Zoe Eather: Smart community advocate
Toowoomba-based Zoe Eather has worked in a number of areas in the smart mobility and smart city spaces, for government, industry, community, and now in her own consultancy business. She’s been places, and she’s going places. How did she get started? What has she done, and what exciting times are ahead for her? Read on.
What are you working on now, and who you’re doing it for?
I currently have my own boutique consultancy. I focus on smart cities, smart communities, smart regions. Narrowing that down, I work a lot in the smart mobility space. Primarily because I have a background in transport, but also I firmly believe that mobility is at the foundation of our community.
Once we are building smart communities, or working towards smart communities, mobility — both physically and digitally — will become a foundational area that we’ll need to continue to address.
You have your own company, which you’ll tell me about, but you’re also working for Arup. Can you go into some detail about what you’re doing there?
At the moment through my company Zemcom I’m contracting to Arup three days a week, which I’m really enjoying. Before that I worked for the Queensland State Government, in the area of connected and autonomous vehicles. I left that role in April 2018 because I really wanted to start a smart city podcast, talking to people working in the space, to learn more and network with really awesome people. My podcast is called The Smart Community Podcast.
What I’m doing at Arup is bringing that smart city collaboration piece internally, allowing it to add smart city, or smart regions, or smart community into its everyday business. Arup already has a strong focus on people, place, and effective systems which I love as it fits very nicely with the smart community concept. It’s also allowing me to focus on mobility again.
Now, I’m going to presume you weren’t born wanting to get into smart mobility. Was it something before you studied, or while studying, after study? How did you get to where you are?
I started a civil and environmental engineering degree. I didn’t know I wanted to be an engineer, but it was the best thing that I could think of at the time. I really wanted to travel, and I had a scholarship with the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR). They supported through my uni years, and then I had a job with them post-uni. That saw me in civil construction, which is completely different to what I’m doing now, but it did give me good experience and background in project management. It also gave me great experience working in regional and remote areas.
During my time there the Director General for TMR went to South Korea and got really excited about its advanced technology, and wanted to send one of his engineers over. I applied for that opportunity and was successful. That saw me living in South Korea for three months at the end of 2016, on secondment to the Seoul office of Trade Investment Queensland. It’s there I learnt about the smart city space and went a bit smart city crazy.
Upon returning to Queensland I started working in the Cooperative and Automated Vehicle Initiative (CAVI) at TMR. So, getting the Queensland roads ready for this type of technology. Transport and Main Roads might be leading it, but it’s definitely about coordination on a national level.
I had got so much out of that job that I had at TMR that I wanted to move on to the next level or the next stage, full integration, and talk more openly about what a smart city means and what a smart community is, and then really have some impact in our local regional areas.
And that’s how I got to here!
What years are we talking now? When did you finish studying and move into working in smart mobility?
I graduated in 2011, and then I was in civil construction for the majority of that time, up until 2016 where I was in South Korea. When I came back at the beginning of 2017 I worked in the CAVI project for just short of 18 months.
So, I’ve been working on my own as a consultant for about eight months now.
You call yourself an ‘untraditional engineer’. What do you mean by that?
What I found was when I started as an engineer, is that there were very technical engineers, and then we had project management construction engineers. I never quite felt like I fit into any one of those categories. So, I started just doing my own thing and realising that engineering is so broad.
But I’m not traditional in any engineering sense, and I see myself more and more moving out of engineering, and into more of a consulting space. I’ve used the phrase untraditional engineer to show that anyone, if they put their mind to it, and work hard, doesn’t have to be super technical, or into concrete … you can do so many different things in engineering. That’s why I like to use that term.
Right. So, in essence you’re removing boundaries?
Exactly. That’s a better way of putting it.
OK, hypothetical time. You don’t know where you’re working, you could be anywhere doing this. If you were to be given an unlimited budget and a very reasonable time frame, what project would you like to take on?
I really want to connect the regional and remote areas in Australia, because I think with that connectivity we can really open up remote and regional Australia to the world. Not to force it, but if you are in regional Australia and want to connect, then the choice is there. Currently what I find is people think that they have to move to the city to be successful, or be seen to be successful. I’d really like to remove that thought. If we can have our regional areas seen as a cool place to live we won’t have so much of an urban migration problem, and small regional areas can prosper and grow.
I think we can do amazing things and people will be able to have more choice about where they live and what kind of lifestyle that they want. Because not everyone wants to have the hustle and bustle of the city, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to work on really high tech, or super interesting projects either!
Do you have in mind a transport-related issue you’d like to attack in regional areas?
Yes. Under the title of smart mobility, or intelligent mobility, what I’d like to see is that in our regional areas that people also had choice about their transport options. At the moment public transport is not necessarily available. The roads aren’t necessarily user-friendly, or bicycle access might not be there.
So, in the transport-related sense that connectivity then allows for platforms, mobility as a service (MaaS) platforms, people have options about for their transport needs, allowing them to get around in an easy, safe, and efficient manner.
I think even though the connectivity piece hasn’t traditionally been seen as a transport option we need to start thinking about increasing access, rather than trying to build our way out of congestion. That’s a 20th Century model, we need to look at 21st Century solutions for our current problems, and that includes technology and connecting people together, both in the digital and the physical sense.
Do you think there’s a gulf in that regard, between what’s right for the city and what’s right for regional Australia?
