Innovators of Australia: 5 trends driving local change
Local councils across the continent are taking creative approaches to shared challenges addressing everything from inclusivity to water management.
Many councils are prioritising inclusive programs, especially those that focus on a more representative local workforce.
Food waste is a major issue in Australia; local governments are experimenting with ways to reduce food waste in a more efficient and more community-oriented way.
In a land prone to droughts and ringed with threatened aquatic ecosystems, Australian cities and shires are dedicated to smarter water management.
Speaking of preserving natural resources, new technology is being embraced by councils as a powerful tool to protect and preserve local wildlife.
Cities are jumpstarting economic activity after pandemic shutdowns by leaning on creative industries, like art and music.
From smart technology to renewable energy and sustainability, local councils of all sizes are pushing the envelope in Australia.
Melbourne, one of the biggest cities in the country, is a prolific innovator, with projects focused on everything from $ local energy storage$ to $ AI-powered waste monitoring$ . But don’t discount the smaller communities — with a population of fewer than 35,000 people, Bega Valley, NSW, has also been an inspiring changemaker, with community-driven programs dedicated to issues like $ bushfire recovery$ and $ reducing food waste$ .
While local governments (understandably) focus on projects that impact their specific communities, there are some issues that keep coming up, from town to town, city to city, and region to region across the continent.
To identify these trending innovation areas, we looked at over 300 recent projects shared on Govlaunch by local governments in Australia. The following five topics came up again and again — similar challenges with sometimes very different approaches taken to address them.
Focusing on an inclusive workforce
Local governments around the globe have been in the midst of a reckoning: how do we make our services, policies, and workforce more inclusive and representative of the people who make up our communities?
These questions are top of mind for Australian councils, as they work through what inclusivity means in their local communities. Within these considerations, an increasing focus is being put on employment, specifically: how to promote more opportunities for minority and marginalised groups.
For some councils, this starts from within. In $ Marion, SA, a year-long pilot created an employment program within the local government$ to expose candidates from diverse backgrounds, including Aboriginal, disabled, and Cultural and Linguistically Diverse applicants, to various departments and work functions. In $ Fraser Coast, QLD, the council recruited temporary workers for various administrative and customer service roles$ , focusing on groups that are often overlooked in the government hiring process. These workers received training on the job in order to equip them with experience that would benefit them when they apply to a full-time role.
Other communities are working to create opportunities for existing minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. One great example is the $ First Nations Business Program launched in Rockhampton, QLD$ . The local council collaborated with CQUniversity to introduce a curriculum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business owners in the area, focusing on growing their companies. The program will also serve as a resource to First Nations entrepreneurs looking to start new ventures.
The program is reflective of the local economic growth, $ says Rockhampton Regional Council Mayor, Tony Williams$ :
“The Rockhampton Region is quickly becoming a hot spot for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment, with several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses relocating to Rockhampton from outside Queensland to take advantage of the widespread opportunities for First Nations workers.”
By providing the tools and opportunities for those who traditionally may have been overlooked in business, local governments not only do a better job serving all their residents, they set themselves up for economic growth among a diverse business community.
Key Inclusivity Innovation Projects:
- $ Rockhampton, QLD elevates overlooked entrepreneurs through First Nations Business Program$
- $ Greater Bendigo, VIC collaborates with other councils on Aboriginal Business Capability Building$
- $ Marion, SA creates new pathways to council employment with Inclusive Traineeship Program$
- $ Fraser Coast, QLD cultivates talent pool for administrative and customer service positions$
- $ Casey, VIC responds to gaps in technological access with its first Digital Equity Framework$
Reducing and preventing food waste
Each year, Australians $ waste more than $36 billion in food$ — about $2,000 to $2,500 per household. Unused groceries, uneaten meals that go in the trash, or restaurant and retail food that spoils before it’s served … it may seem like small losses here and there, but when added up across the country, the result is 7.6 million tonnes of tossed food each year.
This practice isn’t just wasteful; it’s contributing to overall sustainability issues. About 3 percent of the country’s overall emissions can be attributed to wasted food. So can a significant amount of water use — growing wasted food uses up 2600 gigalitres of water, which could fill the Sydney Harbour five times.
To address this, Australia has committed to cutting food waste in half by 2030. And while the goal is nationwide, much of the reduction and prevention efforts are happening at a local level, with different programs targeting residents — specifically renters — and businesses.
Cutting residential waste among renters
To reduce residential food waste, many councils are putting their attention on rental units or multi-family residences. This approach makes sense — not only have $ rentals increased across Australia$ , it also can be more efficient to provide a shared solution that multiple households can use.
