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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
25/09/2015
Smart information and communications technology in the design and planning of infrastructure

DIA, Associate Professor Hussein, Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure, Swinburne University of Technology

[11:23]

CHAIR: I welcome the representative from the Swinburne University of Technology to provide evidence today. Thank you for rearranging your time today from your, no doubt, very busy schedule. We appreciate your assisting other witnesses by changing your times.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. I invite you to make an opening statement, if you wish, before we proceed to discussions.

Prof. Dia : Thank you for the opportunity to be here. For the committee's information, I specialise in intelligent transport systems and digital transportation.

As my submission highlighted, the reform of urban mobility is a big challenge for authorities across Australian cities. We have rising population rates, especially people moving into urban areas; ageing infrastructure; pollution and congestion; and, on top of that, governments have limited funds to build additional infrastructure.

The traditional approach to dealing with transport issues and urban mobility has for a long time been to build out of congestion—so, to build new roads, new facilities and so forth. It has really met with limited success. I think that an often-underestimated approach is the technology approach. Over the past 20 years we have seen a large number of applications in the transport and mobility areas where the introduction of technology has actually introduced efficiencies and provided travellers and users of transport systems with more options to meet their travel demands.

I think that the case for smart infrastructure, or when we converge the physical and digital infrastructure with user elements, is very compelling. As my submission has shown, based on a very large number of case studies from Australia and around the world, the benefit-to-cost ratio for the technology approach is, on average, around nine to one. So for every dollar that the taxpayer invests the return on that investment is $9. When it comes to the traditional approaches, in the best of cases the BCRs, or benefit-cost ratios, are three to one—for every dollar, the benefit is $3. So on average we are getting triple the benefit from our investment.

The other important aspect is that the technology approach is not as expensive as building new infrastructure. When we build a new tunnel, like the previous case in Melbourne, you start to talk about billions of dollars. With a technology approach it is $100 million or $200 million, so the initial capital outlay is actually much smaller. Eventually, as I mentioned, I think the taxpayer will have to pay some way or another for this investment, so the lower the investment the better. And on top of that, if we can add the extra benefit, which is three times as much, on average, that is a good outcome for society.

I think the main question is: how do we get there? We have ITS—intelligent transport systems—which have been around for 20 years. I think they are very well accepted in the industry and acknowledged as a means to reduce our reliance on building new roads. Again, roads are limited even by physical space in some cases. The main issue is how we actually do this paradigm shift into the technology space. So far the approach has been on a project-by-project basis. In Melbourne we have a number of exciting projects. We have the Monash Freeway, which is a fully-managed, or controlled, motorway. The benefits have been around 42 per cent reduction in travel times and the benefits in financial returns have been very good as well.

But at the national level we are lacking a national vision. I hope that one of the recommendations out of this inquiry would be actually to have a champion at the national level, and to develop a national strategy and a national vision for the deployment of smart infrastructure technologies. Part of that will be a number of tasks that need to come out of it—for example, the need to encourage public-private partnerships to get the private sector more involved.

There is also education and research and development. I work in that space, and I also work with clients and advise a number of large organisations. I think there should be that synergy between the public and the private sector. In my opinion the public sector has a very big role to play in actually facilitating and engaging the private sector. There is a need for standardisation, and we have an excellent example from intelligent transport systems—those electronic tags we have in our vehicles for electronic tolling. When this was introduced some time ago in Australia every system had its own tag. So, you needed to have three or four tags in your vehicle in order to be charged electronically. ITS Australia, in conjunction with the government, lobbied and developed a national standard. Now, with the one tag in our vehicle, we can travel to any electronic tolling facility in Australia and we can be charged immediately. There is no need for more than one tag. I think there are many examples like this where standardisation can be important.

Finally, I think there needs to be this recognition that the technology approach is a false multiplier. As I said, instead of your average benefit-cost ratio of three to one it can be on average nine to one. In my submission I provided some examples and tables. Sometimes we really do not need to look at the big-ticket items; we do not need to spend $200 million on a single project. Average benefit-cost ratios of around 40 to one have been achieved simply by optimising the traffic signal design. This is where, in a city like Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, the signals could be linked to a computer system. In our case it has been in Australia for a long time. It is called SCATS. Essentially it is linked to a computer on the side of the road that measures the number of vehicles that are needing to use the facility, and in the background it has a lot of smart algorithms and software that can optimise the travel for these vehicles—for example, by providing a green wave so that if your vehicle is travelling at a certain speed then you are met with a green light all the way to the end of that particular facility.

Although the system has been implemented in Australia and a number of large cities, one of the problems is that it needs to be updated, on average, every two years, the reason being that traffic growth is around three to four per cent annually. If you leave it un-updated for two years the traffic will have changed by around 10 per cent, and then it is not optimised for meeting the travel demand. And if each road authority gets a budget of $2 million to $5 million a year just to do that, it can introduce very large benefits. Thank you.

Mr PITT: You have two examples in your submission—the first one is the UK's M42 motorway, and the second is the managed motorway on the M1 freeway in Melbourne—and the potential savings in terms of using smart technology. Are there any other locations in Australia where that could be applied right now for similar results?

Prof. Dia : I think both examples are what we refer to as managed motorways, or controlled motorways. In my opinion, every single motorway should be retrofitted to be a managed motorway. In Brisbane the Bruce Highway is a must. There have been a number of studies. Again, from memory, we are talking about $100 million to $200 million to retrofit the whole system. One of the good aspects is that there are a lot of savings that can be realised to taxpayers very early, rather than, for example, having to build a facility, which can take five to 10 years. In Sydney it is the same thing: a large number of motorways. I think in Adelaide one of the express motorways is partly a controlled or managed motorway. In Melbourne I think most of the private roads are managed-motorway controlled. I have heard that perhaps Infrastructure Australia was looking at a strategy for that, but this would be the best example, in addition to maybe the traffic signal design. These are immediate benefits that can produce tangible taxpayer benefits immediately.

