It's time to shine a light on Whangārei.
According to some in the know, the city is a potential hotbed of cross-disciplinary digital technology and arts projects for which cities such as Berlin or London are better known.
All right, it isn't quite yet; but until now there's been a lack of one portal the various tech-heads, creatives and innovators could enter to find themselves in the same space.
And ''the space'' could be anywhere brought alive by applying art, creative digital technology and virtual reality.
Inside Strandlab, a pop-up, cross-disciplinary laboratory for bright ideas, in an empty retail store in the Strand Arcade, bright ideas are percolating about transforming the CBD.
Some of the ideas might never fly, others already do in the form of little creatures making patterns on the walls or app-induced butterflies landing on cupcakes at the shop next door to Strandlab. Alongside examples of how business owners can give their shops a point of difference are others that could become part of a futuristic civic art project.
A light festival, anyone? Several examples of what could be possible for street or special lighting are at play at Strandlab. A stack of cardboard boxes represents buildings with projected images making them come alive.
Strandlab instigator Dr Maggie Buxton is also the founder of AwhiWorld, a company run by her and partner Kim Newall creating innovative, immersive and interactive experiences in community-based settings.
The company's website states: ''We activate derelict buildings and sites; bring magic to mundane walkways and alleyways; and educate audiences about histories, stories and cultural artefacts in cultural locations. We also consult, coach and train in creative technology use and experience design for public institutions and private companies.''
Buxton said her PhD thesis subject was ''the spirit of place''. First in Auckland and more recently in Whangārei where the couple now live, AwhiWorld often works in collaboration with other innovators to weave emerging technologies with traditional technologies and arts to rejuvenate public spaces, she said.
That has included working with experimental artists, mana whenua, Pacific Island communities, marae, school children and teachers, musicians and sound artists, community groups, scientists, traditional cultural groups, poets, engineers, start-up tech companies and business associations.
Behind Strandlab's closed doors — it is not open to the general public — experts in various fields brainstorm, ''collaborate in creative digital cross-disciplines'', on ways to enhance the retail environment and other CBD experiences.
That might mean developing image effects and apps to make them work, light shows or 3D images to play over the exteriors of buildings and holograms or other tech-trickery to lead pedestrians on journeys around a unique public space.
Someone might come along with a bright idea but have only half the know-how to make it work; someone else adds their expertise to the solution. The invitation to take part is regionally ring-fenced: this is for Northlanders to build a unique regional hub of excellence, Buxton said.
''This is a space for research to support the idea of improving the CBD. We bring specialists and professions together who might not otherwise work collaboratively,'' Buxton said of Strandlab, the laboratory.
They could be creatives, scientists, educators or, say, car painters - anyone whose work taps into virtual and visual digital technology, and few fields don't enter that zone these days.
The pop-up Strandlab is running a residency programme. A specialist in 3D modelling and virtual reality is working there, one of two on-board tech scientists, Daniel Jaeger and Bram Pitoyo, who are Whangārei locals. Their career credentials include working in the tech zone for Porsche and one is still working for international giant, Mozilla Corporation.
Another residency is held by Fiona Douglas, whose specialities include music and the environment.
''As well as having residencies, we've done a number of workshops with the council and with NorthTec students,'' Buxton said.
Another example of application of technology on loan was a local ceramic artist bringing in a piece to see it imaged through a 3D printer.
Central city grossly under-utilised
Northland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Steve Smith is excited about Strandlab.
If not for the excess of empty buildings in the CBD getting under his skin, and a coming together of big-picture ideas thanks to a meeting with Buxton via the chamber, he would not have gone to the mall's owners and manager with a case for Strandlab to pop-up in one empty shop.
''The CBD, and the Strand, are grossly under-utilised, the chamber is concerned about it. I was talking to Maggie [Buxton] about it and one thing led to another,'' Smith said.
Ideas often need a common room in which to percolate, and keep people inspired and excited. Smith said the Strandlab pop-up is the first stage in a longer-term project, set up to seek ''proof of concept''.
Would it work, this plan to call on different specialisation in the art and digital spheres; what might they come up with; how could Whangārei benefit?
Stage two would be to expand the concept through the whole of the Strand Arcade, and stage three taking it through the CBD.
Smith has made no secret of his desire to see the CBD reinvigorated and reinvented and the chamber's role in that. The chamber, Whangārei District Council, and several other bodies are working on various plans to that end.
''We need to develop reactivated spaces. People don't go into the city to shop, they go the big box places for that. The city has to provide new experiences.''
The timing is right to make that push, with the Hundertwasser Arts Centre and the Hihiaua Māori cultural precinct already being developed in the CBD, he said. Another wave of new people with big ideas moving in see the area's potential through fresh eyes.
''It's a relief to have a visionary Chamber of Commerce on side. It's so lovely to work with such a progressive organisation,'' Buxton said.
Meanwhile, Strandlab will have to move soon; the site is only on loan, rent free with the chamber paying the power bill. Smith is hunting for funding to keep things on the boil, or commissioned work and service delivery might make an income stream.
Other stuff, including cutting-edge equipment, has been on loan, some brought in by companies inviting to Strandlab to try it out. There have been sponsors involved, koha given, food shared.
''It has worked since the day we started it,'' Buxton said. ''People have to get over the idea they need funding to get started. They need expertise, yes.
''I think the biggest message is we have talent here. We don't need to bring other people in.''
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