How smart is Whanganui?
In October 2012, Whanganui was named New Zealand’s first Smart21 Intelligent Community. Three Australian communities – Ballarat and Whittlesea in Victoria, and Prospect in South Australia were also in the top 21. Taichung City in Taiwan was named Intelligent Community of the Year in June 2013. So what has Whanganui, a district of around 40,000 people got in common with Taichung, a city with a population of 2.7 million? Possibly it’s an aspiration they share towards a more prosperous and inclusive future.
Like many smaller rural areas in New Zealand and Australia, Whanganui has experienced a decline in its population in the last two decades, particularly losing young people to larger centres. With the local economy on the wane, Whanganui’s strategy to progressively revitalise the district hinges on the strategic, economic and social benefits of being digitally connected. The learnings gained through the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) are helping Whanganui to make great strides towards its goals.
The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) studies and promotes the best practices of the world’s intelligent communities as they adapt to the demands and seize the opportunities presented by information and communications technology (ICT). The ICF assesses achievements using the technology indicators of broadband connectivity, a knowledge workforce, innovation, digital inclusion, and marketing and advocacy, while applying three broad factors to define success: collaboration, leadership and sustainability.
A sustained commitment towards digital inclusivity programmes and clear Digital and Broadband Strategies was strongly in evidence for Whanganui to secure government funding to install superfast broadband – this was successfully launched in 2011, with over 60% of a fibre optic network now built in the urban area..
How have those strategies been successful? At a recent Annual Plan submission hearing, a local company presented with the Chamber of Commerce, announcing an international contract they had just won which means they will be monitoring alarms across New Zealand and Australia for an American firm. The local company highlighted Whanganui’s access to ultrafast broadband, affordable housing, a stable workforce and Smart21 status as pivotal in winning the contract.
The Whanganui Digital Leaders Forum was also invited to apply for a position in the Top 7. Marianne Archibald, Digital Coordinator for the Wanganui Council said that the application was gruelling.
“The questions demanded data that was, in some cases, impossible to uncover for a district the size of Whanganui. The application also asked questions we hadn’t asked ourselves and some gaps in our plans began to show. This was incredibly challenging, especially in terms of realising we had much ado to know ourselves. It was one of the most difficult pieces of work I have done. It was also one of the most valuable.”
The exercise powerfully reinforced the need for Councils to have a strong evidence base on which to make short and long term decisions. Whanganui didn’t make the top 7 this time around but Marianne said that the experience was incredibly valuable, and they will continue to work within the ICF framework to revitalise the district.