Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Fast-food alley versus Silicon Valley

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

The boss of fast-growing tech company Optimizer wants to convert central Auckland into a mini Silicon Valley, which I guess couldn't be any worse than its present fast-food and two-dollar shop persona. But let's hope he doesn't get any of the mayoral hopefuls jumping on his bandwagon, promising to back him with the council chequebook.

Auckland Council is already so hard up it can't even afford to mow its own grass berms. There's no money to fork out on consultants' reports and scoping studies and all the other expensive promises local political visionaries love to embrace when they venture out on the campaign trail.

Optimizer CEO Manas Kumar says bringing like-minded companies together geographically is a model which has already proved successful internationally with the establishment of California's Silicon Valley. The last time I checked, veteran vision-maker Sir Bob Harvey had already made the move, creating his own Silicon Valley-in-waiting at Wynyard Quarter, down at the waterfront. All he needs is more tenants and/or neighbours.

What a pity that instead of moving into new premises in uptown Symonds St, Optimizer didn't seize the opportunity to move down to the waterfront and bring life to the dream Mr Kumar and the Waterfront Auckland chairman share.

It was nearly two years ago that Sir Bob declared the proposed Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct could become a "mini Silicon Valley".

This vision got a further breath of life in March last year, when the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, officially opened the new premises of Nextspace, the first technology company to move into the area.

"It is not possible to imagine any way New Zealand can succeed in a world where knowledge-driven innovation will be the major source of economic growth unless a real innovation ecosystem develops in Auckland," Sir Peter said.

Mr Kumar's call to New Zealand tech companies to cluster together in Auckland got a predictable response from down the line, with Wellington-based tech CEO Bruce Aylward claiming there was already a Silicon Valley in Wellington and had been since 2006.

He made the eminently sensible suggestion that with a population the size of a small United States city, New Zealanders shouldn't be parochially poking our tongues out at each other, we should be developing the whole country into one Silicon Valley. Pool our resources and work as a team.

I'd always thought this was a key justification for the Government's multibillion-dollar ultra-fast broadband rollout. So whether you lived in Gore or Wellington or Auckland, access to the new fibre-optic cable effectively turned the whole country into a virtual Silicon Valley. Techies wouldn't have to debate the merits of living in sunny, cultural Auckland versus wet and windy Wellington. They could chose whichever city they preferred.

As for pinpointing an approved site for the Silicon Valley of the South Seas, short of giving politicians much greater powers to direct economic development - and no one has an appetite for that sort of a command economy - such visions don't have a great track record of coming to pass in this city. Sir Bob's old stamping ground out west had dreams of becoming both the film capital and, at Hobsonville, a major boatbuilding centre. The market ordained otherwise in both cases - for now at least.

The emergence of an Auckland mini Silicon Valley will succeed or fail for similar reasons. Not because a politician thought it a good idea, or a tech pioneer was feeling lonely and needed some like-minded company, but because it made economic sense. Which is why mid-Queen St is now Fast-food Valley.

Creating labels like Silicon Valley or Cultural Capital, and presuming it will happen - or is true - seems to be doing things in the wrong order. These are labels to be attached, at best, after the event, not before. But in a country, where a third of the population lives in one place, such labelling seems pointless and divisive. By sheer weight of numbers, Auckland is going to win the crown.

As Mr Aylward highlighted, by both population size and GDP New Zealand is just a flyspot on the world economy. A little ribbing between different centres is fine, but competing for meaningless titles does seem unproductive and self-defeating.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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