Stop trying to Aucklandise our science and innovation

By Peter Kerr 17/04/2012 9

At the risk of displaying a Wellington-residential and Southland upbringing bias, the government’s keenness for an Aucklandisation of our science and innovation strikes me as being stupid.

In particular, the push to make (force even) the development of the former oil tank farm Wynyard Quarter as a place that can grow into a hotbed of science-led innovation is wrong.

Purely on an evidence-based front, there’s flaws in the argument that’s been put up for the Quarter.

Why would start-ups, one of the main elements that the Quarter’s meant to be trying to attract, be interested in locating themselves on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country?

Start-ups start in garages and spare bedrooms, rundown warehouses and close to the sources of supply (of raw materials, brains, good distribution) that fit at the particular time of their beginning.

Start-ups don’t kick off in elaborate, over-designed (potential white elephants), and surely government’s not suggesting a subsidised rental scheme!

Even if Industrial Research (as it even so slowly morphs into an Advanced Technology Institute) was ‘encouraged’ to set up in the WQ, those wanting to tap into its knowledge wouldn’t have to be co-located to access the brains. You don’t have to be onsite to have a meeting.

The other worry with the government’s Aucklandisation push for science and innovation is that it is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Sure, some high-level manufacturing takes place there — but attempting to concentrate R&D resources in the Queen City ignores the facts of the matter.

In a New Zealand environment that has a great scarcity of data, a recent working paper by Victoria University’s Management School crunches some numbers and draws some conclusions from IRL’s 2009 initiative, ‘What’s Your Problem New Zealand’.

The 19 page document can be found here. It’s a nicely written piece, low on theory-speak, and prepared to draw a few conclusions.

The management school recognised that analysing the [100] competition application forms

‘represented a unique and potentially extremely useful insightful view of the corporate innovation landscape’.

One particular feature they noted was that WYPNZ isolated firms with active innovative intent — that is, thinking about innovation ‘right now’ in order to apply.

The competition was also open of all-comers, not just those identified by another agency or body as having potential to turn innovative intent into value creation, or firms in need of development.

All in all,

‘we hope to have created a picture, in microcosm, of the landscape for corporate innovation inNew Zealand.’

Again, check out the report for yourself.

But, to cut to the chase, and the first couple of 13 propositions (which VUW suggests could be the basis for further possible research):

Proposition 1: No geographic region in New Zealand has more or less ‘innovative intent’, or indeed innovative capability, than any other.

Proposition 2: IRL’s primary location in Wellington appears to have no significant bearing on encouraging or discouraging firms from any particular region to relate to it.

………. so, to draw a long bow.

Don’t go overly pushing Auckland as an engineered hotbed of science and innovation — it’s an incorrect property play in the first instance, and unsubstantiated policy proposal in the second.

And for goodness sake government — let IRL get on with developing its ATI-inspired campus at Gracefield.

In the continued absence of a sense of science and innovation direction (which will only be exacerbated with the MSI’s absorption into the super-ministry), the ongoing mucking around with what was IRL’s idea in the first place is bad for the country.

In other words, tell IRL what you want them to achieve, and let them get on with doing that by allocating its smart people resources in the way that best fits. Kicking off with a rebuild (of a modular design that can be replicated inChristchurchandAuckland) in Wellington is the sensible option.

If the argument is that New Zealand needs to act as a city of four million people, IRL’s current head office location is fine as demonstrated by the evidence.

Or to put it another way, let’s just get on and do stuff, without the Auckland bias.

9 Responses to “Stop trying to Aucklandise our science and innovation”

  • If I’m reading it correctly (quick glance level rather than carefully) though, from that report it sort of looks like 70-80% of the applications are North Island based. Which may not be significant given the apparent lack of effect distance has. Though there’s an insufficient breakdown of numbers for me to be convinced of that. Given that Auckland hits 35-40%, I presume those numbers are corrected for head of population, but if they want to show that geographic location has no effect then surely they should break the Wellington numbers out of the rest of the North Island category. It would be interesting to see if the other categories broken down by region as well. As in is the manufacturing sector highly represented in Auckland? Given that Auckland has (if I recall correctly) a reasonably high level of manufacturing industry, it could be that rather than population that is skewing things towards Auckland.

    Hrm, one is curious now, intrigued even.

    The rent argument is fair enough – though I’ve always assumed they would have been trying to do something along the lines of the Icehouse. That is a large space with meeting rooms available not dedicated to any specific company. Not necessarily where the company is based but where the company can have a presence for little to no rent.

  • Just to make it clear – I’m not advocating that things should be Auckland based – more that the numbers in the report have made me a little curious and I wouldn’t mind some more.

    Off to read it in more depth.

  • At the NZAS conference yesterday, Phil O’Reilly of business NZ said that he wanted the new Advanced Technology Institute to be based on the Auckland waterfront because a: there are lots of pubs there (he was joking) b: science campuses are “boring as batshit” (not joking) he said businesses would be more likely to go there because science needs to be really simple and non-threatening to them. So there you go…

  • The location matters little – NZers manage to do business all over the world. What we need is a place where business can talk to science, that is easily accessible and non-threatening to either party. Palmerston North (central location) or Wellington would be a sensible choice given the high concentration of scientists and scientific institutions located inthese places.

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