Innovators of New Zealand: 10 Ways Cities are Driving Change
Local authorities in New Zealand are embracing new ways to modernise their services, streamline their efforts and improve citizens’ lives. Here are 10 stand-out innovation projects across the country.
New Zealand’s strict pandemic lockdowns prompted the modernisation of many government processes, including building inspections and bus tracking.
Transportation improvements are a big focus across many local authorities, including e-mobility access and engaging citizens to plan on-demand services.
Sustainability and environmental protection are another big priority. Efforts here range from night-sky protection to more transparent building performance reports.
It’s ($ accurately$ ) said that sheep outnumber humans in New Zealand. So do cows. But don’t let that fool you — the Pacific nation is far from provincial. In addition to world class wine, formidable rugby talent, film-inspiring landscapes and a rich Māori culture, New Zealand is a prolific player when it comes to local government innovation.
Let’s start with the country’s pandemic response. New Zealand gained attention around the world for its thorough — and successful — coronavirus response. But not only did the nearly two-month lockdown largely control the virus, it ushered in a wave of adaptations: cities and councils around the country had to keep things running remotely, and they had to rethink how they served their citizens.
This prompted a slew of change — much of which will have lingering benefits long after the virus subsides.
What’s more, pandemic-related advances are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are $ over 100 creative ideas by New Zealand local governments shared on Govlaunch’s innovation wiki$ , from transportation initiatives to citizen engagement and all around modernisation. Many of these projects began long before lockdown.
We’ve selected 10 projects that stand out, not only because they rethink the way things are done across local government, but also because they offer valuable lessons other local governments can learn from. Whether it’s deploying free charging stations to bolster e-mobility, engaging the public to shift behaviour to meet new regulations, or adopting new technology to streamline the citizen experience, these efforts are reframing the way local authorities serve their communities.
New Zealand local government 101
Before diving into what they’ve done, it’s important to understand $ how New Zealand’s local governments work$ . The country uses a unitary system, where the central government has authority to define and empower local government, known as local authorities.
There are two tiers of local government: regional councils are responsible for large areas. Within these regional councils, smaller jurisdictions are known as territorial authorities. These can vary in format, and include city councils and district councils. Generally the regional councils oversee services like environmental initiatives and transportation. The more locally-focused territorial authorities manage local public services, including water supply, road conditions, and cultural institutions like libraries and museums. Representatives at the regional and territorial levels are elected by residents every three years.
The roles and responsibilities of local authorities are determined by New Zealand’s Parliament, but the execution of these responsibilities is typically driven by the local authorities. This allows for innovation at a local level — one district may implement a very different solution than another, despite having a similar mandate from the central government.
10 standout innovation projects in New Zealand
Auckland Council, NZ conducts virtual building inspections throughout lockdown
It was a pain point felt around the world: if public health measures prevented in-person inspections, how could building proceed?
Auckland officials $ developed a mobile app that streamlines the building inspections process$ by allowing inspectors to review photos of key structural elements remotely, without making an in-person visit to the construction site. $ The Artisan app$ , which was developed through a partnership with consulting technology firm $ BRANZ$ , allows builders to submit photos from a mobile phone and have them reviewed by an off-site expert. Inspectors access the project through a web interface which allows them to better track the building.
The council was using the Artisan app prior to the pandemic; but saw big benefits during lockdown: It prevented slowdowns and backlogs that non-digitized authorities experienced — Auckland $ was able to operate at around 90 percent of its pre-COVID volume$ . At the same time, builders became more familiar with the inspection process; by sending photos from their phones and getting direct input from the remote inspector, it raised awareness of issue areas. The app also allows for more collaboration across councils, $ says Jeff Farehenson from Auckland Council$ :
“Artisan opens the door to working remotely from anywhere. That includes other councils doing the inspections for us.”
Ultimately, $ says the Chair of Auckland Council’s Regulatory Committee Councillor Linda Cooper$ , Artisan allowed for continuity of council services, benefitting citizens:
“The silver lining of this crisis is that it has helped us to speed up and streamline the flexible option to work from home and still provide Aucklanders a good service.”
Christchurch City Council, NZ launched a real-time earthquake monitoring pilot program
After a 2011 earthquake devastated the city, Christchurch has been making major investments in earthquake response and preparedness. One of these efforts is an upgraded earthquake monitoring system called EQRNet. The $ city launched a three-year pilot program$ in partnership with Canterbury Seismic Instruments (CSI).
EQRNet modernises the city’s earthquake monitoring system by relying on more than 150 accelerometers, which measure ground-shaking and provide results in real time. It then shares this data with emergency response teams, property and building managers, and the public.
Initial trials of the new system are proving to be a big improvement over Christchurch’s existing system, GeoNet, which has far fewer sensors and more limited coverage. The EQRNet trial $ earned Christchurch recognition in the IDC Asia Pacific Smart Cities Awards$ .
