Govlaunch Podcast

Darwin proves how smart lighting is good for the environment — and a city’s fiscal wallet

Episode Summary

The City of Darwin in Australia recently introduced a large-scale smart lighting initiative, saving citizens an estimated A$600,000 in annual rates.

Episode Notes

The City of Darwin in Australia recently introduced a large-scale smart lighting initiative, saving citizens an estimated A$600,000 in annual rates. We'll touch base with Joshua Sattler to shed light on the project's impact beyond cost savings and explore Darwin's leading approach to smart city innovation overall. 

More info

Featured government: Darwin, NT

Episode guest: Joshua Sattler, General Manager for Innovation, Growth and Development Services at the City of Darwin

Read more about Darwin's big-picture plans for its smart city program.

Visit for more stories and examples of local government innovation.

Episode Transcription

Lindsay: (00:05)

Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host.

In this episode, we’re talking about   smart lighting, which is becoming increasingly popular with local governments as cities are looking to be environmentally friendly. Now, before you dismiss “smart lighting” as yet another buzz word being tagged as innovative, let’s tap onto what it looks like to implement large scale smart lights throughout a city. We’ll hopefully provide answers to questions like: Is it really worth the investment? Or is this just another passing fad? And how would I implement something like this in my government?

Today, Olivia from our team is talking with Joshua Sattler - General Manager for Innovation, Growth and Development Services for the City of Darwin, Australia. 

His city recently introduced a large-scale smart lighting initiative. The system will feature more than 9,500 public buildings and streets converted to run on a new digital system. What’s even better? Darwin citizens will be saving an estimated $600,000 in annual rates. 

So let’s see what light bulbs go off as we unpack smart lighting in Darwin. 

Olivia: (01:22)

Hi, I'm Olivia from Govlaunch and I'm here with Joshua Sattler from Darwin Australia. Joshua, tell us a little bit about your role.

Joshua: (01:30)

My role is General Manager Innovation, Growth and Development. It's a long title. It just fits on a business card, but I'm pretty much that entitles me to have management of the traditional functions of local government, which is economic development and tourism. We've got the innovation word in there as well so we look at how we can apply innovation within the organization and also outward-facing to the local government area as well. So we do international relations, we do smart cities development, we do a whole heap of bits and pieces within that title. So that is a pretty active role within the community in I report directly to the CEO. It's one of those roles which everyone wants. So I'm lucky to have it here in Darwin.

Olivia: (02:07)

Amazing. So how would you say that things are going in Darwin's Innovation, Growth and Development Services Department today?

Joshua: (02:14)

As of right now, really well, you know, I'll be here for a year and a half in Darwin. I'm coming up to two years. Just in my short time, we've rolled out the largest smart city project within Australia to receive national recognition for it and also got international recognition for it. And we're really truly on the journey of making informed decisions within the local government space based on data, which is a new play for local government, but the community is embracing it and we're well and truly on the smart cities path and it's working out really, really well. A few little hiccups to begin with, but where we are at right now, it's a really good position.

Olivia: (02:51)

So you mentioned smart lighting, which is very exciting. How did Darwin actually develop this project initially? And was the concept met with any initial resistance, whether that's within the civil service or even within the community?

Joshua: (03:06)

Look for us, we've got nine and a half thousand street lights within the municipality, we've got a lot of other public space lighting as well so it was an approach we took to begin with just to buy some efficiency. We had all the technology, we needed to replace that with new technology and get an efficiency or return on investment for it. It was wrapped up with our smart cities project, the largest one in Australia, which when we delivered it May last year finalized it and it was always about efficiency for us, there was a little bit of pushback from the public. When you're replacing an old light, which is usually the old sodium orange lights that you see, there's not a lot of elimination with those. And then you replace them with LEDs. All of a sudden it's a nice, bright white light. So for that, a little bit of pushback within the community, in some of those areas. But where we sit right now, it's been really embraced and some other really interesting aspects associated with lighting, which I'm sure we'll drill into later on.

Olivia: (04:01)

Excellent. So just to take a few steps back, how did Darwin actually start its journey and the integration of digital infrastructure to begin with?

Joshua: (04:09)

Well, we were lucky there was, there was a federal government funding opportunity about two and a half years ago, which went around to all the local governments within Australia to basically say, look, whatever it was, it was matched funding. So whatever you put into changing out and swapping in some smart technologies across any part of your ecosystem, they would contribute to it. So we were lucky, we received the largest amount of money for that project. You know, it was two years ago, we were talking about what we're going to do and lighting was the first thing which we spoke about. From that perspective that was an enabler for us. A lot of other places around the world when it comes to smart cities, they've really got to flesh out that business case and it's got to come from the, money's got to come up front from our return investment on efficiencies implied whereas we were lucky, we already had quite a large bucket or a golden chest to tip into to do this and then get the efficiencies on the back of it. So that really enabled us to accelerate some outcomes within our AK system development for smart cities.

