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Collaborate or compete? Opportunities to adapt Australia’s Smart Cities Plan to develop a stronger pathway to achieving SDG11 by 2030

Published 27 Mar 2017
Cassandra Cohen

In 2008, the global urban population exceeded rural populations for the first time in history.[1] By 2050, the proportion of people living in cities is expected to rise to over two-thirds of the population.[2] In Australia, the figure is even greater, with over three quarters of the population living in cities.[3] It is estimated that close to 80 per cent of Australia’s economic activity occurs in urban settings.[4] The Australian Government’s Smart Cities Plan (SCP) maps a pathway to ensuring the prosperity of Australian cities, proposing that they develop domestic networks in order to become globally competitive. The SCP marks the first government publication on cities since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced cities as a national priority for the Australian Government in September 2015.[5] The plan paints cities into the nation-building narrative of Australia, rather than placing Australian cities in a global context.

The SCP was released after 193 United Nations member states ratified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015.[6] The goals are a major component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Urban sustainability is one of the focus areas, with SDG11 aiming to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.[7] However, the SCP neglects to consider possibilities for partnering with other cities across the globe to share innovative ideas for improving housing and sustainable urban development. This is necessary in order for Australia to fulfill its commitment to SDG11. To date, the Australian Government has been reluctant to support the international aspects of this SDG.[8] Australia’s SCP charts a road map towards developing prosperous Australian cities, but fails to capture some significant targets within SDG11, achievable through greater global collaboration with partner cities across the development spectrum. The SCP could be adapted to exhibit greater correlation with SDG11.

Finding links between the Smart Cities Plan and SDG11

The SCP and the ten SDG11 targets share a number of key ideas for promoting urban sustainability.[9] Australia’s plan addresses the need for affordable housing (Target 11.1) in the ‘right locations’, where jobs are becoming more readily available.[10] Transport (Target 11.2) is another area where the two documents align. The SCP announces a $50 million investment in infrastructure, some of which is dedicated to expanding the urban rail network. This initiative seeks to connect Australians with communities in which they can work, socialise and contribute to the economy. However, the transport agenda falls short of SDG11.2 when it omits mention of improving transport services for ‘vulnerable’ people including the elderly and people with disabilities.[11] Targets 11.3 and 11.a, which address urban planning and management, relate closely to the SCP’s call for ‘better governance’ through more coordinated interaction between Australia’s major and regional cities through the City Deals initiative.[12] However, the SCP limits this collaboration to domestic networks rather than exploring international city partnerships.

Air quality and waste management (Target 11.6) are well covered in the plan, which recognises the importance of measurement tools such as the National Clean Air Agreement for air quality and the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) in reducing adverse environmental impacts in cities. The plan also addresses the need for green urban spaces (Target 11.7) such as community gardens in order to produce sustainable cities. However, it stops short of proposing targets or specific initiatives that might increase the availability of trees and green spaces, particularly for vulnerable people, as Target 11.7 encourages. Climate change (Target 11.b) is well recognised in the SCP, with particular emphasis given to the technological innovation initiatives put forward to reverse the effects of carbon emissions. These include the ‘$1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund’, which will invest in forward thinking Australian companies adopting clean-energy practices, and the ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’, which offers Australian businesses and local governments carbon credits for adopting more environmentally friendly practices.[13]

In contrast, the Australian Government’s plan for cities avoids any mention of Targets 11.5 and 11.c, which are specific to developed nations supporting the least developed countries to achieve their urban sustainability goals. Reducing economic losses from disasters (Target 11.5) is not discussed at any point in the report, despite what the UN describes in the target as the ‘global’ economic impact of these events.[14] Additionally, while the SCP regularly emphasises the importance of developing sustainable buildings, at no point does the plan propose supporting cities in the least developed nations to do the same (Target 11.c).

International collaboration or competition?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a key component of the United Nations’ action plan to unite all 193 member states towards the global goal of ending poverty by 2030 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In avoiding mention of Targets 11.5 and 11.c, and more generally, any plans to partner with overseas cities, Australia’s SCP risks ignoring the shared potential economic, social and environmental benefits of international collaboration, not to mention Australia’s responsibilities as a signatory of the agreement.