Beyond the technological improvements, Christchurch’s transparent approach is commendable and something other cities should mimic. By making seismic data available to the public, it allows citizens to manage their own earthquake response more proactively.
Canterbury Regional Council, NZ crowdsources foul odour reports using mobile app
Managing unwanted odours stinks. Especially when citizens are complaining of “$ meaty, rancid, dead animal, decayed$ ” smells. In Timaru, the Canterbury Regional Council $ turned to technology to clear the air$ .
The council launched a pilot using the $ Smelt-It app$ , which crowdsources reports of odours from the public. Users rank the strength of the smell, where they were when they encountered it, and then submits the report to the council. It’s then up to local authorities to find the stink.
The data-driven approach allows the council to respond more effectively, says Timaru’s $ Southern zone delivery lead Brian Reeves$ :
"Overall, the aim is to reduce odour reaching beyond business boundaries to reduce the impact these odours have on our community. With Smelt-it, we’re able to collect more data and respond in a timely manner, where possible.”
Once the source of the odour is identified, the council then works with whatever local business is the cause (if a business is the culprit) to eliminate the smell. The Canterbury Regional Council $ posts updates about their findings on their website$ .
The initial pilot saw good results: $ 111 people reported 235 individual Smelt-it reports$ . The council was able to validate many of these, and eight notices of non-compliance were issued to local businesses. The Smelt-It app remains in use now that the pilot has concluded.
Auckland Council, NZ introduces real-time bus capacity tracking
Snagging a seat on a bus was often hard enough, before social distancing measures were enacted. But as public health concerns prompted the need for more space limitations, public transportation systems had to grapple with a whole new set of challenges.
To create a safer public transit experience for essential workers and other residents during the pandemic, $ Auckland Transport introduced a major upgrade to its mobile app, AT Mobile, which displays bus capacity in real time$ .
Passengers can see how crowded a bus is, and make a decision about whether they want to take it (before boarding and awkwardly looking for an empty space). Bus drivers, meanwhile, won’t have to keep an eye on open seats or capacity status: if a bus reaches a certain density, the app will flag it so the bus won’t pick up any more passengers until space is available.
While it was designed for lockdown, the app is expected to have lasting benefits, empowering people to make smarter transit choices, $ says Auckland Mayor Phil Goff$ :
“It will also have a carry-over into the post-lockdown period, enabling people to determine how full a train or bus they are hoping to catch is.”
Canterbury Regional Council, NZ uses giant maps to collect data for on-demand transit system
The best way to plan a service for citizens is to get their input on what would benefit them most. But sometimes engaging the public and getting clear, actionable information is a challenge. In Timaru, NZ, the $ Canterbury Regional Council turned to giant, interactive maps to get people talking about their transit needs$ .
As part of its planning for a new on-demand transportation program, the council hosted a series of events where a large map of the region was prominently displayed. Citizens were then asked to plot their routes — commutes, grocery runs, places they’d want better access to.
“We ask people to plot on the map their departure and destination points, including places they would like to travel to. People who currently use the bus mark their bus trips and end destinations, while those who don’t use public transport identify where they would like the on-demand service to take them.”
Rather than written surveys or conceptual questions, the maps let people better visualize their needs and give concrete information. It’s fairly easy to contribute — at one local event 60 people weighed in.
The results will then be used to inform the area’s new on-demand transit system, which should be more equipped to address citizens’ needs based on their mapped feedback.
Christchurch City Council, NZ introduces free e-bike docking and charging stations
Sustainable mobility is getting a boost in Christchurch’s CBD, thanks to “Locky Docks,” $ a network of free charging stations and bike docks set around the city$ .
Riders access the docks through a mobile app. eBike and electric scooter owners can use the docks free of charge to power up their vehicles (it’s BYO charging cable, though) or also lock up their bikes.
Don’t have an electric bike? $ There’s a “rent-to-own” initiative in the works to make e-bikes more accessible to more people$ . (The docks also can be used to lock up regular non-electric bikes, too.)
But the Locky Docks aren’t just about transportation: they serve as information centers, with digital screens including bike maps and advertisements (which subsidizes the program). The locking functionality encourages people to get out and explore the CBD, supporting local downtown businesses.
Christchurch City Council Sustainability and Community Resilience Committee Chairperson $ Sara Templeton explains the benefits$ :
“E-bike use has increased markedly in New Zealand in recent years. These new charging stations will support greater e-bike use here in Christchurch, benefiting the environment, taking pressure off our transport infrastructure and attracting more people into the central city.”
The docks, which were installed through a $ public-private partnership between Christchurch and Big Street Bikers$ , have since expanded to Auckland and Wellington. The vision is to eventually create a nation-wide system of charging docks.
Wellington Regional Council, NZ hosted "Dark Sky" events raise environmental awareness
Astronomy and night sky photography is a growing trend among outdoor enthusiasts. In Wellington, it’s also being used as a citizen engagement tool to fight against light pollution.
The $ Wellington Regional Council partnered with the local Wellington Astronomical Society to host a number of “Dark Sky” events$ for the public. These events offered stargazing, photography sessions, and lessons on Māori astronomy.
The Dark Sky events are designed to raise awareness awareness of how impactful artificial light — the lights we use in our day to day lives — can be to local ecosystems. $ Greater Wellington park ranger Ricky Clarkson explains$ :
“Many people don’t realise artificial light disrupts ecosystems by affecting species’ reproduction cycles, feeding behaviours, sleep, navigational abilities and safety from predators.”
By focusing on topics like the forest at night and conservation efforts for the North Island brown kiwi, the Wellington events create a clear connection between people’s actions and the environment they live in. According to $ Greater Wellington councillor, Prue Lamason$ :
“These starlight outings offer a safe and friendly environment for families to learn about a range of conservation topics and mātauranga Māori concepts, where there is a wealth of interconnected knowledge around sustainability, astronomy and wellbeing through a deep cultural connection with te taiao.
It’s an awesome chance for people, who might not always have the opportunity, to strengthen a diversity of relationships with our natural environment.”
Hutt City Council, NZ publishes housing performance, a New Zealand first
Governments across New Zealand monitor and record information about properties, from flood hazards to rates (taxes) due, plumbing, and historic designations. And now, in Hutt City, these Land Information Memorandums (LIMs) $ will also include building performance — including health, warmth, and environmental status$ .
The city is the first in New Zealand to feature this type of information, which property owners or renters can choose to have certified and added to the LIM. The policy offers a step forward in terms of transparency and health preparation — people will know more about the impacts of the homes they’re living in (or potentially buying), and the city will better understand what property issues need to be prioritised.
"While many countries around the world require energy labelling on their homes, here in New Zealand we lack that transparency, and families are unwittingly buying cold, inefficient places to live.
This great step by Hutt City Council will help Kiwis make better, more informed decisions and helps push for better, healthier, warmer, and more efficient homes."
Canterbury Regional Council, NZ drives water quality compliance through award-winning communications campaign
Changing policy can be hard, especially when it involves shifting public behaviour. In Canterbury, $ new water regulations were introduced to improve overall quality$ , which imposed the strictest standards for farmers in New Zealand.
Setting standards is only part of the equation — regulations won’t make much impact if people don’t follow them. To address this, the Canterbury Regional Council launched a coordinated communications campaign to contact the region’s farmers, educate them on the new rules, and provide them resources for taking the required steps.
This combination of policy-plus-communications was key, $ says Environment Canterbury director of communications, Tafflyn Bradford-James$ :
“In recent years, new rules meant that Canterbury's 8,800 farmers were to be subjected to the toughest water quality regulations in the country. Our communications team worked with experts across the council to make sure farmers knew about this requirement and took the appropriate action.”
Thanks to the campaign, called “Doing things differently: How to introduce the country's toughest farming rules,” Canterbury’s efforts were a success. Within a year, 92 percent of the farmers targeted by the campaign had taken the required actions to comply with the new regulations.
Waikato District Council, NZ creates "Little Libraries" in rural areas with help of prisoners
What began as a $ small personal tribute$ in one man’s yard has grown into a worldwide network of small book exchange boxes, or Little Libraries. In Waikato, $ these libraries are being introduced as part of a placemaking campaign$ aimed at increasing citizen engagement and reimagining public spaces.
Over 40 boxes were then distributed around Waikato, with a focus on rural communities that may not have access to libraries or book exchange programs. Residents can then take or add books to the boxes, which hold up to 30 volumes.
In an innovative twist on the community engagement project, the district partnered with a local corrections facility to create the libraries — prisoners build and decorate the boxes. Each one is unique, with scenes that tie into the box’s location. This encourages prisoners to contribute to the community, and allows them to explore creative pursuits, which can $ reduce the chance of committing another offense after their release$ .
Not only is New Zealand innovating at a local level, we’re also seeing these new ideas spread across local authorities in the country. After Christchurch launched its Locky Dock e-charging stations for bikes and scooters, Auckland and Wellington have adopted them too. Apps like Smelt It are being trialed in multiple locations.
These are great examples of how ideas incubated and applied in one community can be applied for greater impact across other local governments. What’s important is that idea sharing doesn’t have borders. There’s no reason the efforts in Auckland or Wellington can’t be embraced in Dublin or San Diego. The more local governments share their transformative ideas and project successes — and failures! — the more communities around the world can advance and make life better for their citizens.
For more innovation ideas and projects in New Zealand, $ visit the Govlaunch innovation wiki$ .