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 ranks near the bottom of the New Zealand index of social deprivation. That is a reputation the city has begun to change.

Spreading Broadband Awareness

In recent years, Whanganui has secured a high-speed, open-access, fiber-to-the-premise network for the city, with sixteen retailers now providing services over fiber. Many neighboring towns and regions, however, continue to struggle with low quality broadband and dial-up speeds, and Whanganui still has its own rural broadband gaps to fill. To address this issue and help the region as a whole, representatives of the Whanganui Digital Leaders Forum, led by Mayor Annette Main, visited the New Zealand central government to advocate for a national investment in fiber networks. The representatives proposed at those meetings that the government should consult with communities across the country to discover the highest areas of need, as communities are know their own needs best. The Mayor of Whanganui also asked neighboring mayors to support a cross-regional approach to fiber expansion to help raise political understanding and support for these proposals.

From 2014 to 2015, Whanganui ran a pilot program called “About Us,” which provided a free online presence for local businesses. The project has since been improved and expanded based on the pilot and offered cross regionally as #GetDigital. The GetDigital project offers a free online presence for all local businesses, a free online learning community, access to cloud solutions for each community’s needs, a page on local success stories with video content, a page on local workshops and events, and a digital engagement dashboard to track each community’s progress. In the eighteen months since implementing this project and the cross-region strategy, broadband use has nearly doubled in Whanganui, according to New Zealand’s largest fiber provider.

Facilitating Education with WeLearn and 100% Sweet

The WeLearn Charitable Trust was established in 2015 to facilitate education through collaboration between digital educators and local companies. WeLearn has organized a pilot project connecting student devices to a fixed wi-fi network with the help of a local wi-fi company. Three schools will be taking part in the trial, which will be run free of cost to determine if it is an effective solution. Discussions are currently underway with hardware providers. Tawhero, one of the founding schools of the WeLearn Trust, aims to provide 1:1 devices to students and free Internet access 24/7 so that students can take their devices home and continue learning there. As of now, the school provides 24-hour free wireless Internet connectivity for community usage and encourages the community to come to the school grounds for access. Three classrooms so far have 1:1 devices (mostly Chromebooks) for their students, and the school is working to increase this number.

WeLearn has also been in discussions with The Mind Lab, a pioneer in digital and collaborative learning, and also with Unitec, a leader in applied vocational education. Together, the organizations are offering an applied, progressive and blended postgraduate qualification program for teachers, specializing in digital and collaborative learning. The program introduces new teaching methodologies and practical knowledge of digital tools. As of November 2016, thirty-four teachers from twenty different Whanganui schools have enrolled in the Mind Lab’s program to complete its Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning).

In 2016, Whanganui established a new project called 100% Sweet to ensure all Whanganui students are in education, employment or training despite economic factors. One of the project’s key focus areas is delivering the Work Ready Passport, a certification of employment skills and knowledge on teamwork, communication, health and safety, money management and more. In 2021, 100% Sweet worked with 7 schools and colleges in the area to deliver over 139 Work Ready Passports to young people. The project has also engaged with over 300 students who had left the school system to offer support for those wishing to find employment.

The Innovation Quarter

Whanganui’s planned Innovation Quarter is a major part of its regional growth strategy. The initial framework will consist of four sectors or “quarters” – the incubator quarter, the creative quarter, the agribusiness quarter, and the aged care and health innovation quarter. The facility will be a hub of collaboration where corporate, local businesses, education providers, and local artists and specialists all interact and form strategic partnerships. The Innovation Quarter will be attached to a town center library and central transport hub for easy access. To make this center of collaboration a reality, the Whanganui District Council has included the Innovation Quarter in its ten-year plan (2015-2025).

One of the Innovation Quarter’s most integral components is the Mãori Business Hub, which creates opportunities for local Mãori businesses to meet and network with each other across a range of industries. The Mãori Business Hub is intended to be a renewed version of the 2003 Whanganui Mãori Business Network, which closed in 2007. The hub will serve as a place for learning, sharing knowledge, creating alliances and bringing a uniquely Mãori perspective to business in Whanganui.

The Innovation Quarter will provide many educational and economic benefits. Collaboration among the quarters in a centrally organized hub will allow Whanganui to attract blended programs from Auckland University of Technology and the Universal College of Learning as well as international education providers to the region, allowing students to stay local while learning. The Innovation Quarter will also be able to develop applied learning programs that are more in tune with private sector needs, which will help residents find more local quality employment opportunities. On the economic side, a central hub will help new businesses to grow more quickly, providing an ideal environment for entrepreneurship.

In 2021, the City played host to the first local Innovate Whanganui event, a Dragons’ Den style program designed to support local entrepreneurs. From a pool of more than 70 impressive candidates, the expected Top 5 entries were expanded to the Top 7 to complete an accelerator course run by The Factory in Palmerston North. These applicants all received $3,000 in funding and have continued to grow their businesses, with two gaining external funding from investors since the competition. All mentor businesses in the program have pledged to return next year after a successful event, and three have continued working with the applicants even after the end of the program.

Digital Access for Those Most in Need

Computers in Homes is a digital inclusion project that focuses on digital literacy for parents and guardians. This ensures that whole families gain an understanding and appreciation of technology as parents pass on knowledge to their children. At a cost of $50, the program provides low-income families with free training, a computer, twelve months of subsidized Internet access and technical support. From 2013 to 2014, the Whanganui Computers in Homes program assisted 117 families, resulting in 130 new Computers in Comes graduates. These families represented about 10% of Whanganui’s families that do not currently have access to a computer or the Internet.

Stepping Up is a program that provides free, community-based computer and Internet training programs for adults. It is a suitable follow-up program for those that have participated in Computers in Homes. Stepping Up provides a number of training modules (called digital steps) for those with basic computer knowledge who wish to expand their skills in one or more areas to improve their work and home life. The training modules generally take no more than 2.5 hours to complete and are delivered by local training providers and libraries for ease of access. As of July 2016, Whanganui has delivered a computer, Internet connection, and twenty hours of course training to over one thousand families in the region. The city intends to increase Stepping Up coverage in libraries in Whanganui, Rangitikei, and Ruapehu in the coming years.

In 2019, Whanganui began the Marae Digital Connectivity initiative to help more marae—meeting places within Mãori culture and community—connect to newly acquired internet services. The multi-agency initiative successfully established 55 of the region’s marae in the program by 2020 with 15 still waiting to have their connections go live.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the Whanganui District Library received central government funding to support its recovery. Out of the new funding, the library has been able to fund 10 new laptops, 10 tablets, a cache of different robots and tech games and coding club lesson plans. These new resources have been used in partnership with the non-profit Digital Inclusion Alliance Aotearoa to deliver Appy Seniors, a face-to-face program that teaches older people about phone and tablet apps. Since receiving the coding club lesson plans, 58 local children have completed them. The Library also partnered with the Council to run a school holiday program in September 2021 to teach 12 children about AI and robotics using the new resources.

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.whanganui.govt.nz

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