Sydney’s famous public face is the compelling combination of the white shells of its opera house stretched elegantly next to the steel arch of the Harbour Bridge that overlooks Sydney Harbour.

A city is more than one iconic image, however, and today Sydney is a metropolitan area stretching across 12,300 square kilometres and home to nearly 5 million people. It stands at a crucial point in planning for and delivering its future.


Growth is top of the agenda. In 20 years’ time, the city is forecast to have a population of 6.6 million and by 2056 it will be more than 8 million. Its economy has had 25 years of uninterrupted annual growth and continues to expand, particularly in the services and digital industries. In response, there has been a flurry of activity.

This includes the recent introduction of a metropolitan planning authority, the Greater Sydney Commission; a new planning strategy for central Sydney that addresses the mixed-use environment of the central business district; the reorganisation of local government to reduce the large number of councils; a major infrastructure push worth A$61bn ($46.2bn) over four years by the New South Wales state government; and lots of city-focused conversations orchestrated by the Committee for Sydney, a membership-based independent think tank that is the city’s talking shop.

Suburban sprawl

It would be fair to say that metropolitan Sydney is something of a sprawl. It has an area much bigger than more populous cities such as Hong Kong and, for example, is only 40% of London’s current density. To date, population growth has been handled by adding new suburbs, but there are now more than 500 and the city has run out of new housing land, reaching its boundaries of mountains, rural countryside and the sea. This means it will have to increase density and spread growth across the existing city footprint to accommodate its rising population. 

This requires a more polycentric approach, and the creation of development at key nodes such as established centres at Parramatta, Liverpool, Campbelltown and Penrith, and around major transport hubs such as railway stations, Sydney airport, Port Botany seaport, and at a new second airport site at Badgerys Creek. 

Much of this activity is in western Sydney, where there has been significant population growth but limited employment opportunities. The aspiration is to bring more jobs to where people live. 

Chris Pettit, professor of urban science and associate director of the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, points to the principle of 30-minute cities. This “aims to get most journeys for commuting to 30 minutes, particularly in the middle and outer parts of metropolitan Sydney” and Mr Pettit supports “the focus on transit-oriented development that maximises the travel and economic opportunities around existing transport hubs”.

Clever with data

This reshaping of Sydney provides the opportunity to be smart by using data and technology to get the best outcomes for residents, businesses and visitors. Dean Economou, chief technology officer for products at Australian telecommunications company Telstra, says: “To get the best overall view of how Sydney is operating we need to take advantage of the current data that exists publicly, as well as new sources of data and, most importantly, apply the latest analytic and predictive techniques to gain insights on how to improve the city socially, economically and environmentally.

“Further, there are truly disruptive technologies such as autonomous vehicles, which I think will supply us with a whole new range of options much sooner than most people imagine. Properly managed and carefully introduced, they may potentially provide alternatives to private cars, taxis, buses and light rail.”

The need to diversify the transportation mix is echoed by Mr Pettit, who says: “We need more bikeable and walkable communities, and a top priority is to deal with Sydney’s dependence on cars. Traffic congestion is estimated to cost Australia A$30bn in GDP by 2030.”

Sydney is already getting smart, with its online Sydney City Dashboard for up-to-date city information and news. Transport for New South Wales is behind the Future Transport programme, which looks ahead at future transport technologies and has been releasing open data to allow software developers to produce useful travel apps for people to get around the city.

Globally competitive

Sydney and the state of New South Wales is Australia’s number one destination for FDI and its top performing economy. With an annual GDP of A$500bn, it is home to 47% of Australia’s tech start-ups, 39% of ICT businesses, 40% of the country’s creative industries workforce, and 43% of its finance and insurance employees. 

More than 600 regional headquarters of multinationals are located here, including all the major tech companies such as Google, Amazon Web Services, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn and Microsoft. In terms of innovation, Sydney can claim to be where Google Maps was invented and where the technology behind Wi-Fi was developed.

Sydney recognises the importance of being able to attract and retain global talent and investment, co-ordinating its placemaking to focus on both liveability and productivity. As the city grows, the need to offer the highest quality locations for businesses and the best quality of life for its citizens will grow with it. Through collaboration, and by connecting people and places, it can ensure it stays ahead. In today’s fierce competition for global investment, it is a winning combination for a city to be both beautiful and smart.

Douglas Clark is director of Location Connections, an economic development consultancy, as well as a columnist for fDi Magazine.