Olivia: (05:09)

So what are some of the initial results of this initiative? Has the smart lighting project anticipated benefits materialized in Darwin? Would love to impact that a little bit more.

Joshua: (05:20)

Definitely. So only efficiency perspective. You know, when we were talking about the lights, which we've replaced already, because it's a phased approach we've already done over three and a half thousand lights and also in public areas, we've already received upwards of about $600,000 worth of efficiencies across the first 12 months. So yeah, there's some great monetary, I guess, multipliers associated there. But the interesting one for us was, you know, when you replace lights, you create a whole new illumination, a different ambiance to a set place. So it's actually really done well for us in creating, great little place, places around the city, which people can fall in love with again, in those areas or those times of operation where they would normally have gone past and we would have been a nighttime, they will walk straight past it or wouldn't have taken that alleyway because it's too dark or, you know, the lighting wasn't quite right. We've had a huge uptake in participation in some of these areas where we've put new lights in and the economic multipliers and consumption effects associated with that and making it a place again. It's been fantastic for the city. So we've got cafes popping up where I wouldn't have normally been before, opening up at nighttime where that would have been closed usually at five o'clock. People are falling in love with the city again based on illumination. It's been a great outcome for us.

Olivia: (06:39)

So there's definitely, I guess, a link between smart lighting and the placemaking aspect as well. 

Joshua: (06:45)

Definitely a really really strong link and it's visual and it's tangible. So for us, you know what we do moving forward, it's based on lights. How do you create greater participation, safety and well being associated with illumination? and to do with lights, that's great.

Olivia: (07:02)

Very multifaceted these smart lights. So when you talk about efficiency, it's very interesting. So I think a lot of governments are looking for that, but also thinking about the environment as well. I know that a lot of these smart lights are actually beneficial from that aspect as well. Uh, does the environment actually drive a lot of decision making in Darwin?

Joshua: (07:22)

Critical. And I'm probably a little bit biased because my background is sustainability and environmental management. So everything I seem to do, I lead with sustainability and you sort of have to do that anyway. When I was working in a previous role the environment always hung on the coattails of what you did from an efficiency perspective. So if you've got that mindset of sustainability and you encompass that. These things have to work better, they have to do better. And at the end of the day, the environment's going to benefit anyway. You sort of always get to that point. 

For us being in Darwin we get cyclones up here every year. We're so bound by what the environment is actually doing to what we can do as a community. It's always at the forefront of what our decision making is. Sustainability is definitely, as I said, it's a big part of what we put in place. And you know, lighting for us. It's, you know, you had old lights, you've got new lights, 10 year sort of guarantee with these lights moving forward. From an asset management perspective, the cost savings there are fantastic. So yeah, it's been a win win for us in Darwin that's for sure.

Olivia: (08:25)

So a bit of a controversial question that I'm going to ask you now. We've actually heard from some CIOs that smart lighting initiatives are overhyped and that there's been some discussion on whether or not these can actually be seen as truly innovative. What would you respond to this notion beyond all of the great benefits that you've just shared with our audience?

Joshua: (08:46)

First question I’d ask the CIOs is what deployment have you recently done and what were the outcomes of that? Provides a bit of context where they're coming from and they might've done it wrong, unfortunately. But for us, you can't look at things black and white, anything in the smart city space and technology changes so quickly. There's multipliers of those, there's different elements associated with what you deploy and as I said, lighting for us is a great enabler a for increasing participation, which has consumption effects associated with your local economy. So for us, we don't look at technology as it does X and Y and that's it. We look at how it integrates into our whole ecosystem. And luckily we can do that cause we've got a large smart cities ecosystem here. Um, but for some other cities, which they're just starting on that journey and a smart cities journey starts with lights. Don't just look at efficiencies. Don't just look at what it's going to cost and what the asset maintenance is on it. Look at what effect that has on your community or your municipality or your city, and bringing some of those multipliers. You can't look at tech in isolation, you have to look at it how it integrates. And as I said, lighting is one of those ones, which is a no brainer.

Olivia: (09:55)

You mentioned placemaking being a big part of this. And I think that's super interesting because oftentimes when we think about digital infrastructure or smart cities, community doesn't always fall at the forefront of those conversations, but they very much are integrated. So in terms of your engagement with these smart cities and smart lighting initiatives that you have in Darwin, do you engage with the community and effective way and how does that process unfold? Because I'm sure local businesses are very interested by this work and have a vested interest in terms of the smart lighting as well specifically.

