Perceptions and Dunedin's future

It is easy to be cynical about visions for the future like the new Dunedin City 10-year economic plan.

Catch phrases such as Dunedin being "one of the world's great small cities" might sound fine, but is there any substance behind the words?

Do not economic and social forces over which local interests have little control principally decide Dunedin's future?

What, really, have previous visions and plans achieved?

Despite reservations and a healthy dose of scepticism, however, a place like Dunedin does need aspirations - and it does need a strategy into which decisions and policy can be integrated.

It is necessary to make the most of opportunities, to pull in similar directions and to have a view of what the future might hold.

Particularly important is encouragement of a positive image to be projected both to others and residents.

Dunedin has a lot going for it in its natural and man-made beauty, its compact size, its history, its people, its culture.

There is also a certain pizzazz about being the centre for the world's southern-most university and a perverse pride and distinctiveness in being located at the ends of the earth - a long way from the hubs of Asia, Europe and the United States.

Never underestimate, too, the glory of being surrounded by the lakes, mountains, landscapes and the space of the South. In a buzzing, crowded modern world that is a potent drawcard.

Those same advantageous characteristics can be significant drawbacks.

The lack of cheap and quick airline access to the rest of New Zealand and the world, and the absence, in some areas, of critical mass for industry, health and research, is a handicap.

Meanwhile, the city's weather is often unfairly mocked although the climate is temperate and highly livable by most international standards.

Dunedin - as Queenstown and Wanaka are - needs to be seen more widely as a highly desirable place in which to live and do business. Perception is one of the keys to Dunedin's future.

That is what makes the "creative" cities of the world stand out.

Significantly, this is recognised, in part because the strategy envisages a switch from a narrow focus on economic development to a broader emphasis on city development, including Dunedin's lifestyle strengths.

Perception can be so fickle that sometimes reality is not enough by itself. Nevertheless, enduring positive views do depend on real performance.

The Dunedin City Council, for example, has a reputation as an expensive, heavy-handed regulator which is unwelcoming to business.

That, even if it is to some degree unfair, must be turned around.

People must feel the council has a "what can we do to help make it happen" attitude rather than presenting a wall of obstacles.

Indeed, the red carpet should figure more prominently than the red tape.

Clutha could teach Dunedin much when it comes to attitudes and helpfulness.

The "buy-in" from key stakeholders, to use the jargon, is encouraging.

The Dunedin City Council, the Otago Chamber of Commerce, the Otago Southland Employers' Association, the Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago are all part of the plan.

The strategy does need to be reviewed and measured every few years, and it does need to be flexible.

After all, it is not so long ago that biotechnology was going to be Dunedin's saviour, or spin-off industries around Fisher and Paykel on the Taieri would propel prosperity.

Also remembered is how Project Gateway and links with Sydney would boost the city.

Now, Dunedin has Project Shanghai and various aims for business viability, alliances for innovation, as a magnet for skill and talent, for links beyond the borders and as a compelling destination.

Because no cargo-cults are ever going to bestow great riches, the future lies in making Dunedin as attractive as possible, in making and taking opportunities, in striving to ensure Dunedin is a "great small city".

There will be forces and trends beyond local control, and the economic strategy is littered with waffle words which have, at best, patchy practical relevance.

But positive aspirations can make a difference, and the plan may help focus minds and policies.

Given the plan is now out for public consultation, it is up to residents to have their say. Let us hope they do.


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