There are some similarities and we can definitely work together, and working together is incredibly important. But no, I don’t think what people need in the cities is exactly the same for regional Australia. That said, at the same time what we don’t want is to increase that technological divide. If people want to have the same access they should be able to have it, whether they’re in Toowoomba, or Sydney, or Seoul.
But it’s not going to be a one size fits all, and that’s why it’s really important that when people say they want to work in the regions that they’ll actually go out into the regions. They don’t necessarily have to live there for the rest of their lives, but I think it’s important to feel and breathe the same air, so then you can actually appreciate what the pain points of the community are. The pain points will be different for the rural areas to the cities. Some will be similar, or perhaps exactly the same, but will require different solutions.
But I think it’s important to realise and not blanket the smart city approach as a checklist. It’s actually a framework, or a way of thinking. We need to start thinking more about not individual cities, but the region, and having smart regions that connect together.
Yes, I agree. A framework, or solution isn’t transplantable everywhere. There are individual characters, individual roadblocks.
And part two of the hypothetical. This time your budget is quite small and your timeframe also is quite small. You need to do something somewhere that will make a quick, appreciable difference. What would you like to do?
Where I live in Toowoomba I think we have all of the right ingredients to be a real testbed, for want of a better word, for this smart technology. And I think that because the areas in Toowoomba are so diverse… we have agricultural as well as urbanised areas, I think you could get a real appreciation of what implementing these smart technologies on a larger scale could provide. All without actually having to interrupt a lot of people at once, as you would in say Brisbane.
There’s lots of space here, the roads are wide, and you have enough population that you could derive a really good result. All of that, and at a lower cost because you wouldn’t have to scale it so massively.
And an example of this, if I go back to transport, in the connected and automated vehicle space everyone wants the latest shuttle bus or whatever, and as much I think you can get some great learnings out of that, what I’d like to see is that that’s actually used for people in need of that service not an add on, you know, instead of walking I’m going to get on the shuttle bus now around a university or something like that.
There’s a charity group in Toowoomba here, that drives elderly people from their houses to hospital appointments. They’re screaming out for more funding, they’re screaming out for more drivers. I feel that if they could access some of this smart city funding to get a shuttle bus that would then be able to provide that drop off and pickup service you could get such great learnings.
You could set up a route for this vehicle, it would be fully accessible, and you are helping people in a meaningful, impactful way. They need this service and it will help the community embrace technology in a way that’s not a gimmick, or just the latest shiny toy.
Is there something you haven’t done in either the transport or smart city area that you haven’t done yet but would like to try?
There’s a lot of things I’d like to try!
When I’ve been working in this smart mobility space I feel like I need to learn more. I’m just trying to be like a sponge, I want more and more information. I would not call myself an expert, because I think we’re all learning and once we appreciate that then we can all grow and learn together.
But anyway, back to the train of thought. What I want to do is go all around the world and look at the projects, not just connected and automated vehicles — although they’ll be on my list — but mobility as a service, some real examples of that. And then, shared mobility. How people have overcome the issues, or the behavioural issues, or the trust issues. A focus on things that are important to the community, and move us to a place where people have equal access and more choices when it comes to mobility, in the cities and in regional and rural Australia.
Now, you’ve also been awarded a place in this year’s Churchill Fellowship … what is that exactly, and what will you be doing with it?
Sure. It’s the Winston Churchill Fellowship, and basically 112 Australians have been chosen — 19 from Queensland so I’m one of those — who will be travelling all around the world and, depending on their interests and projects, will be looking at many different things. My area, of course, is smart mobility. I’ve chosen eight countries: the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, in Europe to the United Kingdom, Barcelona and Amsterdam, and Cape Town in South Africa.
I chose those places for a few different reasons. The first one is I’ve spoken to a couple of the people working in these cities, or places mentioned on my podcast where people are doing some really cool stuff.
But I don’t want to just look at connected and autonomous vehicles. I do want to look at how there are people investigating the impact of those, but I also want to check out what they’re doing in mobility as a service space, and shared access and mobility.
That’s the plan! I want to obtain real community learnings, not the ones that we just read about in the glossy magazines, and bring those back to the Australian community. I’m really passionate, as I’ve said a few times now, about regional and remote areas. So, even though I’m going to cities I want to try and venture out of the cities and look at what the smaller regional areas are doing.
In Cape Town for example, the reason I want to go there is the result of speaking to a professor at a university and she was talking about a project there with connected, on-demand mini-buses, mini-bus taxis. It’s not super high tech, but it has grown organically, using technology to make it more efficient, and safer for people.
Travelling to those places should give me a wide range of knowledge from all the different projects I see. I want to kind of bring that back here to compare not only the projects themselves, but their current states. What does their public transport system look like right now? What’s the norm? How do people get around? Is it car-based? Is it scooter-based? Or is it active transport, cycling and walking, etc?
So, big plans! I’m working out the itinerary at the moment, and how I’m going to fit it all in. All up it will be two months overseas between probably about March and May 2019.
So you’re looking at all of the connections, not just the tech.
Yeah, and to be honest, I mean, I am an engineer, but I’m not super technical. I understand enough that I can make strategic decisions, and I feel like that’s where my strengths are, and I think we need all manner of people in that conversation. We don’t just need super technical people, we don’t just need super high-level people. Ideally we need an extremely diverse range of people and backgrounds in the room when making these decisions.