The SCP asserts that ‘the global lesson is that cities collaborate to compete.’[15] In this statement, the SCP focuses on collaboration as a nation-building weapon to use against overseas cities, instead of a tool to partner with them towards achieving the shared goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. In her new book, Habitat ’76, Habitat I attendee Lindsay Brown summarises the ideological tension involved in this debate when she says,

“The conflict within the UN (and governments), as always, is between those who focus on rights… – housing as a human right – and those who focus primarily on private sector solutions and financing in a deregulated environment.”[16]

While the SCP tends to adhere to the neoliberal latter approach, this article proposes a fundamental shift towards the former.

Michael Cohen, a former World Bank employee, attended the Habitat I and Habitat II conferences, and points to the lack of ‘cross-disciplinary’ discussions as an explanation for the limited successful long-term outcomes of the forums.[17] Accordingly, Cohen strongly endorses Habitat III as an opportunity to put politics aside and unite for the sake of the planet,

“There is no time for divisiveness or special interests. Habitat III should be a moment for the assertion of the planetary interest, and that is something all of us should be able to agree upon.”[18]

Given the relevance of Habitat III’s urban sustainability focus to SDG11, Cohen’s analysis could similarly be applied to Australia’s approach to international collaboration on cities. This would suggest that the Australian government should be prepared to compromise on outcomes that benefit both its constituents and, more broadly, humankind.

Contrary to the suggestions of the SCP however, this does not need to be at the expense of economic prosperity and growth. Numerous OECD and IMF studies have demonstrated that inequality impacts negatively on economic growth.[19] According to these results, cities in the least developed countries struggling to meet the SDG11 targets will place a burden on global economic conditions. From an environmental perspective, if all cities were able to reduce their carbon footprint (Target 11.b), this would begin to reverse the effects of climate change. It is therefore in Australia’s best interests economically, environmentally and socially to support these cities to achieve the SDG11 targets. 

Positioning Australia as a global leader in technological innovation for cities

The SCP charts Australia’s path towards becoming a global leader in technological innovation in cities. This vision reflects the Australian Government’s goal of incorporating cities into the National Innovation & Science Agenda, which launched in December 2015.[20] Advantages such as being located within close proximity to Asia, attracting a highly educated workforce and being at the forefront of research are said to position Australian cities well in comparison to their rivals.[21] The knowledge exchange that occurs in cities is thought to boost productivity through ‘resource sharing’ and ‘entrepreneurial activity’.[22] However, the extent to which this is possible relies on a country’s governance structure easing regulation to allow new innovations to prosper.[23] 

This article proposes that rather than simply aspiring to be the best, Australia could use its achievements in the technology sector to inform and educate cities across the development spectrum. This could be used as a tool to strengthen relationships with allies, as well as to improve global economic conditions by narrowing the gap between conditions in the least developed and most developed nations’ cities. The innovative processes of developing countries differ from developed countries, as they are more likely to look to developed nations for reference than to conduct their own research and innovative practices.[24] Therefore, collaborating with developing nations becomes even more integral to reducing global inequalities.

The United Smart Cities Project is already facilitating this form of knowledge exchange between cities.[25] The program establishes partnerships between cities, where ‘Pilot’ and ‘Ambitious Smart Cities’ have the opportunity to learn from ‘Advanced Smart Cities’, such as London and Amsterdam, about developing sustainable urban solutions.[26] While this project is focused on European cities, large Australian cities – most likely Melbourne and Sydney – could seek to join the program in an extended network. Alternatively, Australia could initiate a regional version of the project, potentially in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). This would not only assist Australia in strengthening local relationships, but would also be a valuable contribution towards SDG Targets 11.3, 11.5, 11.6, 11.b and 11.c.

Developing global mentor partnerships

In order for Australian cities to become innovation leaders in a model such as the United Smart Cities Project, it is important to form partnerships with those who have already achieved the goals described in the SCP. The recent Habitat III forum held in October 2016 in Ecuador presented an opportunity for Australia to meet with delegates from these cities to learn from their initiatives and discuss these partnerships at length. Australia can still use the forum as a springboard for addressing some of the shortcomings of the SCP. For instance, the SCP proposes a ‘City Deals’ plan in which ‘governments, industries and communities will develop collective plans for growth’ through coordinated investment and action.[27] Given that the UK already has a ‘City Deals’ plan in place, Australia could consult with key figures in the development of the UK format to discuss any challenges the Australian version may face and how to maximise the initiative’s potential for success. If successful, the ‘City Deals’ plan would be a significant step towards achieving SDG Targets 11.3 and 11.a, which relate to city planning and management.[28] Australia could then move to support other countries to tailor the program to their needs – particularly in Africa – as studies have shown that more than two-thirds of that continent suffers from a lack of connectivity between urban and rural areas.[29] Since Habitat II was held in 1996, Cohen notes that local governments globally have suffered financially as a result of a lack of support from national governments. It is therefore important that Australian cities develop strategic partnerships both domestically and internationally to promote prosperity across all levels of government. Discussions about heightened collaboration through ‘City Deals’ have the potential to create more successful outcomes from Habitat III.