For example, in Hills Shire, NSW, $ residents in a North Kellyville apartment complex can now dispose of their food in an underground worm farm$ , thanks to a first-in-Australia pilot program. About 120,000 worms live in a bin under the complex’s carpark; they break down food waste from the building’s residents and create byproducts that are then used to fertilize the complex’s shared garden, as well as individual units’ plants. Volunteer “champions” from the building help educate and encourage their neighbours to participate.
$ Councillor Robyn Preston says$ the worm farm is a great way to reduce food waste on site:
“Apartments bring a massive increase in population and with that comes an increase in the food waste created by apartment occupants. Council is thinking creatively to find ways to manage this waste and recycling food scraps onsite has been something I have been advocating for.”
Residents who want to go it alone can also purchase their own worm farms at a discount provided by the council.
Preventing food waste from local businesses
While the majority of wasted food comes from individual households, businesses — especially hospitality and food service — are culprits too. Councils are launching a range of trials and initiatives to help these industries make smarter use of their food.
Take Bega Valley, NSW, a small shire with a big goal. The $ local council is working to shift 30% of local food industry waste from landfills to kitchen tables$ .
Through the $ Nourish & Flourish program$ , the Bega Valley council is connecting local food purveyors with community pantries, providing extra food or produce with imperfections (that’s still completely safe to eat) to those who need it.
“This project addresses three separate issues—what to do with surplus food, connecting the people who need it with more affordable food, and a landfill site which is filling up too fast.”
While the main focus is on the industry-based contributors, individual residents can also participate. $ Eastman says$ :
“People can even get involved at home; next time you’re doing a pantry cleanout or if your veggie patch gives too much for you and your neighbours to eat, please get in touch.”
Whether targeting residential units or local businesses, many of these programs are not just about reducing waste. They also provide additional benefits to the community, whether it’s enhanced green spaces, promoting gardening, or connecting members of the community.
Key Food Waste Innovation Projects:
- $ The Hills Shire, NSW conducts first-in-Australia apartment complex worm farm pilot$
- $ Burwood, NSW engages renters in food waste diversion with Apartment Composting Pilot Project$
- $ Inner West, NSW expands food waste collection project across all apartment buildings$
- $ Bathurst Regional, NSW works with local businesses on the Closing the Gap on Food Waste pilot$
- $ Cockburn, WA addresses landfill contributions by food producers with Commercial Food Waste Trial$
Getting smart about water management
As we’ve seen around the world, preserving local water quality is a hot topic among local governments of all sizes. In Australia, where issues like drought are part of life, and water use is expected to $ double by 2050$ , monitoring and maintaining local water resources are critical.
Many councils are looking to smart monitoring systems to help them handle water supplies. Communities like $ MidCoast$ and $ Orange$ , both in NSW, are working with local water users, including households and businesses, to trial smart meters that monitor water consumption.
In Cairns, QLD, one such effort is underway to not just enhance water for local humans, but to protect one of the country’s most prized features: The Great Barrier Reef.
The $ city has introduced a smart catchment system on a local waterway to keep tabs on runoff coming from area suburbs$ , and to make sure it’s not infiltrating the offshore reef ecosystem. A dashboard tracks data from 30 sensors, meters and cameras along the creek. This information is not only available to the public, but it comes with helpful tips and explainers on how residents can act to improve the water quality in the dashboard.
To engage younger residents and make them care about water quality from an early age, Cairns also launched $ Mobi’s Catchment Challenge$ . The online and app-based interactive games let kids clean up the creek or manage their own catchment system to try to keep water quality on track.
Cairns’s efforts earned the regional council a finalist nod at the $ 2021 LGMA Queensland Awards for Excellence$ .
Key Water Management Innovation Projects:
- $ Cairns, QLD installs smart catchment on Saltwater Creek to monitor impacts on Great Barrier Reef$
- $ MidCoast, NSW experiments with smart water meters in Stroud Road before councilwide rollout$
- $ Moreton Bay, QLD replaces manual inspections of water tanks with remote monitoring system$
- $ Sunshine Coast, QLD puts stormwater to better use with its Storm Watered Street Tree Trial$
- $ Tea Tree Gully, SA implements Water Sensitive Urban Design features for a more resilient supply$
Preserving local biodiversity through technology
Kangaroos. Koalas. Tasmanian Devils. Australia’s known for its unique wildlife. In fact, $ more than 80% of Australia’s plants and animals are endemic to the continent$ — you won’t find them anywhere else in the world.
The problem is, there’s a risk you won’t find some in Australia in the future, either. The country has experienced a significant loss of biodiversity over the last few decades, caused by population growth, loss of habitat and the introduction of new invasive species.
