I recently took part in the IoT Challenge, hosted by Telstra and City of Melbourne. As a team we were challenged to build an original Smart City device for the Melbourne CBD.

So what is a Smart City?

We spent a lot of time wondering exactly what a Smart City was. It seemed to be a bit of a buzzword, with everyone having different ideas. Most ideas seem to mash up a modern city with sensors and add some sort of smart phone app. The City of Melbourne impressed us with their view: A Smart City uses technology to reduce the friction between humans and the physical world.

This definition is exciting because it considers the human element of that interaction, and it is not just about providing one directional information. It opens up questions like how we can make our citizens more mobile, preserve the environment or engage the community. How do we bring clever technology design to community and activities in the city?

We had a lot of ideas; we had an imaginative team and cool toys. We started with the idea of improving the experiences in parks; what is the best park, where can you get coffee, etc. We also considered serious big city issues such as excessive power usage due to lights left on unnecessarily. There were also a bunch of projects we considered in between, from booking BBQs to monitoring rider safety on the Melbourne bike share program.

For us, we loved the idea that those giant chess sets bring people together in a kind of random way. So our project was to encourage people to play chess in parks – with the added ability to play people in other parks, in other cities, and in other countries. Since we needed a Minimal Viable Product we chose to implement a giant Tic-Tac-Toe game. This would represent the same turn-based approach like a chess game, and match Telstra’s LPWAN network. And it would give us a good indication of what people thought of the game idea.


Now we had to build it.

Our team was split between the technology students, economics students, and myself; a mobile product manager with an electronics engineering background. The technology team jumped to work; connecting the Arduino, the LPWAN interface, a display and a keypad. They also built a web interface that connected to the cloud platform to allow remote opponents to play. I also recruited friends and family to help build the full size game board and lighting.

Over the next few days the game emerged; first as a button press on a screen, then to the full mock-up of the game with flashing lights and beeping feedback. We now had a ‘playable game’ prototype we could demonstrate and test in the real world. We got the best network signal at the Bourke Street Mall and got a few people to try the game and give us feedback.

We had our demo product and feedback, and it was time to impress the judges. Our pitch team had already been busy putting together technical information, the slide deck and even a video for the presentation. We spent a lot of time working through the vision, the criteria, and the benefits of the product. Was it original – yes. Did it use the technology – yes. Did we execute – yes. Was it applicable to the Smart City – yes… although probably not solving big world problems.

We fortunately made it through the first round of judging and were invited to the final pitching round. We realised we were up against some tough competition, some great products and compelling business cases.

So did we win?

The winning honours went to a University of Adelaide team who offered sensors for playgrounds in parks to monitor their usage. However, we did win a City of Melbourne prize, so our idea may yet become a reality.

Just like the Internet reinvented how we work and shop, we expect the Internet of Things to drive a similar cultural change. Right now we are only starting with devices like position tracking tags and smartphone controlled home thermostats and lights. The future application of the technology is not so clear.

Events like this hackathon are therefore essential tools for asking ‘what-if’ questions and to help us see into the future. Not only does it bring people together to innovate and come up with cool devices, but it also helps us to glimpse other parts of the pie; what are the possible business models and what may be required from a city and from an IOT network.

Telstra CTO Vish Nandlall has hinted that Telstra may run a similar challenge again in 2016 – I recommend you look out for it. I will.