Nov 11, 2011

Speech to opening of Smart Infrastructure Facility – Wollongong University

This is a great occasion and I am delighted to be here.

Before we get down to business, I have to confess that my earliest exposure to smart infrastructure came from that great television cultural experience The Jetsons.

For those of you not old enough to remember, The Jetsons were the space age counterpart to The Flintstones.

While Fred and Wilma Flintstone found suburban happiness in a cave alongside Barney and Betty Rubble, The Jetsons  lived high in the sky in Orbit City.

Time-saving technology meant that husband, George Jetson, could keep the whole family fed, watered and clothed via his nine-hour a week job as a computer engineer at Spaceley’s Sprockets.

His wife, Jane, for whom cooking dinner meant popping a pill into a metal box and pressing GO, spent her days spending George’s earning on clothes and gadgets at her favourite store Mooning Dales.

Getting around was pretty simple.

Traffic lights, congested roads and crowded trains didn’t trouble the Jetsons.

Across the sky they scooted in their 60s-look flying saucer, which conveniently collapsed into a briefcase when George arrived at the office.

Parking was never a problem in Orbit City.

Let me return now to our future and – be assured – I’m not expecting ‘rapid transit system’ to translate into ‘ personal space-ship’ any day soon.

But I am excited at what is coming out of this great new facility, full of creative minds and energy which is finding solutions to some of our real-life infrastructure challenges.

Of course, it was only a month ago that I was last here, in the company of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

We had come to announce the timetable for the roll-out into Wollongong next year of the National Broadband Network.

When Wollongong comes on line it will be the largest regional centre to join the NBN so far.

SMART was the perfect venue for that announcement because it is at facilities such as this where the benefits will be immediately felt.

It is also significant that SMART is located in a major regional university, one that is already home to two other leading technology facilities, the Innovative Materials Centre and the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre.

What this means for Wollongong is a growing cluster of creative minds and industries that are helping to regenerate the skills base of the Illawarra.

Last month in Brisbane, I released a publication called State of Australian Cities 2011, which was produced by my Major Cities Unit.

It provides something of a national snapshot of our major cities – how they are changing, how they are addressing problems such as congestion, and how they compare with each other.

Wollongong, of course, is one of Australia’s 18 major cities – defined as those with a population above 100,000.

What the report showed was that as manufacturing in Wollongong has declined, this city has experienced unemployment rates consistently higher than the State and national average.

This has been particularly evident among the 23 to 36 year old cohort.

It has also meant a corresponding ageing of the local population, with those aged 65 and over, some two percentage points above the State average.

That’s why I believe a facility such as this is so important.

We already know that this university produces more IT graduates than any other in the country.

As centres such as this grow and flourish, it will mean more jobs for local graduates and a retention of the brain-power than comes with those young and energetic minds.

The Federal Government’s $35 million contribution to this centre is indeed an investment in our nation’s future.

Once it is fully-operational, it will be home to at least 200 higher-degree research students, supported by 150 academic research staff and 30 general staff.

Around 5000 undergraduate students will take classes each week.

Already, SMART is performing important research.

Such as the scenario work surrounding the expansion of the Port Kembla Harbour which has enormous potential for jobs and business across the Illawarra.

This ‘What If’ tool allows for the testing of many scenarios all aimed at eliminating bottlenecks at the harbour and increasing capacity into and out of the Port.

For example, what if trains delivering coal were twice the length?

What if we could load the coal twice as fast?

Creating an accurate picture of what is possible by testing scenarios and business cases can save millions of dollars.

This work ties in nicely with the Federal Government’s recent announcement of a further $25.5 million for the Maldon to Dumbarton Rail Link project.

The rail link has the potential to help return the Illawarra to the industrial powerhouse it once was, by vastly improving the flow of freight into and out of the region.

Commonwealth Nation Building Program and Smart Infrastructure

We know that a growing freight task, inadequate transport links and road congestion are major challenges for our cities.

That is why the Government embarked on a Nation Building Program where we are investing $36 billion over six years in new rail and road projects right around the country.

We know that in some cases, new roads or substantial upgrades to existing roads are needed to reduce congestion.

But we are also tackling congestion on another front by employing the help of Smart technology.

This technology has been shown to speed traffic flows by up to 15 percent.

It also reduces the stop-start behaviour that occurs in crawling traffic – reducing accidents and greenhouse gas emissions.

That is why in the last Budget, the Federal Government  announced $60 million over the next three years for a National Smart Managed Motorways Program.

Several projects are currently under consideration.

They involve variable speed limits, ramp signalling, ramp metering and signage advice on travel times giving people the option of choosing an alternative route.

PARTNERSHIP WITH SMART

It is important that I stress how eager the Government is to engage with research bodies such as SMART.

Some of you here today would have attended the SMART Infrastructure summit you co-hosted with my department earlier this year.

A great outcome of that day was the decision to create a formal information exchange process between SMART and my department’s policy team, so that good research can become good policy.

In this way, we can help eliminate the silo reality that has occurred far too much in the past.

It is important that I mention the good news last week to come from a meeting of the nation’s transport ministers.

I hosted this meeting and one of several important decision we agreed upon that day was a framework to guide the use of Intelligent Transport Systems technology across all land transport modes and jurisdictions. 

CONCLUSION

Let me return to where I began – with the Jetsons.

The series is now almost 50 years old and as such, has provoked discussion about just how well it predicted the world we now find ourselves in.

The American academic Jeffery Tucker wrote this year:

“The whole scene – which anticipated so much of the technology we have today but, strangely not email or texting – reflected the ethos of a time: a love of progress and a vision of a future that stayed on course. 

The Jetson’s world is our world: explosive technological advances and a culture of enterprise that is very fond of the good life.”

I am not sure about ‘explosive’ but I am confident that great technological advances and a culture of enterprise will also mark this impressive institution.

And with that will come, I am sure, the good life – the enormous satisfaction of playing your part in making our nation’s infrastructure work better for the benefit of all Australians.

Thank you.