Dunedin and a hi-tech future

Aerial shot of Dunedin city. Photo by ODT.
Aerial shot of Dunedin city. Photo by ODT.
It almost goes without saying that it is desirable to have "hi-tech" businesses emerging and growing in Dunedin. The tyranny of distance to market is minimised, the jobs are relatively well paid and technology, surely, is one of the ways of the future. The University of Otago itself is unlikely to prosper in a backwater, and it and such industries need each other to thrive. This wish is reflected in the Dunedin City Council's draft economic development strategy.

Small cities that have embraced - and have been embraced by - technology companies are cited, and the goal is to become one of the world's great small cities. Of course, the desire is the easy part.

Actuality is another matter altogether.

It is here former University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Sir David Skegg has salutary comments to make. In an opinion page article published in this newspaper last week, he called for hard-headed realism, for an acknowledgement Dunedin has already fallen behind in this area, and for an acceptance that urgent action is needed. He decried infectious negative attitudes that he believes handicap the attractiveness of the city to both current and potential future residents.

Sobering, indeed, is the fact only two Dunedin-based companies were in the top 100 in a recent report on the performance of New Zealand's largest "globally focused technology companies".

Only four were ranked from 101 to 200. Given New Zealand's second-largest university is in Dunedin, this is surprising and disappointing.

The economic development strategy and the involvement of key Dunedin groups in its formation are encouraging. So are Dunedin's underlying advantages.

Unfortunately, the city's air links have limitations, especially surrounding price and availability.

Hopefully, they will improve if more business is generated from Dunedin. Sure, the South and New Zealand are small markets.

But hi-tech is about global selling of global products. We can be proud of the beauty of Dunedin, its hinterland and the South, and we can revel in the outdoor opportunities available here. We can be pleased Dunedin is so liveable, with good schools and medical services and vibrant arts, culture and sporting scenes. But the city needs more than this to attract people - and businesses - to choose to set up here, and to succeed.

Dunedin also cannot rely on a cargo cult mentality, although the discovery and exploitation from Dunedin of major gas reserves off the coast could promote a welcome boost. Technology eggs also have to be widely spread across many baskets, because for every successful innovative start-up there are scores of failures. Of course, the focus on the new must not be at the expense of current strengths, such as engineering or agriculture which still - along with the university - underpin our regional economic strength.

Because industries thrive in clusters - particularly because staff and ideas feed off each other - we must as a city build on the success of ADInstruments or the design and engineering team at Fisher and Paykel. Uppermost in the minds of key people at the council, the university, the Chamber of Commerce and others must be the support and stimulation of economic possibilities. Is, for example, the Centre for Innovation or the possibility of the development of a "creative" area around Crawford St enough?

How positive and helpful and unbureaucratic will the council be to those seeking to start or expand business?

Can councillor bickering be replaced by a focus on making Dunedin a "great small city"?

At the same time, how determined are Dunedinites that the city be innovative and prosperous?

We cannot ignore the various issues and we have to question and, at times, criticise. And we must, undoubtedly, be hard-headed and realistic. Nonetheless, we can aim high. We can believe in ourselves. Dunedin can be a place where more entrepreneurs, graduates and creative people want to work and live, where businesses focused on technological niches around the world can start, develop and prosper.

There are no compelling reasons why Dunedin, with aspirations, vigour and purpose, cannot build on its assets. The city's draft economic strategy gives several examples of small university cities with substantial hi-tech clusters. With the right polices and attitudes, Dunedin can join them.


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