Joshua: (10:28)

Well, you've nailed it. You know, I think if you start with the smart city strategy or what you're looking at deploying, and it's not citizen centric for us as local government, you've got to ask yourself, what are you doing? Um, that's what we do, right? We’re crazy people that work in local government. We want to do things for the community. But sometimes the education process can go a little bit sideways because you understand the technology, you understand what's implied with the implementation of it. Sometimes the education part can get caught up with consultation. So from our experience with the smart cities, there's a lot of hysteria around certain parts or elements of technology that the public may necessarily not know much about. So we're really careful in being explainable in what we're doing and why we're doing it and how we're doing it.

There were a lot of issues we faced at the front end of this project around privacy and just about what information are you collecting and why you're doing it. When you bring all that back to lighting, you can always bring in the ball of safety and security associated with lighting and that creates a little bit more trust within the community. So it's an easy one to talk to. You just gotta be aware that what you are doing is for the benefit of the community and be really clear and explainable and transparent about why you're doing it. I think from that point, it becomes a lot easier if you just go out and do it and say, look we just saved $600,000 dollars. It doesn't necessarily carry too much meaning for the community other than you're running your business better, but what did they get out of it? You've gotta be careful with that and sometimes not giving all the information, but just giving the relevant pieces. That's important.

Olivia: (12:06)

That's great. The interaction with the community, I think, is invaluable with any smart city initiative. So that's fantastic that it’s also a priority for Darwin. I would say that it sounds like you're pretty excited about digitizing local government. What would be some advice you'd like to share to our audience that are listening in and tuning in today if they're about to embark in their smart city journey, what are some tips and some key advice that you'd like to pass on?

Joshua: (12:33)

I think the biggest one for me is take some risks. Open yourself up as a local government to receiving a lot more crazy questions. And, you know, you sit as a local government on so much information, but we sort of guard and protect it as if someone's going to steal up and go do something else with it. But, you know, that's sort of what we should be doing anyway. So for me, it's for local governments to take a little bit more risk, open yourself up, expose yourself, provide some information back to the community, you know, how much do these lights cost, how much do they cost us now in asset management? Someone tell me how we can do this better. 

Sometimes we're not always the smartest people in the room, I would say most times we're not.

It's about engaging the community, take them on the journey in certain elements that, you know, what we do, again, we do for them. It's about sharing and being transparent, but also being explainable. I think that's critical. 

For anyone that's looking at any part of smart city technology deployment, look at it from a holistic perspective. Don't just look at it as individual elements. Look at how we can all bring this back in together in one big Lego piece and make it all work and then build on from there. I think a lot of people do things in isolation or a lot of companies and governments do things in isolation, but there needs to be a broader piece here to bring it all back in. And we were lucky we did everything all at once, which was fantastic.

Olivia: (13:57)

I really liked what you just shared around the importance in government innovation to be explainable. I think you really, really nailed it there because that's key to it, right? You're never going to get it perfect. But if you're able to explain the intent, then you can have a constructive conversation, especially when you're taking risks. 

Joshua: Yeah, absolutely.


So Darwin is definitely busy innovating just all over. I mean, there's a smart lighting project that we just talked about. But we'd love to learn a little bit more about, what are some other departments in your local government that you partner with most frequently in your work beyond your innovation team?

Joshua: (14:52)

Well across the whole directory within local government, we work quite closely with engineering and city services. So these are the guys that go pick up and empty the bins and clean toilets and everything else. When you're able to implement or overlay IT infrastructure, sensors indoors sensors in toilets, that necessarily affects what your service level agreements are with either your internal staff or your contractors. 

Innovation as a DNA within our organization is quite new. But it's quite disruptive at the moment and on the back of COVID where it's the biggest disrupter the globe has ever seen, it's a really, really good opportunity to say, hang on a sec, that's not the way we should do it now, maybe we should do it this way. So there's some really good synergies. We're getting both internally within the organization and in some of the areas of the organization where we work with contractors, etc. It's pretty cool to see happen and evolve on the back of something that's been so dramatic and scary, where we're getting some great things out in the back of it. So it's been really good to watch.

Olivia: (15:51)

Are there any products that make your job easier?

Joshua: (15:56)

Probably products wise, not necessarily, you know, for me, mobile phones and talking to someone is a lot easier than being an email acrobat. It's a lot easier to do these sorts of things where we can share information over the web, but nothing particular other than my mobile phone and basically my office I keep in my pocket. That's been the best basic technology. 

Anything else is really related to the people and they're probably the most important part of any organization and team. You can't do it all by yourself. So for me, I invest heavily in the people we work with and employ because as a team environment, you're only as good as your weakest link. Let's be strong in that point and be really focused on capacity building. So people are the most important part. Tech comes and goes, but people are critical.

Olivia: (16:48)

So in terms of people who else are doing interesting things in public works or local government, would you say?

