In early 2022 the City of Casey launched its Digital Equity Living Lab in Doveton, aiming to improve digital inclusion and accessibility in the community.

Located in Melbourne’s outer south-east suburbs, Council soon knew that addressing such a complex issue, and reaching digitally-excluded residents, required collaboration and insight from both partners and the community.

The Casey suburb of Doveton has a considerable number of residents without internet access, which can lead to isolation and limit work and schooling opportunities.

To improve these resident’s quality of life, Council introduced the Digital Equity Living Lab, planning a series of trials in the Doveton area to make it easier for residents to access the internet and learn how to use technology.

The Living Lab involves various trials, with Council to collaborate with other partners to help deliver the projects, garner feedback from the community and inform future plans. But digital equity cannot be solved by simply installing free WiFi spots around Doveton.

It is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions to account for the various language, information and accessibility challenges that impact the community, which can only be done through collaboration.

Technological access and information

Council devised the Living Lab to learn about, and account for, varying accessibility and affordability problems which prevent residents from getting online or having the skills needed to be confidently digitally connected.

City of Casey Manager of Strategy, Innovation and Transformation, Marion Greig, said the Living Lab is like a community-centered test environment, structured around a physical space for co-design, experimentation of smart technologies and innovative solutions to address complex challenges.

“We’re providing a space where we can work with and engage the community through different trials to try and solve a complex problem, and there’s a big focus on bringing in partners with the right expertise to help us,” Ms Greig said.

Doveton was selected for the trials because of its high rate of digital exclusion, with 2016 Census data reporting that 22 per cent of households don’t use the internet at home.

Additionally, there are many residents who are elderly or come from non-English speaking backgrounds who find it difficult to master new technology and education surrounding this.

The Digital Equity Living Lab was launched in-person in early June 2022 at the Digital Doveton Festival, held at the Autumn Place Community Hub – which has come to serve as the main physical location for the Digital Equity Living Lab.

Ms Greig said the festival gave Council a chance to inform residents about the trials rolling out in Doveton, to give them a chance to provide feedback and to hear from them about the kinds of programs and support needed.

“We knew that if we wanted to reach the community, we needed to get them together and down to Autumn Place,” Ms Greig said.

Delivering new technology and support

As part of the project, Council partnered with three organisations to deliver trials that addressed digital inequity, through providing the necessary tools and knowledge to use the internet.

Casey Cardinia Libraries, in collaboration with Council, held Doveton’s Digital Day Out, a free technology expo. The event showcased new technology, such as Virtual Reality (VR) and robotics, and online tools for jobs, training, and government assistance.

City of Casey also partnered with Eco Renewable Energy to install two solar-powered smart benches at the local Neighbourhood Learning Centre and outside Doveton Pool, with a third bench due to be installed at the Linden Place shops in November.

The benches offer free WiFi, device charging and environmental sensors for temperature, humidity, air pressure, gas sensors, particle sensors, people counting and noise levels.

Another trial involves upgrades to three bus shelters to include free WiFi, device charging, environmental sensors and advertising for local businesses in a partnership with yStop.

Ms Greig said collaboration is crucial to the success of these trials, with experts offering solutions Council could not have come up with on its own.

“Without partners and without collaboration, we probably wouldn’t be able to solve these problems,” Ms Greig said.

“When these experts bring in their thinking and their experiences, it helps us understand what solutions there are and different ways we might approach and solve things.”

Reaching the community

Being a complex issue, digital equity comes with various challenges for the City of Casey community, which made it all the more important for Council to work with residents to ensure these trials were actually what the community needed.

Council’s Team Leader of Community Engagement, Michelle Welsby, highlighted that digital equity is not just about access, but also affordability and building digital abilities and literacy.

“With this community in Doveton there’s a very high non-English speaking community, so there’s been some challenges around engaging in languages other than English,” Ms Welsby said.

But aside from digital literacy and language challenges, to reach digitally-excluded residents Council could not rely solely on spreading the word digitally; they had to prioritise a physical information campaign.

Ms Welsby said the City of Casey knew it had to shift its communication mindset from social media to door-to-door.

“We’ve got to assume that the people aren’t online or are considered digitally excluded, so they might not be seeing the stuff that goes online,” Ms Welsby said.

“We’ve definitely done our social media posts and our online messaging, like the webpage, but we’ve also handed out a lot of physical flyers and handouts.

“We had this map developed, which when you unfold it, opens up into a big WiFi map and shows very clearly where all the new smart benches and smart bus shelters are going.

“We’ve also been going to businesses across the road in Autumn Place, such as the local takeaway shop, cafe, and others to give them flyers to hand out.”

When it came to gathering feedback, a physical or in-person campaign enabled Council to interact with, and learn from, the residents it wanted to reach.

At a local community hall, Council ran a paper survey for members of the senior groups and clubs, and received over 170 responses, with non-English speaking residents able to fill out the survey with help from interpreters.

“What we’ve found is we got a lot through just conversations with people as opposed to actual engagement points or data points,” Ms Welsby said.

Community consultation to gather feedback has been integral to the digital trials, with Council meeting with a community reference group quarterly to discuss what smart city initiatives to roll out.

City of Casey’s Smart City Project Officer, Mandy O’Toole, outlined the importance of broad collaboration.

“We’ve got to make sure it’s something that they want, something that the community will find benefit from,” Ms O’Toole said.

“Collaboration with the community is absolutely crucial. It should never be just rolling out technology for the sake of it.”

In-person digital support for Doveton residents. Image: City of Casey.

Heading into the future

With the Digital Equity Living Lab launched and trials underway, Council is already developing more projects to address digital exclusion in Doveton and build the lab into a worthwhile resource.

Aside from the three technology trials, Council has procured more laptops for the library device loan program for Doveton community members with Enable Social Enterprises, to allow more residents to have devices at home to access the internet.

Additionally, non-profit organisation, Lively, has partnered with Council to train up young job seekers to deliver technology information sessions and support for senior citizens.

But the Digital Equity Living Lab has also been a valuable smart city resource, with Council learning from the implementation process for the Digital Equity Living Lab to develop a Circular Economy Living Lab.

Ms Greig said there’s a more robust process for the Circular Economy Living Lab, using Council’s knowledge and experiences from launching the Digital Equity Living Lab.

“This time round, we’ve gone all out. We want to reach every corner of the world where there might possibly be solutions that can come forward and be proposed for the Circular Economy Living Lab,” Ms Greig said.

With positive feedback from the Digital Equity Living Lab and the events, Ms O’Toole said residents and community groups are eager to get involved and take advantage of the support.

“We had these seniors come along who turned up with iPads and just said, ‘Here I am, I’ve got my iPad. Can you help me download some apps and some games?’, because they don’t necessarily have family around to help them,” Ms O’Toole said.

“Some of our seniors groups are not that technological or don’t want to become technological, but the ones who do turn up are taking on what we provide for them.

“Just hearing that people have gotten value out of coming along to these things has been really great.”

Partnering with digital experts and engaging with the community every step of the way have been critical elements to bringing the Digital Equity Living Lab to life, and making it successful and beneficial to the community.

Ms O’Toole said that City of Casey’s future living lab projects will rely on understanding what residents need and discovering new approaches to tackle complex issues through collaboration.

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