From Beef Capital to International Smart City

Published on 21 November 2019

Drew Stevenson and Elize Hattin on a tan couch with SmartHub logo behind

Amongst Chinese technology heavyweights attending the recent China Hi-Tech Forum in Shenzhen, Rockhampton was recognised as a Leading Asia-Pacific Smart City for its Smart Way Forward Strategy.

Touching down after their whirlwind visit to China, Elize Hattin, SmartHub Business Manager sat down with Drew Stevenson, Manager Corporate & Technology at Rockhampton Regional Council, to reflect on being recognised as a smart city, how the Chinese are using data differently, lessons learned from China... and those tricky cultural differences that can crop up along the way.


The devastation wreaked by Cyclone Marcia on local businesses inspired the Smart Way Forward Strategy; 34 actions to maximise the benefits of smart technologies, innovate in service delivery and build knowledge-based industries to provide the jobs of tomorrow.

Following Cyclone Marcia in February 2015, a number of Rockhampton businesses went out of business and never recovered. Rockhampton Regional Council identified Smart City concepts as a possible socio-economic solution for the region.

Drew Stevenson said Council began work on the strategy in August 2015 and it was pulled together very swiftly through community engagement and consultation with business, the teaching fraternity and using the councils knowledge of our communities business health.

“Once adopted in December of 2015, Council quickly set about with local businesses and other stakeholders to start delivering strategy actions, including the establishment of the SmartHub, free WiFi, programmable LED lighting, speaker systems, digital banners and smart parking across our CBD, airport and Kershaw Gardens precincts,” he said.

Towards the end of 2016, Rockhampton Regional Council received national validation of its strategy through the Economic Development Australia Digital Entrepreneurs Award, while up against some fierce competitors in the Smart City space.

Within a small window, Rockhampton had implemented a broad range of actions and quickly set about letting the rest of the economic development world and Australia know.

China took notice of the Beef Capital’s achievements and officially acknowledged Rockhampton as a Leading Asia-Pacific Smart City at the China Hi-Tech Forum in November this year.


Shenzhen is a relatively new Chinese city, constructed in the last 30 years. With a population of thirteen million people, it is a leading example of how China is using technology to manage their cities and communities.

China is government-centric in its data and analytics, which is not for public consumption. Drew noted this was a stark contrast to Rockhampton’s people and community-centric Smart Way Forward Strategy.

“We are trying to improve the liveability, grow our economy and make a place for tourists to come again and again and for people to stay here. That's the focus and how we presented it over in Shenzhen.

“They are much more government-centric. So they do data collection and analytics well, but it's just for the government and management to be able to detect crime, fight crime or even detect someone that looks like they're in the process of ‘maybe’ doing crime. And they are also monitoring businesses to be able to predict how well a business is performing,” Drew said.

Central to this is a heavy reliance on cameras for facial recognition to capture gender, age and ethnicity data.

“Facial recognition is huge in China and it is absolutely everywhere. Going through customs, immigration and similarly when we departed,” Elize acknowledged.

Interestingly, one area where Rockhampton is punching above its technology weight is online, with one-stop-shop service platforms for community use.

Drew explained this is something Council is well advanced in, with customers regularly engaging with Council for online services including rate payments, dog registrations, submitting a building application and more.

While these can all be done efficiently online now, they are relatively new concepts that China is exploring.


Both Drew and Elize agreed attending the China Hi-Tech Forum was like stepping in a ‘whole world of unknown’ and while it was challenging, it was an extremely worthwhile experience for the pair.

“It was confronting but challenging. Not confronting in a bad way, but confronting in China being such a different culture. The language barrier is always a challenge,” Drew said.

Rubbing shoulders with high ranking Chinese government officials, local politicians and heavy weight tech giants such as Alibaba, Huawei and ZTE, made doing business with China just that little more intimidating.

“There is a lot of formality and ceremony, even the exchanging of business cards was quite a process,” Elize said.

Both Elize and Drew presented on the Smart Hub and the Smart Way Forward Strategy, including video presentations produced by a SmartHub Member. The video was a huge hit according to Drew and Elize and the incorporation of Chinese subtitles in the video really impressed the audience.

Following his presentation, Drew was honoured to participate in a panel discussion alongside the Vice President of Alibaba and the Chinese Minister of Information, as well as ZTE and Huawei representatives, to talk about the rise of 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“China is hugely into 5G and we're only really right at the beginning of the process, so this was my focus for the discussion … what would be impacted and what the likely impact would be?