Joshua: (16:56)

Yeah, so the local government down on this end of the globe is pretty nice and close. Most of the smart cities people, we're in the Association of Smart Cities Australia, Zealand led by Adam Beck. He's got a really good pipeline of people and conduit to talk to. Sean Audain from Wellington does some amazing stuff with our IT,  specifically around emergency management with earthquakes, etc. in the Southern Island of New Zealand. Um, and also my colleague, uh, ex-colleague on the gold coast, Ian Hatton. They're doing some amazing stuff when it comes to telecommunications and IT rollouts. We were sort of collaborating on a data exchange projects across local governments as well. They are probably two really good ones that we speak to on a weekly or fortnightly basis. And Adam at Smart Cities Council Australia, New Zealand seems to link us all in and push us to talk a little bit more often, which is great because we're too busy sometimes in the business rather than not. There are some of the players at the moment in this space, which are really, really good. There's a real good active community within local government across Australia, New Zealand, and happy to share. It's a good feeling.

Olivia: (18:08)

Yeah. The network would be really exciting. Um, and invaluable in terms of innovation. Talk to me maybe now about something that you've tried and that didn't work. Cause sometimes we have a vision for innovation and it doesn't always unfold the way that we anticipated it to.

Joshua: (18:25)

Look at data exchange. So when we talk about the AK system we've done with Darwin we've done all the IOT right. We collect all the information, comes into a nice smart city intelligence platform where we visualize everything. So we take all the data that comes in, unpack it, visualize it so that people can actually understand what the hell it means. Um, and then from that point, we've collected all this data. (So we're not asking the crazy questions, right.) So how do we get that data out to the community and businesses and everyone else to cross-pollinate and maybe come out with solutions that make sense for something we should do moving forward. So we started a data exchange, um, and that enabled people to push up information, pull out information cross-pollinate with any widgets, et cetera. Um, so that's been slow. I think that's been, uh, one of the clunky parts of the process for us, um, in identifying value for people to contribute their time and watch over and, and, you know, create analysis on some of that data and information. So what we've found moving forward is that we actually really know to create a place where that all happens. Instead of people sitting in their lounge rooms and doing it on a digital data exchange, bring them into a room and go from there. So for us, we want to create a footprint in the city where we can engage some of that incubation type, uh, aspects associated with data. Cause we don't know, right. We would just do our normal roles, but don't necessarily cross-pollinate and that's a critical element with regard to the data we're collecting. So that part we didn't quite get right to begin with, but we've got a solution we're working forward to make it a workforce moving forward. So that's exciting for us as well.

Olivia: (20:01)

So speaking about excitement, what's something else that excites you about the future of civic innovation in Darwin just broadly beyond really nailing the data exchange like you just mentioned? 

Joshua: (20:12)

For us, we've got a pretty cool initiative we just rolled out. What we do here in the city - a lot of other capital cities do the same thing - we collect revenue from people parking in the city. But what we usually do with that revenue is balance out the parts of operating budgets within our local city, which would be the going over or they needed a little bit of extra balance at the end of the year. What we did was quite nifty and we allocated a section of that budget to put into an economic stimulus project, which we've called MyDarwin. And what it does, it gives it back to the community. They register and they can get digital discounts and different shop owners will actually accept these discounts. But what it does is the consumer gets the discount and council pays the business for offering the discount. So from that perspective, we get money back into the local economy quite quickly and on the back of COVID it's worked amazing. We did it last Friday. We started, where one week in we had $300,000 we put into it and already we're a hundred thousand dollars out, but the multiplier, we were thinking that a 25% discount was one before, right? But we've got actually a one to nine multiplier at this point. A hundred thousand has come out of the kitty, but the spend has been close to 600,000 at this point within the local economy. So it's been an amazing uptake. We've got some really good data on the back of it and as a legacy moving forward, we're probably going to continue this on a month to month basis. So for us being closed off from every other state, no one can come in, we've been basically detained. Um, for us has been one of those ones where we've got great amount of money back. It's been really, really exciting.

Olivia: (21:54)

It's been really interesting hearing about how the local economy has been very much at the center of all of your innovation initiatives, whether that's smart lighting and the link to placemaking and some of the other projects that you mentioned. So thank you for taking the time to chat to our Govlaunch community today, Josh and I really appreciate your words of wisdom. So thanks again.

Joshua: (22:15)

Absolute pleasure. Anytime. Thank you.

Lindsay: (22:22)

As this episode is highlighted smart lighting is multifaceted from being environmentally conscious to benefiting local businesses. Smart lighting can be a great first step toward digitizing your city's infrastructure. Thanks again to Joshua Sattler for coming on to talk about his team and Darwin and their innovative work.

I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch, the wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.