Armed with new technology, communities across the country are stepping up their preservation efforts, from smart water management systems (see Cairns' program above, or $ Yarra Ranges’ platypus-protecting project$ ) to crowdsourcing wildlife sightings into an interactive map, like Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional, NSW’s rakali and platypus tracking project.
In Redland, QLD, an innovative partnership between the local government and Griffith University is pairing some of the biggest trends in technology with one of the most lovable of Australia’s animals: the koala.
Through an innovative two-year pilot, $ Redland and Griffith are attempting to use facial recognition technology to identify and track koalas$ , in order to understand their behavior when it comes to crossing the street. Ultimately the goal would be to reduce the number of koalas who are killed on local roads by motorists.
A network of cameras and sensors has been set up at “koala crossing” stations around roadways to record the animals. Then AI-based facial recognition technology — similar to what airport security uses — will be applied to identify the individual koalas and plot their habits.
Previous studies have relied on physical tracking devices on the animals, or the manual review of huge amounts of footage. By applying current technology to the problem, the results will be more robust and less disruptive to the animals, $ says Redland Mayor Karen Williams$ :
“It will allow continuous, concurrent monitoring of koala habitat using artificial intelligence, reducing intrusion and the hours required to tag and survey koalas required in the past.”
Redland’s pilot shows that it’s important for local governments to regularly reassess their approaches to factor in new technologies and ideas.
Key Creative Innovation Projects:
- $ Redland, QLD collaborates with Griffith University on facial recognition program for koalas$
- $ Tea Tree Gully, SA responds to increased accidents involving koalas with virtual fencing pilot$
- $ Yarra Ranges, VIC boosts platypus habitats with residential smart water tank pilot$
- $ Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional, NSW tracks platypus and rakali populations with monitoring project$
- $ Greater Geelong, VIC meets tourism and conservation goals with Sculptural Wave Attenuator project$
Leveraging art to jumpstart local business
Australia’s a creative place. In fact, the creative industry, which ranges from art and entertainment to jobs like web design and digital marketing, $ grew faster than almost every other sector of the Australian workforce in recent years$ .
Of course, many of these jobs took a hit when the pandemic struck. Now local councils across the country are priming them for a comeback. As cities and towns emerge from lockdowns and strict public health restrictions, they’re looking to the arts as a tool to rejuvenate local economies.
Councils are enticing residents back to shops and commercial districts through a range of art installations and music events.
Take Melbourne, a busy urban hub that saw more than a quarter of its storefronts close temporarily. To draw shoppers back to these areas, $ the city provided $100,000 AUD to local creative groups, who will fill the empty spaces with art displays$ . Ballarat, VIC, has taken a similar idea one step further, not only $ displaying art in empty storefronts, but also making it easy for passerby to purchase the artist’s works, through QR codes$ .
Visual art isn’t the only game in town, however. Some councils are amping up their local music scenes too. In $ Mount Gambier, SA, a series of micro-festivals called Live and Local $ was held around locations in the central business district. The $ city’s Live Music Project Officer Monica Hart explains$ :
“This is a fantastic opportunity for our champions of live music to come together to inject further vibrancy into our CBD and help to define the ingredients required to further build a thriving live music scene for Mount Gambier.”
$ Moyne, VIC, launched a similar pop-up initiative$ , where local musicians under 25 got to hone their craft with veteran producers before recording in the pop-up studio and performing at local concerts.
There are many wins here: First, re-exposing people to storefronts and businesses should jumpstart economic activity in the area. More foot traffic typically means more spending.
Second, the programs provide support to a large and growing segment of the workforce.
And finally, as has long been the case, promoting local arts scenes and beautifying or enhancing spaces through creative pursuits increases community engagement, ultimately making these places more pleasant and liveable for citizens.
Key Creative Innovation Projects:
- $ Melbourne, VIC turns vacant buildings into public art to reinvigorate shopping areas$
- $ Ballarat, VIC converts vacant Bridge Mall storefronts into showrooms for local artistic products$
- $ Moyne, VIC connect young artists to new audiences with the Pop-Up Recording Studio pilot$
- $ Mount Gambier, SA cultivates a robust music scene with its Live and Local program$
- $ Greater Bendigo, VIC connects artists with businesses through Creative Recovery Residency Program$
Inclusivity, food waste reduction, smart water management, tech-driven wildlife preservation, and arts-inspired economic revival are common focus areas across communities in Australia.
But these issues aren’t unique to this part of the world.
The approaches tried and lessons learned by councils in Australia have legs beyond their local applications. Cities and counties around the world should look to these Australian trendsetters for inspiration in tackling similar challenges. From there, more innovation will come, as communities continue to refine the ideas that others share.