Key takeaways from the ‘Smart Precincts and Innovation Hubs’ conference

Recently Digby Hall, Northrop’s Sustainable Communities + Climate Resilience Lead chaired the final day of the ‘Smart Precincts and Innovation Hubs’ conference held in Sydney.

80% of Australia’s economic activity is concentrated in major cities. Innovation precincts are being developed as a way to connect the people, place and technology within these cities, to foster the knowledge economy and improve the human experience. Successful precincts should be well integrated within the community and demonstrate a balance between smart services, technology and transport connectivity.

Topics covered at the conference ranged from precinct master planning, place making and governance through to collaboration methodologies, venture structures and smart technologies.

There were some clear themes that emerged over the two days and it was pleasing to see that the very fundamentals of what ‘Smart Cities’ mean underpinned much of the work – the focus on people. Human Centred Design is at the core of what we do. If a technology isn’t serving the deep needs of the community then it isn’t adopted.

Investing considerable and caring effort in understanding what people will really need (and nothing more) is the first and most important step in creating smart precincts and innovation hubs. Identifying and deploying the technology to support those needs is perhaps the easiest part and something we’re all good at to varying degrees.

Several key takeaways from the conference:

  • Partnerships and collaboration at the beginning represent the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity. Bringing together multiple agencies and stakeholders, all with their own agendas, and facilitating that group through to an agreed vision is extremely challenging and time consuming – but if done well it can set the project up for long term success. In the words of Ian Town, Chair at Health Precinct Advisory Council in Christchurch: “We need to bring the most senior levels of each stakeholder together, and they must all be prepared to surrender something of their own for the common good".
  • Australia has a poor record around research-industry partnerships [one of the lowest in the OECD], and here lies significant opportunity for the development of sustainable and competitive innovation precincts. Several presentations revealed success stories in creating and strengthening research-industry partnerships and collaborations. Particularly impressive was the Melbourne Connect project by Lend Lease, presented by Emma Woodhouse, Project Director Melbourne Connect, where through a BOOT (Build-Own-Operate-Transfer) model and a long term contract, the project team have curated the right mix and alignment of tenants – both private and academic, to foster ‘bump interaction’ and innovation all arranged around a common ground in the centre of the site. And setting high sustainability targets were a given.
  • The Tonsley Precinct in Adelaide continues to influence and spark ongoing innovation in South Australia. Through the physical design of common space the precinct is designed to foster organic networking and interaction, and again the tenancy mix is carefully curated to support the overall mandate of innovation. Some wonderful stories from Tonsley Precinct Director Philip Dautel of innovative start-ups emerging out of chance connections in the precinct. But, perhaps enjoyed the most, was Philip’s emphasis on human interaction and storytelling being at the core of the innovation precinct, something which can’t be forced or programmed – just create the right context and let humans be humans. It’s the ‘coalition economy’.
  • Attracting talent is emerging as a common challenge across all of the innovation precincts and hubs. Co-location with great amenities or even the city, place making and transport connectivity all have material value in helping to attract the best talent into a precinct.
  • A final standout was the focus on precinct resilience by Lisa McLean, Open Cities CEO. The impacts of climate change are already forcing a rethink on the wisdom and economic cost of centralised utilities [think water restrictions and power outages as examples], and in response precinct-based utilities are becoming economic no-brainers. Many new precinct-scale projects around Australia are adopting on-site or ‘neighbourhood’ solutions for dealing with energy, water and waste-water, delivered through partnerships and innovative business models. Supporting more sustainable and resilient communities, we are likely to see such projects being sought after by local governments and communities seeking the social and economic uplift that such developments can bring.

In the face of escalating climate risk, the process of creating smart and innovative precincts is something we must excel at if we are to deliver sustainable and resilient communities and create more prosperous and meaningful places for people.

Digby supports clients and project teams in developing precinct sustainability pathways and climate risk management strategies. He is skilled at aligning ambitious sustainability targets with a client’s brand and business, delivering long term solutions that are deep green, meaningful, feasible and relevant. You can contact him at


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