Another focus area of the SCP is the proposal for a high-speed rail network to connect major and regional cities, thus providing greater access to jobs (Targets 11.1 and 11.2). A city mentor in this case could emerge from Japan, Spain or France, who have already proven their capabilities in delivering high-speed rail. In return for this expertise, Australia could offer advice on implementing innovative strategies involved in the National Innovation & Science Agenda, such as promoting women in technology or open data.


If SDG11 is not met by 2030, it will be the shared failure of all 193 United Nations member countries, including Australia. While the SCP refers to most of the SDG11 targets on a domestic level, opportunities exist to expand the plan to involve international partnerships. This will be particularly useful in working towards Targets 11.5 and 11.c, but will also assist with the remainder of the SDG11 targets. Australia should seize the opportunity to develop mentor partnerships with relevant cities developed at global forums, including at Habitat III. By emphasising international collaboration instead of competition, Australia has the opportunity to strengthen global alliances and learn from, as well educate, cities worldwide.


[1] UN-Habitat 2015, Global Activities Report 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian Social Trends, 2008 cat. No. 4102.0, Canberra 2008.

[4] Kelly, J-F, Donegan, P, Chisholm, C & Oberklaid, M 2014, Mapping Australia’s Economy: Cities as engines of prosperity, Grattan Institute, Melbourne.

[5] Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet 2016, Cities, Australian Government,

[6] United Nations 2016a, Sustainable Development Goals,

[7] United Nations 2015, Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, United Nations,

[8] Henderson, H, Trundle, A, Stephen, A, Kamalipour, H & Lowe, M 2016, ‘Habitat III: the biggest conference you’ve probably never heard of’, The Conversation, 5 September, viewed 12 September 2016, <>.

[9] Australian Government 2015, National Innovation and Science Agenda Report, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet.

[10] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, p. 10.

[11] United Nations 2015, Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, United Nations,

[12] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, p. 24.

[13] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, p. 27.

[14] United Nations 2015, Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, United Nations,

[15] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, p. 3.

[16] Brown, L 2017, Habitat ’76, Black Dog Publishing.

[17] Cohen, MA 2015, ‘From Habitat II to Pachamama: a growing agenda and diminishing expectations for Habitat III’, Environment & Urbanization, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), p. 7.

[18] Ibid p. 12.

[19] IMF 2014, World Economic Outlook: Uneven Growth. Short- and Long-Term Factors, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC; Ahrend, R, Farchy, E, Kaplanis, I, Lembcke, AC 2014, ‘What Makes Cities More Productive? Evidence on the Role of Urban Governance from Five OECD Countries’, OECD Regional Development Working Paper No 2014/05, OECD Publishing, Paris; Berg, A & Ostry, I 2011, ‘Inequality and unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?’, IMF Staff Discussion Note SDN/11/08.

[20] Australian Government 2015, National Innovation and Science Agenda Report, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet.

[21] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet.

[22] Duranton, G 2014, ‘Growing Through Cities in Developing Countries’, Policy Research Working Paper No 6818, World Bank, Washington, DC, p. 40.

[23] Buckley, RM & Simet, L 2015, ‘An agenda for Habitat III: urban perestroika’, Environment & Urbanization, vol.28, no.1, pp.64-76.

[24] Acemoglu, D, Aghion, P & Zilibotti, F 2006, ‘Distance to Frontier, Selection, and Economic Growth’, Journal of the European Economic Association, vol.4, no.1, pp.37-74.

[25] Organization for International Economic Relations 2016, Cities: Contributing to a Smarter World, OiER,


[26] Organization for International Economic Relations 2016, Cities: Contributing to a Smarter World, OiER,

[27] Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, p. 21.

[28] United Nations 2015, Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, United Nations,

[29] Dudwick, N, Hull, K, Katayama, R, Shilpi, F & Simler, K 2011, From Farm to Firm: Rural-Urban Transition in Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington DC.