Like our Smart Way Forward Strategy, it's more people-centric and it's more community-centric. I took that position and outlined some of our experience of what Council had done so far with 5G rollout,” Drew said.

Drew explained the language barrier made the panel discussion very interesting. Drew had the presenters’ questions translated into English via an earpiece and then vice versa.

“That delay was a bit awkward too because he had finished speaking and I'm waiting to get to the end of the question,” Drew mused.

The cultural differences played out further with a ‘matchmaking’ event.

“That was probably one of the most challenging events for me because I had a bit of trouble understanding exactly what the purpose was,” explained Elize. Drew agreed, interpreting ‘matchmaking’ as a brainstorming and information sharing activity.

“Here's Elize and I, up at the big table with a bunch of really important Chinese City Representatives, the Vice Mayor's Executives, a gentleman from Norway, a lady from Portugal, as well as observers from Finland, Cyprus and Switzerland. We shared information until the Chairperson for the whole meeting said he was satisfied that everyone had shared. The Minister for Information had to sum up – “Yes, I'm satisfied. Everyone has shared” … if you hadn't shared, you would be in trouble!” Drew explained.


With the official business of presentations and panel discussions behind them, it was then on to the Gala Dinner for Elize and Drew, where the biggest surprise of the visit was to come. 

Rockhampton was named as a Leading Asia-Pacific Smart City. Drew was invited on stage to accept the award in a carefully choreographed ceremony, which, despite best intentions wasn’t without some humorous cultural and language faux pas.

Firstly, the background display to the award presentation misspelled Rockhamton (minus the P), which upon realisation caused great embarrassment to the organisers. 

“They were extremely hurt by it. We just said, "Well, okay. That's okay,” Drew said.

Next to enter the stage was immaculately presented ladies dressed in traditional wear to deliver the awards to recipients.

“When I was handed the trophy and certificate, I realised that I don't have the Rockhampton one … so as much as we can't understand Chinese characters, probably some of them can't understand our English either? At the end of the ceremony we're sort of looking each other and just swapping them around,” Drew laughed.

With all of this aside, receiving the Leading Asia-Pacific Smart City award was international validation for the Smart Way Forward Strategy.

“Winning this amazing award and getting international validation for the Smart City work that Rockhampton Regional Council is doing was incredible,” Drew said.


The biggest takeaway from the China Hi-Tech Forum for Elize Hattin, was that while Smart City means different things to different places, the common ground is the application of technology for solving local problems.

Just as Rockhampton made a decision in the Smart Way Forward Strategy back in 2015, Elize maintains any town or city at any time can change its direction towards Smart City technology, and become nationally and globally recognised.

“We're not a city of millions like Shenzhen. We're a region of 87,000, but I truly believe that we're punching above our weight. We've done some really big things, thanks to having a clear direction and a plan of action,” Drew agreed.

Rockhampton has become truly validated as a Smart City. One of the key actions in the Smart Way Forward Strategy was the establishment of the SmartHub to help business owners adopt technology and modern best business practice to improve their businesses.

Being part of the SmartHub gives local business owners opportunities to meet with and learn from mentors and to help them learn the discipline required to succeed in business. If you’d like to learn more about becoming part of the SmartHub, message SmartHub Rockhampton on Facebook or just head over to Customs House at 208 Quay Street, Rockhampton for a tour.


1. Seek out opportunities to present to new audiences– be it about your business, service, new technology or best business practice. Forum presentations are effective ways to raise your profile and generate new business leads. Start local with fellow small business owners at one of the upcoming SmartHub Lunch and Learn Presentations or workshops. These events are the perfect place for your business to find new audiences.

2. Apply for business awards – relevant industry recognition and validation speak volumes to your customers and clients. If you are time poor, then consider finding a virtual expert in small business award submissions, who can prepare the documentation on your behalf.

3. Understand cultural differences – do your research prior, be humble and keep an open mind. If language barriers are likely, include subtitles or translations in presentations and communication collateral.

4. Apply a Smart Way Forward Strategy to your business – have a clear direction and action plan, but be flexible. Drew Stevenson acknowledges some actions identified back in 2015 are no longer applicable in 2019; “the world has changed and some of actions don't need to be done because they're done in a different way now,” he said.

The Smart Way Forward Strategy aims to make Rockhampton a Smart Regional Centre by using real-time data created by sensors, as well as information and communications technology, to help improve public services, grow employment, capitalise on resources and provide a city where residents want to work, live and play. Watch the Smart Way Forward Strategy video on YouTube.

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