TULIP blooms in Lake Macquarie

A TULIP recently blossomed in Lake Macquarie – in the form of one of Australia’s most progressive smart city projects.

TULIP – short for the Technology for Urban Liveability Program - is UTS’ flagship smart city delivery initiative.

With significant funding from the Australian Government, and a dynamic partnership with Lake Macquarie City Council and a range of industry partners which include Nokia and Bosch, TULIP is delivering an 18-month project focused on developing ‘climate responsive neighbourhoods’.

The project is using networks of sensors to measure environmental variables such as urban heat, air quality, noise levels and vehicle and pedestrian density, with the aim to use data to help build a more liveable city, with better public spaces and services, optimised council operations, and a digitally engaged community.

It’s an experimental approach that adopts the model of a ‘living lab’ – the idea that while we don’t quite know what we’ll learn or what outcomes will emerge, we can be sure that value will be created.

Last month saw two new LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) gateways switched on in Lake Macquarie, at Charlestown and Speers Point. LoRaWAN is a relatively new type of smart city network technology, using inexpensive battery powered sensors to build a large network of connected data points. What this allows is high-definition mapping of real-time environmental conditions.

While we can currently check the BOM for the temperature or the EPA for air quality, the figures available are tied to a handful of weather stations.

What is missing is detailed street-level data.

On a hot day, aspects of the built environment can vary local temperature by as much as 15C, over distances as short as 100m. Air pollution will peak around major roads at peak hour, but one street back, air quality may have improved considerably.

Over the next few months, TULIP and Lake Macquarie City Council will be deploying around 100 devices that connect to the new gateways. In addition to monitoring heat, humidity, air quality and noise levels, a range of ‘people tracking’ sensors will be used to understand how people use public space.

Some of these devices are relatively sophisticated – a so-called ‘silent wifi’ emitter counts phones and other connected devices and uploads this information via LoRaWAN. Similarly, pneumatic tubes which are typically used for counting vehicles can also be connected to LoRaWAN, making their count into a real-time feed.

The aim of gathering all this data is to understand how environmental liveability variables and the use of public space and services interact at a highly local scale, to help Council to improve planning, design and management of public space and facilities.

For example, publishing something as simple as current visitor numbers at the Speers Point Swim Centre, along with water and air temperature and carpark occupancy, might change visitation. A major upgrade for Pearson Street Mall uses sensors to provide insight into the use of the busy public space, informing future public space improvements. Live sensor data will also be made available to the public via online portals, enabling people to make their own informed decisions.

The project is also exploring what can be done with real-time automation – connecting live sensors to smart urban systems. For example, Lake Macquarie Council is exploring the possibility of linking heat and soil moisture sensors at Charlestown Oval to the irrigation system, allowing the grass to be watered according to need and potentially saving large amounts of water. Those same soil moisture sensors can then be used to trigger alerts to families about pitch playability, twelve hours before a game.

TULIP’s work in Lake Macquarie is as much about creative place-making as it is about more functional outcomes. A major new public sculpture called ‘Nightlight’ is being installed at the brand new Charlestown skate park, due to open in September. The 6m steel obelisk will be lit by smart LED lights which are linked to TULIP data, allowing colours and patterns to change in response to shifting variables such as air quality and park usage. By incorporating live BOM data, the sculpture’s lights will even pulse if rain is imminent.

Smart Cities are a rapidly emerging, highly dynamic space. With so many initiatives coming together in Lake Macquarie, the greatest value for Council and for UTS is the ability to learn by doing. TULIP is a vehicle for rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty in a collaborative environment, welcoming the chance of failures and the possibilities of success.

From technical design to social strategy and from governance to business cases, TULIP is allowing UTS to play at the forefront of smart city development in Australia.

Watch this space to see how it all unfolds!

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