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

By Cassandra Cohen

Cassandra attended Habitat 2016, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. She is studying a Bachelor of Communications at RMIT University. 


In 2008, the global urban population exceeded rural populations for the first time in history (UN-Habitat 2015). The Australian Government’s Smart Cities Plan (SCP) maps a pathway to ensuring the prosperity of Australian cities, proposing that they develop domestic networks to become globally competitive. However, the plan 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 for Australia to fulfil its commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11: ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (UN 2016a) (see appendix for targets). This report proposes that the Australian Government adapts the SCP to strengthen the focus on achieving SDG11 by 2030.

Policy recommendations

1.    Using Europe’s United Smart Cities Project as a model, Australia should develop an Asia-Pacific region equivalent, in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In this model, Melbourne and Sydney would operate as ‘Advanced Smart Cities’, advising less developed cities on sustainable urban solutions (Targets 11.5 and 11.c).

2.    Australia should harness the opportunity to develop global mentor partnerships at the Habitat III forum to seek advice on ambitious projects outlined in the Smart Cities Plan, including City Deals (Targets 11.3 and 11.a) and establishing a high-speed rail network (Targets 11.1 and 11.2).

3.    Australia should seek to shift the Smart Cities Plan narrative to incorporate an international focus on collaboration, instead of being an exclusively nation-building initiative (All SDG11 targets).


Cities across the globe are experiencing extraordinary population growth. In 2008, urban population figures exceeded rural populations for the first time in history (UN-Habitat 2015). By 2050, the proportion of people living in cities is expected to rise to over two-thirds of the population (UN-Habitat 2015). In Australia, the figure is even greater, with over three quarters of the population living in cities (ABS 2008, 2015). It is estimated that close to 80 per cent of Australia’s economic activity occurs in urban settings (Kelly et al. 2014).

The Australian Government’s Smart Cities Plan (SCP) was launched on 29 April 2016 at the Smart Cities Summit in Melbourne. The SCP marks the first government publication on cities since the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, announced cities as a national priority for the Australian Government in September 2015 (DPMC 2016). The plan represents a ‘renewed national focus’ on cities, calling upon all levels of government, the private sector and the general community to unite towards achieving shared goals (Australian Government 2016, p.3). The plan paints cities into the nation-building narrative of Australia, rather than placing Australian cities in a global context.

The SCP was released just months after the 193 United Nations member countries ratified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York from 25-27 September 2015 (UN 2016a). 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’ (UN 2015). This goal emerges from Millennium Development Goal 7.D, which aims to achieve ‘significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’ by 2020 (UN 2016b).

The UN Habitat III forum, set to take place in Quito from 17-20 October 2016, will continue these talks, following on from Habitat I (Vancouver, 1976) and Habitat II (Istanbul, 1996). SDG11 will be a major talking point of the forum given the timeliness of the 2030 Agenda, and its implications for global urban sustainable development as we work towards the seven targets within the goal.

To date, the Australian Government has been reluctant to support the international aspects of this SDG (Henderson et al 2016). Australia’s SCP charts a road map towards developing prosperous Australian cities, but neglects some significant targets within SDG11, and these will be recognised throughout this report through the proposal of greater global collaboration with partner cities across the development spectrum. Therefore, this report seeks to focus the Australian Government’s attention on how the SCP could be adapted to exhibit greater correlation with SDG11.

Drawing connections: Finding links between the Smart Cities Plan and SDG11

The Smart Cities Plan (SCP) and the ten SDG11 targets share several key ideas for promoting urban sustainability (Australian Government 2016, UN 2015). Australia’s plan addresses the need for affordable housing (Target 11.1) in the ‘right locations’, where jobs are becoming more readily available (Australian Government 2016, p.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 (UN 2015). 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 (p.24). However, the SCP limits this collaboration to domestic networks rather than exploring international city partnerships, as will be discussed further throughout this report.

Air quality and waste management (Target 11.6) are well covered in the plan, which recognises the important role 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 (p.24). The SCP addresses the need for green urban spaces (Target 11.7) such as community gardens to produce sustainable cities. However, the plan 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 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 (p.27).

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 (UN 2015). 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 nations 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, the 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.’ (p.3). 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.’ (Brown 2016, para.10).

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

Cohen (2015), 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 (p.7).  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.’ (p.12).

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 (IMF 2014, Ahrend et al. 2014, Berg & Ostry 2011). 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 could 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 (Australian Government 2015). Advantages such as being located within 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 (Australian Government 2016). The knowledge exchange that occurs in cities is thought to boost productivity through ‘resource sharing’ and ‘entrepreneurial activity’ (Duranton 2014, p.40). However, the extent to which this is possible relies on a country’s governance structure easing regulation to allow new innovations to prosper (Buckley & Simet 2015).

This report 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 (Acemoglu, Aghion & Zilibotti 2006). Therefore, collaborating with developed nations becomes even more integral in reducing global inequalities.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Organization for International Economic Relations’ (OiER) shared United Smart Cities Project is already facilitating this form of knowledge exchange between cities (OiER 2016). 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 (OiER 2016). 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 an Asian 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

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 Habitat III forum is a fantastic opportunity for Australia to meet with delegates from these cities to learn from their initiatives and discuss these partnerships at length.

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 (Australian Government 2016, p.21). 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 (UN 2016). 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 (Dudwick et al. 2011). Since Habitat II was held in 1996, Cohen (2015) notes that local governments globally have suffered financially because 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 in 2016.

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 at global forums, including at Habitat III in October 2016. By emphasising international collaboration instead of competition, Australia can strengthen global alliances and learn from, as well educate, cities worldwide.


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·      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.

·      Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian Demographic Statistics, 2015 cat. No. 3101.0, Canberra, 2015,

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

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

·      Australian Government 2016, Smart Cities Plan, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet.

·      Berg, A & Ostry, I 2011, ‘Inequality and unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?’, IMF Staff Discussion Note SDN/11/08.

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

·      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), pp.1-14.

·      Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet 2016, Cities, Australian Government,

·      Duranton, G 2014, ‘Growing Through Cities in Developing Countries’, Policy Research Working Paper No 6818, World Bank, Washington, DC.

·      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.

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·      IMF 2014, World Economic Outlook: Uneven Growth. Short- and Long-Term Factors, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC.

·      Organization for International Economic Relations 2016, Cities: Contributing to a Smarter World, OiER,

·      UN-Habitat 2015, Global Activities Report 2015,

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

·      United Nations 2016a, Sustainable Development Goals,

·      United Nations 2016b, Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability,


UN Sustainable Development Goal 11:

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable



By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums


By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons


By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries


Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage


By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations


By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management


By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities


Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, per-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning


By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels


Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials