the Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem, which is testing how driverless vehicles could be integrated into existing transport systems to improve safety, congestion and sustainability.
He says driverless shuttles could be used for “last mile” transport, such as picking up commuters from train stations and driving them home: “It is not sustainable to have larger and larger car parks at train stations.”
Professor Sarvi says it is “anybody’s guess” when driverless vehicles will hit Melbourne’s streets, but believes there will be trials first in restricted areas such as university campuses, zoos or shopping centres.
In late 2016, convenience chain store 7-Eleven began trialling deliveries for food, drinks and over-the-counter medications via flying robots in Reno, Nevada.
Cr Watts says drones are already being successfully tested in urban environments in an attempt to reduce road congestion. “Perhaps through delivering last kilometre freight or delivering medical supplies,” she says.
In 2018 Melbourne was ranked number 8 in the top 50 smart city governments by the Eden Strategy Institute.
Solar-powered sensors alert the council when street bins need to be emptied.
In-ground sensors in city parking bays are used to determine when fines are issued – to the chagrin of one motorist, who was reportedly fined four minutes before the expiry time on his display ticket.
Thousands of pedestrian sensors are also distributed across Melbourne, to inform decisions on everything from more open space to applications for planning permits.
Last year the City of Melbourne hosted an open innovation competition aiming to make the city more accessible for people with a disability.
One of the winning solutions was Melba, an app which pairs the city’s open data with smart assistants such as Siri, Google Assist and Amazon’s Alexa to provide up-to-date information about city accessibility via voice, text and screen readers.
But it was the news that you can email a tree in Melbourne that almost broke the internet.
In 2013, the council assigned every one of its 70,000 trees an ID number and email address as part of its Melbourne Urban Forest Visual project, which maps every tree in the city. The idea was for the public to report issues such as broken limbs, fallen trees, tree decline or vandalism.
But there was a completely unexpected consequence. Since the program was introduced, thousands of Melbourne’s trees have received love letters from all over the world.
“Hi Tree 1022794,” emailed one fan. “How’s it going? I walk past you each day at uni, it’s really great to see you out in the sun now that the scaffolding is down around Building 100. Hope it all goes well with the photosynthesis. All the best.”
Melbourne City Council says it has been contacted by many other councils and countries keen to implement the idea.
“Melbourne’s email-a-tree service is one in a litany of municipal projects aimed at leveraging personal and institutional technologies to keep cities running smoothly,” Adrienne Lafrance wrote in The Atlantic.
«In Chicago, there’s a text-based pothole tracker. In Honolulu, you can adopt a tsunami siren.
“These sorts of initiatives encourage civic engagement and perhaps helps with city maintenance, but they also enable people’s relationship with their city to play out at the micro level.”
Prototype Street will be at Blackwood Street, North Melbourne from May 21 to 26, 10am-6pm daily, as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week.
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.