Sean Audain, Innovation Officer of Wellington (NZ): ‘The key word in a smart city initiative is ‘city”


In our series of interviews with Smart City Experts we talked to Sean Audain, Innovation Officer- Smart City at Wellington City Council. Wellington is the capital city and second most populous urban area of New Zealand, with 405,000 residents. Sean is an urban planner by profession with a particular interest in understanding how cities work. Wellington has a metropolitan population of just less than half a million, and is shaped by its steep terrain and wild natural environment into a compact capital city.

What Smart City Initiatives is your city working on?

Our City is working on a number of initiatives with our partners. The range of projects include:

  • Supporting the deployment of IoT and sensing using our flexible sensing platform (the Kite) to understand pedestrian dynamics, the performance of buildings during earthquakes or environmental metrics.
  • Machine learning projects to assist in counting endangered birds being reintroduced into the city, understand behavior in our streets and alert for breaking glass.
  • Platforms which help us share data between agencies, Aggregate City Data and create immersive VR-experiences in our 3D city.

The list is getting quite long, but perhaps my favorite projects are those with our CivicTech community and hackathons, which create demand for data, keep us connected to our tech communities and provide the social license for us to do our work.

How /where do you start executing a smart city initiative?

The key word in a smart city initiative is ‘city’. Before we embark on a project we get together people from across the council, government, business and the community to look at a problem. Together we work to understand what we are all trying to achieve, we find the strengths, the commonalities and the pain points.

People like me and from our partners at NEC then work with them to help find a way to help their people to achieve these outcomes. This help can range from simple things like making paper forms into digital apps, to using sensors, remote sensing technologies or machine learning techniques to help them become more effective at delivering results for the city.

How do you set up a business case for smart city initiatives?

Smart cities are about achieving progress towards a better city – this means helping the city council, government agencies and the community to do their work. Often in practice this means that rather than a smart city being a new line item, it is instead an adjustment to an existing budget. The key is to find where having the city involved makes it happen, when otherwise it wouldn’t, or ensures that data which will be critical in the future will be open and accessible.

How do you justify the investments?

Our Smart City Initiatives are city projects, not IT-projects. What this means is that they are part of systems addressing issues like begging, liquor regulation or resilience building and from the start are approached with that mindset. As each investment delivers on an outcome, it becomes a module of an overall city system. Throughout our developing smart city we make use of key open source software layers, open formats and provider agnostic core platforms. This means that we have an agile smart city, rather than a series of technology enabled departments.

Can you tell us your strategy for the security of these initiatives? (privacy)

Privacy is a key design criterion. To assist he development of the Smart City we have been very open about its development, and involved the NZ Privacy Commissioner. Through working with the Privacy Commission and completing Privacy Impact Assessments we can be careful not to collect information that identifies individuals, and use techniques like edge computing, machine learning and appropriate security where it could happen to ensure compliance.

Can you tell something about the way the initiatives are managed?

At the core of our initiatives is a City Governance Group, which lets departments share what they have learnt and our partnership with NEC. We are careful to keep in touch with agencies and communities in the city, test ideas with them and help them realise the benefits in their areas.

Can other cities use your expertise and copy this for their city?

We are always happy to talk to other cities and learn what they are doing, and share what we have learnt. Our methods are different to many cities, but they have led to tangible results and real progress.

What is your smart city vision for the future?

Our Vision is set out in the Wellington 2040 and Digital Strategies. We are careful not to prescribe the future too closely, making sure to leave room for innovation and to capitalize on new technology and events.

Where do you get your knowledge about Smart Cities?

Most of my knowledge comes from working with our communities, my urban planning background and from experimenting. Ultimately a smart city is about using new tools to address an old problem of how do we understand our city so as a community we can act to make it better?

*) Featured Image: The World Upon My Shoulders (cc)


  • Hi Sean Audain, Our parent company has implemented Smart Grid project in Melville Australia. We would like to participate in your program here on smart city opportunities, especially for pedestrian, parking, power, water etc. Seek your time for a presentation. Thanks, Milind

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