Mayor Kay Fraser shares plans for rechargeable benches, free wifi hotspots and how tech can help the Council reach out to both urban and rural communities.

What is your vision for the city?

I am passionate about social justice and ensuring every resident has access to the necessary services that contribute to a good quality of life. Lake Macquarie is a city of more than 90 communities, ranging from urban to rural, surrounding a lake twice the size of Sydney Harbour. Because of this unique geography, we don’t have one CBD – rather, we have nine major town centres that serve as retail, business, employment and social hubs for surrounding communities.

The challenge is connecting these places, and I am a big advocate for expanding our network of pedestrian and cycle paths, not only to link communities but also to promote healthy lifestyles and active transport.

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I am committed to creating more opportunities for education and employment, as we continue to transition from a city with a traditionally strong economic reliance on manufacturing, mining and power generation to one with a more diverse profile that encompasses a strong digital economy.

How will technology help?

Technology helps enormously with connecting communities and providing better access to services, particularly in a city like Lake Macquarie that covers a large area (757 square kilometres), with many suburbs, towns and villages. Residents can access some council services online, provide feedback through our many digital community engagement tools and link with local interest groups and activities via our community web portal.

Technology will allow us to keep jobs and businesses in our city as digital advances give companies more freedom to operate outside of major city centres. Council’s economic development company, Dantia, has opened a smart work hub where small-business entrepreneurs and start-ups can hire space to work and collaborate with other innovators.

We are also implementing technology solutions to improve planning and service delivery, enhance energy efficiency and make our operations more sustainable.

How will you develop your digital services?

We have developed a digital economy strategy, Lake Mac Smart City, Smart Council, to be rolled out over the next four years. It identifies 18 initiatives that will boost the local economy, improve Council’s performance and enhance the lifestyle of residents by enabling greater online participation.

We aim to expand our online presence and trial new digital tools to increase community participation. We want to increase access to information and encourage app developers to use this data on their platforms.

We are looking at initiatives such as solar-powered mobile-device recharging benches in city parks and free wi-fi in council-operated spaces. The overall aim is to improve connectivity between our communities and empower our residents to participate fully in city life through access to digital technology.

What has been the greatest innovation from the civil service?

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Council has taken a very proactive approach to building resilience against climate change, particularly in guarding against inundation. With 174 kilometres of lake foreshore and 32 kilometres of coastline, it is imperative that we address the impacts of sea level rise, which is predicted to increase by almost one metre by the end of the century.

We are developing, in collaboration with residents, local adaptation plans for low-lying areas that identify strategies to protect neighbourhoods from inundation. These include foreshore protection mechanisms, filling low-lying land and raising land, roads, drains, buildings and other infrastructure. We have also developed an online tool that gives residents building or renovating homes information on the minimum floor level height required to ensure their homes are protected.

What is your top priority for 2017?

One of our biggest infrastructure projects is a major transport interchange in a suburb called Glendale, which is a natural hub with significant potential for residential, retail and commercial growth given its proximity to major road and rail connections. The Lake Macquarie Transport Interchange has been identified by government as a high priority for our city and the surrounding Hunter region, due to its strategic central location.

Stage one of the project is under construction, with financial support from our Council and the state and federal governments. We are currently seeking funding partners for the next stage of this important project. This support will enable us to build a bridge that will connect the Glendale retail precinct with the jobs hub in the adjacent suburb of Cardiff and, ultimately, to build a public transport interchange, complete with a new train station.

How is the city using feedback from citizens?

Our online engagement portal attracts 26,500 visits a year and provides a platform for the community to engage directly on a range of issues. Our platforms are now successfully reaching residents who have traditionally been harder to engage, especially young people and families, through a shift in our language and methods, and willingness to provide and accept input via video, social media and other interactive tools. The Skate Lake Mac consultation, for instance, included a skateboard design competition and activity-based workshops with local young people.

Shape Your Future is a major engagement program to develop a new vision and values for Lake Macquarie City that will guide our plans for coming decades. It reached 78,000 people via social media and the website received 5,000 visits, demonstrating the effectiveness of online engagement.

Since taking mayoral office in September I have also been working on building my own social media presence, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, in order to communicate more effectively with the community.

What city or country do you draw public service inspiration from and why?

I admire the collaborative and inclusive nature of the Netherlands municipalities, in particular their enthusiasm for innovation and implementing emerging technologies in the public sector.

Lake Macquarie recently hosted a Dutch smart-cities delegation and signed an MOU with the Global Smart City and Community Coalition, a progressive organisation based in the Netherlands that aims to inspire and facilitate innovation in cities through information sharing and advocacy.

It was wonderful to mix with those innovators and entrepreneurs and hear about the new and intriguing ways they are improving urban planning and service delivery in their country.

If I were to visit your city, what one place would you recommend?

I would recommend that you take a sailing trip around Lake Macquarie. The lake is our jewel – a magnificent natural attraction and aquatic playground.

Back in the 1980s, it was ailing, suffering from the effects of urban development, overfishing and industrial run-off from polluting industries such as the former lead and zinc smelter that stood at its northern end for more than a century.

Today, thanks to an internationally acclaimed action plan implemented by Council, local government, private-sector experts and the community, its health has been restored and it once again boasts clear waters and abundant marine life.