Unlocking the future

By Dr Ian Opperman, Chief Data Scientist, NSW Government
Wednesday, 15 September, 2021

Unlocking the future

The Australian Bureau of Statistics told us that there were 305,832 registered births in Australia in 2019, a decrease of 3.0% from 2018. Despite the drop, Australia’s population will continue to increase partly because the significant majority of these 305,832 children are likely to live well beyond 100 years of age, taking them into the 22nd century.

During their 100+ year life, each of these children will see unprecedented change. These children will still be pre-teen in 2030, the horizon that many infrastructure planners use as an accessible planning horizon. They will be around 30 years old when they hit 2050 and will already face very significant societal, technological and environmental changes. When they reach 2100 at the age of 81, the world will be unimaginably different.

As context, these children are born into a wider world of an estimated 7.6 billion other inhabitants of our planet. By 20301, this number grows to an estimated 8.5 billion, and by the time our child enters 2050, there are an estimated 9.7 billion other inhabitants on the planet. During this time, there is no more land created, no more water produced and no more natural resources beyond what we have already in our closed system.

We also know the world’s population is getting older on average and moving to densely populated cities. Some of these global trends will be directly relevant to us here in Australia, some less so because of our unique national circumstances. Nonetheless, we need to think carefully about how we use the resources we have, and plan how we build and live in our cities in anticipation of the changes which are inevitably coming our way.

Drivers of change

Focusing on the nearer term of these horizons, the burning problem is ensuring that the sizable infrastructure spends planned by different governments within Australia are targeted at the problems and opportunities we will face in 2030 and beyond, rather than those we faced in 2020. COVID has impacted some of the plans and trends impacting Australia, but not as much or as profoundly as you might imagine. Our response to COVID has led to the acceleration of some trends, but many of these trends are decadal in nature.

For a child born today, there are major drivers of change coming from the intersection of our growing, ageing and urbanising population, from technological advances, from changes in society, from a changing climate and from global shocks. Data and digital services help us understand these changes as well as developing responses to them.

The advent of COVID-19 restrictions showed just how effectively we could move online for many job types. It also showed just how dependent we have become on network connectivity. Those regions with limited connectivity were least able to adapt to living and working online. Those industries and job types least able to move online remain significant employers and drivers of Australia’s economy. The blend of online and real-world interactions is nonetheless likely to move towards increasing use of online, digital services in all parts of Australia2. Widespread access to reliable network connectivity therefore becomes an even greater long-term consideration for all communities.

Whilst we debate the causes of climate change, we have seen the impact on towns in Qld and NSW, once unimaginable, needing to truck water in to keep communities going3. Future systems which ignore the impact of a changing climate — whether it be water availability, or the growing intensity and frequency of natural disasters — do so at their peril. The ability to understand the impact of natural disasters on communities and infrastructure, or to the ability to deliver effective responses to disaster events requires increased use of data in many forms, ranging from environment sensing, understanding economic activity or movement of people and goods.

Trusted data sharing

The use of data underpins the ability to become smarter. COVID highlighted the need to understand a city in near real time, and to have realistic, data-driven models which allowed options to be explored. Access to unprecedented datasets from mobile communications4 to credit card transactions — all in aggregate form to protect individual privacy — gave governments the ability to understand the effectiveness of health order restrictions on movement, and economic impact of these same restrictions as well as the subsequent economic stimulus. The use of these aggregate, people-centric datasets were an important element in governments’ response to COVID but raise the issue of the inherent need to create and maintain trusted frameworks to use these data for agreed (and important) purposes.

These challenges will continue to impact Australia into the future, nonetheless, during the course of the life of the child born today; the expectation remains for an ever-improving quality of life in the face of these global and national influences. These are challenging factors to reconcile and must be met with broad ‘outcomes-based’ thinking which clarifies what we are trying to achieve, how we can tell when we are achieving the outcomes and the means to understand why we are not. It also requires us to make our cities and places ‘smarter’ whereby we can understand in fine detail what is happening in a city or community, identify root causes of problems, even be able to predict when things will go wrong and plan adaptive scenarios able to respond to changing needs.

In August, the NSW Government announced the Smart Western City Program5, which lays out the plans for the infrastructure, services and resources needed to ensure the Western Parkland City is a future-focused, digitally enabled city. This program outlines the need for ‘digital plumbing’ to be considered in the planning of the city and deployed across the city as part of construction. High-capacity conduit, common access ducts, a network of ‘smart poles’ and smart street furniture are essential foundations for the future city. The connectivity layers identified in the Program are critical to the success of a digital Western Parkland City. They will be needed to handle the massive growth in data demands resulting from the future, hyperconnected city.

The ability to harness a wide range of large, constantly evolving and highly personalised datasets will be a fundamental driver of productivity and supports the creation of new, high-value services. The ‘smart’ in grid, cities and systems comes from accessing and using data.

Privacy and consent

It also leads to considerations of personal privacy. There is currently no unambiguous, nationally accepted test for personal data (PD), personal information (PI) or personally identifiable information (PII) in a dataset. Often the terms are conflated. Most privacy assessments worldwide rely on tests of judgment described in terms such as “reasonably” or “likely”.

If datasets are linked and analysed to provide rich new services, a great deal of PD or PI may be contained in the joined data, possibly sufficient to reidentify the individuals represented therein. Most privacy assessments rely on tests of judgment described in terms such as “reasonably” or “likely”.

The challenge is to quantify the amount of PD or PI in a dataset at any point in time and in any given context. This extends to developing threshold tests for when an individual is ‘reasonably identifiable’, while considering personal attributes, temporal and spatial aspects of data, and rich contextual environments. Some of these challenges are yet to be fully addressed.

The very nature of locally optimised and delivery of highly personalised services create these challenges. To take advantage of these services, new methods for providing and handling consent, new frameworks for sharing and using data, and new considerations for security in highly complex networks will need to be considered.

Our hyper-connected future

We have explored the journey to 2030 using the metaphor of a child born today and used this to explore a little of what that world will look like and some of the aspects that we would like to influence in terms of outcomes. This child’s future is digital, hyper-connected and critically dependent on technology. Smart cities are being built now with this in mind.

As technology and digital solutions continue to play a key role in driving the economy and society forward, they become increasingly embedded into business operations, across key service offerings and into our personal lives.

By 2030, it will have become a self-reinforcing process which is being accelerated by increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) to make sense of the rising tide of data, to continue to locally optimise services delivery and to increasingly personalise. By 2050 the world is likely very different to today as our early career child engages in a new definition of “work”, which is almost certainly digital and augmented by AI, and possibly virtual. By 2100, the child born today will hopefully be retired, but to a world we would not recognise.

Surrounded by complex smart systems operating at gigahertz speeds producing rich services based on performing analytics on input from potentially billions of devices, the gulf between the world of data and rates of human judgement represent a challenged we need to address well before 2030. Exploring the issues of privacy in a hyper-connected digital world and developing frameworks for meaningful consent are concepts we should be working on now.

1 https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html

2 See for example ACS Digital Pulse 2021 https://www.acs.org.au/insightsandpublications/reports-publications/digital-pulse-2021.html

3 See for example https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-10/southern-queensland-still-in-drought-while-north-floods/13039008

4 See for example https://www.themandarin.com.au/129871-federal-nsw-governments-use-vodafone-data-to-see-if-public-is-following-covid-19-restrictions/

5 https://www.dpie.nsw.gov.au/our-work/strategy-and-innovation/smart-places/Smart-Places-in-Action-Programs/smart-western-city-program

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/amiak

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