In the previous blog article, I wrote about my recent visit to the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Summit in Columbus, Ohio. Annually, the ICF Summit brings together Mayors and officials from local and regional government, business and technology leaders from around the world to explore how Intelligent Communities enable growth and empower citizens.
Some of the world’s Intelligent Communities are smaller cities and towns that have created innovative policies and practices to help themselves grow and prosper.
“In this article, I focus on 2016 Top7 ICF finalist Whanganui, New Zealand (pop. 43,000), situated on the southwest coast of New Zealand’s North Island. This was a step up in the rankings from 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, in which Whanganui ranked in the top 21.”
It would have been a huge upset if this community had won the top award, but there were many in the audience rooting for this dark horse favourite. The presentation and presence of this delegation had a definite impact on the Summit, and I cannot help but smile every time I think about Whanganui, much less say this word out loud! I hope that our readers will feel the same way about this community that can serve as a model for Ontario communities in many ways.
In the 1800s, Whanganui was home to a railways workshop that was a major local employer, until the town was bypassed by national rail lines. It was bypassed again by broadband providers in the following century. Though rich in natural beauty and culture, Whanganui is currently the ninth poorest district in New Zealand and ranks near the bottom of the national index of social deprivation. That is a reputation the city is eager to change.
In 2008, a Family-Friendly Strategy was created by the local government or District Council. It set goals for the economy, community partnership, health, safety, cultural richness and environmental sustainability. This was followed by a Broadband Strategy in 2009 and Digital Strategies in 2010 and 2013, which boldly called for this rural city to become a leader in the digital world, with a high-value economy, vibrant community and health environment.
The Council worked with the private sector to make the case for building an urban fiber network, which today connects 13,000 households, businesses and institutions and has attracted 12 broadband retailers. In 2014, top network speed was boosted to 1 Gbps. Advanced connectivity has recently attracted film education companies, software engineers, teachers and other professionals to the city, and existing businesses are now booming. City Council has used the network to put its own operations on line, including wireless applications for field staff, to save money and improve service to citizens and businesses.
The Digital Whanganui strategy also led to vital partnerships with the city’s small university, with a Computer Clubhouse group affiliated with MIT and skills development organizations. They worked together to educate residents and businesses about digital opportunities. Secondary school students were equipped with digital devices to ensure that they had internet connectivity at home, and a digital hub was created at the school to spur innovation among existing and new businesses.
The Computers in Homes project provides technology and skills training for low-income households and has benefited nearly a thousand families.
Once bypassed and almost forgotten, today Whanganui is truly a growing, vibrant community that offers gorgeous scenery, excellent quality of life, and opportunities for income generation too.
Source: ICF and Whanganui websites. www.wanganui.govt.nz
Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator