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.
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.”
“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.
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
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.
"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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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
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
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.
“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
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.