The story of many Intelligent Communities is of boom times followed by bust in the second half of the 20th Century. For Whanganui, on the southwest coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the best of times may lie ahead. Bypassed by national rail lines in the 19th Century – which led to the closing of a railways workshop that was a major employer – it was bypassed again by broadband providers in the 20th. 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.

Inspired to Become an Intelligent Community

Whanganui found inspiration in the Intelligent Community Forum and has charted a clear path to a more prosperous future. The Council’s Family-Friendly Strategy in 2008 set goals for the economy, community partnership, health, safety, cultural richness and environmental sustainability. It 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. They were brave words – and the city has begun to deliver on their promise.

The Council helped Ultrafast Fibre make the case for building an urban fiber network, which now connects 13,000 households, businesses and institutions and has attracted 12 broadband retailers. In 2014, Ultrafast boosted its top network speed to 1 Gbps. InspireNet, a local wireless company, has worked with community groups to install fixed wireless repeaters that extend network services into the rural areas surrounding the urban core. Advanced connectivity has recently attracted film education companies, software engineers, teachers and other professionals to the city, and existing businesses like Q-West, a boat-builder, that once complained of poor connectivity are finding their businesses 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.

Creating a Generation of Innovators

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. Together, they organized an annual TechEx technology expo to educate residents and businesses about digital opportunities. This has led in turn to a pilot project to equip secondary school students with digital devices, to ensure that they have connectivity at home, and to develop a digital hub at the school to spur innovation among existing and new businesses. Nearly a thousand families, meanwhile, have benefited from the Computers in Homes project, which provides technology and skills training for low-income households. Since being named a Smart21 for the first time, Whanganui has become an example to cities across New Zealand and begun to build a reputation very different from its past.

Population: 43,600

Website: www.wanganui.govt.nz

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