Ms MARINO: Thank you very much for your submission. It certainly is very useful to us as a committee. You made some recommendations, and I was particularly interested in your comments about a national strategy, a national vision and a national champion. That was basically what you said to us. Regarding a national strategy, what we are looking for as a committee, as I said to other witnesses here, is to make some practical recommendations to the government. In pursuing those three priorities as you see them—and you have mentioned some practical projects that we could concentrate on, for us in the federal arena and as a federal government—what are perhaps two or three things, looking at strategy, vision and champion, that we can do and recommend to the government?

Prof. Dia : Fantastic. Last weekend we had what I think is exciting news with the appointment of a minister for cities. Someone like the minister for cities, in conjunction with Infrastructure Australia and Intelligent Transport Systems Australia and other organisations, could be the champions. I think the minister for cities would be the ideal champion, because these are urban problems, in the majority, so someone at that level could be ideal to champion the cause for the smart infrastructure technology approach.

In terms of a vision, a vision needs to be articulated at a very high level as to why smart infrastructure is needed. It needs to be linked, for example, with broadband, because communication is a very important part. It also needs to be linked with health and education. So, it is not only transport and mobility. We need that big vision of how smart technology can actually produce benefits to society in terms of education, transport and reduction of expenses on infrastructure education and so forth. For example, again, broadband: that needs to be—

Ms MARINO: Are you talking about an overarching—

Prof. Dia : Yes—a big vision, overarching, and then part of that would be distilled strategies in terms of how we can optimise transport systems using technologies, education, medicine and so forth. There needs to be that big vision, because all of it will actually reduce reliance on building additional capacities, even if we are talking about energy, for example. Instead of building a very expensive capacity generation project, there could be things we could optimise.

Ms MARINO: One of the things we heard yesterday, too, was the fact that—as we are very much aware—this is very much a productivity issue as well. Some of us here in the room come from rural and regional Australia as well. On that productivity angle, a portfolio area for the support—the umbrella portfolio, given that this is about productivity and efficiency—it was put to us that potentially this should sit with Treasury, given that it is quite significantly about productivity and efficiency. What is your view on that?

Prof. Dia : Certainly I think they need to be involved, but I think it needs to be handled at a level where people can identify the user needs. I think technology on its own has no value it is how we use technology. At a higher level, some technical people need to identify what the issues are. We have congestion issues. In Far North Queensland we have flooding, which closes roads for a very long time, and people do not know about it. This is a user need. How can we use technology? So I think it needs to be at a level where that vision needs to be established as to the user needs. Certainly there are a large number of stakeholders, and Treasury is definitely one. But I am not sure whether they are to lead the development of that vision. They can be involved. I work with a lot of people in the public sector, and in many cases they do work with consultants and technical people, but in many cases we need to guide as well and we need to provide input, whether it is academia, the consulting, in addition to other stakeholders.

CHAIR: You will be delighted to know that the Prime Minister has just announced a plan for 'transport transformation to unclog the nation's major cities' and is sending three ministers around to coordinate that activity. So, your dreams have been heard already! That is wonderful. You mentioned the smart traffic management so that rather than building more roads you manage traffic. We were also looking at a method that was used by, I think, NICTA, which brought it in when we were in Sydney, looking at how they used that on the port roads, just to manage the freight better. My concern is that people are still operating in silos. Do you liaise with NICTA? Is there sharing of information?

Prof. Dia : Yes. NICTA is involved in a number of projects, and they are a strategic partner with Swinburne. I know in New South Wales they are involved as well. In transport we have Intelligent Transport Systems Australia. They are an organisation that represents a large number of organisations. They do a lot of lobbying in Canberra and try to bring different parties together. I would like to see more collaboration, and I think I mentioned that partnership in the submission. I do not think the government can give Swinburne University a $1 million scholarship and give another one to Melbourne university; we need to work together.

CHAIR: Yes, and share that information.

Prof. Dia : Yes, share that information, and share the outputs. I think there will be a win-win for everyone by doing that.

CHAIR: Yes, that is excellent. Do we need legislation about standards of information, do you think, or the framework around how we keep it? Or can we manage that through industry bodies?

Prof. Dia : That is a very good question. I am not sure whether, with the electronic toll collection tag, legislation was introduced, because each company would have needed to abide, whether that was something under the umbrella of ITS Australia or whether it was legislation, I am not sure. But I think that could work quite well, and it would encourage people to adhere to these standards from the beginning rather than maybe retrofitting what they developed to say, 'I want it to comply.'

Mr GILES: This has been a really interesting discussion and it is a terrific submission. I guess the one question I would not mind drawing you out a bit further on is your thoughts on the institutional arrangements that have led to such success in Japan, South Korea and Singapore in integrating ICT into smart transport solutions.

Prof. Dia : I think it had bipartisan support. It was a national strategy that was developed, and all parties agreed to it. So, regardless of who was in power, it was basically a strategy; there was someone looking after it. And I think someone like Infrastructure Australia could actually be the main focus and point of contact. I think if it has bipartisan support from the beginning it will continue to be developed.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming in today and, as I said before, for fitting in with our schedule rearrangements. The secretariat will send you a draft transcript of proceedings, and requests can be made to correct any errors of transcription. But it would also be helpful if there is any further information that you think would benefit our inquiry. Or you might want to respond to evidence from other witnesses, which would also help us form our recommendations. Thank you very much, and we do appreciate your time and your submission.

Prof. Dia : Thank you; my pleasure.

Proceedings suspended from 11 : 43 to 12 : 02