Contractor Innovations

Smart Shelter equals smart business

 

Ask three different people in the construction sector what comes to mind when they think of Downer and they’ll typically tell you the same three things: roads, roads and more roads. However, as its recent Smart Shelter initiative indicates, the contracting company’s future is clearly paved in more than one direction. By PATRICK WATSON.

IN ITS MOST BASIC FORM, the Smart Shelter is an innovative, fibre-connected bus shelter with an interactive digital display interface. The interface, which appears as an enormous tablet, connects people to the local transport system, as well as local council events and places of interest.

Cleverly located on modular gear racks on top of the bus shelter is the technology that brings the fibre and power to this ‘smart city hub’. This creates the opportunity for councils to offer telecommunications small cell real-estate, which in turn allows for better mobile coverage and improved mobile services, both locally and across the city. Taken together, this design makes for a unique user-experience and the technological facilitation of all the positive offerings that a smart city can possibly provide.p34-Technology-300x300-2

The first Smart Shelter build was delivered in Auckland as a prototype connected digital interface for the public transport user. It boasted weather information, a digital journey planner, advertising and even an interactive game. To top things off, the shelter hosted a CCTV camera that reassured people it’s a safe place to be.

Should Smart Shelters be installed around the country the scale of services able to be provided would only increase. Not only does this make for a smarter and more connected world, but it makes for a good business case too.

The shelter was developed out of the Chorus Innovation Lab in Auckland and is a collaboration between Downer, Alcatel-Lucent, Solta, Deisgnbrand, Samsung and Schneider-Electric. Downer’s main role in the consortium was as lead systems manager and project manager.

For industry onlookers, it shows that Downer won’t be satisfied merely maintaining a more digitally connected world. It wants to play a part in building it too.

One of the key people behind the Smart Shelter is Downer’s infrastructure services GM of business development Murray Robertson.

He explains that Downer’s move into the digital space is a planned one – the result of the convergence that’s happening inside industry, infrastructure and information technology. He is a strong advocate for collaborative contracting and believes that companies like Downer will play an ever-increasing role in supporting connected infrastructure solutions.

Downer is already part of the ng Connect ecosystem – which is funded by Alcatel-Lucent and regularly brings tech players together for planned ideation sessions. As such, Murray says the company had already been conceptualising what role it might be able to play in a future made up of smart cities.

On the one hand, it could be argued that maintaining council assets is going to become a lot easier because of the technology now available. On the other hand, unless you’re involved in building the technology and working collaboratively to deliver smart solutions, it could potentially be a lot harder – especially if you don’t keep ahead of the ICT curve and have trained staff on board to keep you competitive.

“We already provide excellent road construction and maintenance to local authorities, but we realise the contracts are becoming more complex and ICT is an integral element in network management,” Murray says.

“The strategic assets the councils are responsible for will evolve as we enter a more connected environment. That’s the impetus to get involved. We need to position ourselves to add value in the connected world. Plus, building the Smart Shelter was an exciting project to manage!

“The consortium behind the Smart Shelter said ‘Let’s just build one of these things, largely out of our day job.’

“The whole process took about six months. While we were developing the shelter in the Chorus Lab we recognised an opportunity to tender for a live connected bus shelter prototype in Auckland. This was an innovative and existing project for Downer and our Connect partners. It is great to test ideas in the lab but to deliver a smart shelter in the live environment helped us learn a lot about the reality of how it would work.”

The Smart Shelter has built-in background analytics, surveys and screen feedback.

Murray says getting user feedback is paramount to success and all the quantitative and qualitative data they’re getting from customers will inform future builds.

Vice president of global market development at Alcatel-Lucent Jason Collins says, apart from the actual technology, the big exciting question is: “What is the good business model around it?”

It’s a question many might well ask. However, moving beyond the initial full-sized and operational prototype, the Smart Shelter will likely lead to other things that would make for a robust and fiscally-sensible business case – digital advertising and telco hubs being the obvious routes forward.

Murray admits there are a lot of moving parts and Downer is just one piece of the puzzle. However, he is optimistic that the consortium’s combined expertise will take the prototype to new heights and that obvious returns on investments will be found.

“If you can bring fibre to these hubs, the telco retailers will recognise the value and want to be involved. The applications will be widespread and there is an opportunity here for councils to see a return on their assets,” he explains.

“In fact, we don’t even look at these as bus shelters, but as smart city hubs. [As we move forward] they could help councils plan for all sorts of things, such as providing wifi to local communities, and connecting council infrastructure such as street lights, water networks and weather sensor data. The value to support wider local authority networks is significant.”

Alcatel-Lucent’s business development director Shaun Graham agrees.

“You take a bus shelter that is currently a cost to the council. That becomes a revenue generating scheme. As you increase the services out to the city, that’s fantastic,” he says.

Murray says the Connect team are proactively working with councils to share their innovation and develop ways and means of implementing smart city solutions.

He says the best way for this to happen will be to move concepts off boardroom tables and into the live environment.

He believes this ‘deploy or die’ mentality will be essential for smart city success and wants to bring innovation into the public arena so that all players can share and learn from one another.

“In New Zealand we are fortunate to have forward-thinking councils, a smart and agile private sector and a can-do attitude to make a difference,” he says.

“The infrastructure of the future will be different, it will be complex and it will require a new mindset. That’s a great challenge for us all. We’re a place where future ideas can be built and Downer wants to be part of that.”

“It is great to test ideas in the lab but to deliver a smart shelter in the live environment helped us learn a lot about the reality of how it would work.”

Murray admits there are a lot of moving parts and Downer is just one piece of the puzzle. However, he is optimistic that the consortium’s combined expertise will take the prototype to new heights and that obvious returns on investments will be found.

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