Why the future doesn't need stadiums

Ciaran Keogh expounds on the futility of building monuments to the past as a strategy for surviving an uncertain future.

No matter how worthy the motivation for building the proposed covered stadium, it is the wrong answer for ensuring the future prosperity of Dunedin as the principal city in the future of Otago and Southland.

Dougal Stephenson, in a recent broadcast, likened the project to a cargo cult.

It is, but worse.

It is the commitment of the last of the city's spare resources, and some, to a grand gesture to the past in the hope that the ancestors' spirits will smile once again upon the city.

This past is, however, gone.

Dunedin needs to readdress itself to both the future and to its relationship with the remainder of the South.

Its role in the South of the future is becoming increasingly tenuous.

If it weren't for the hospital and the university it would already have little relevance at all to the rest of us in Otago and Southland. And the issue of relevance is what Dunedin needs to debate if it is to adapt to the changing world ahead.

The current global economic turmoil is a symptom of a much wider change occurring in the global environment.

It is a symptom, not a cause of the problems we must overcome in the next decade.

I have lived on the borders of the city for much of the past decade watching it develop an increasingly inward and backward-looking stance.

If this stance does not change then the stadium will be the final act for Dunedin.

For those who wish to explore the consequence of this pattern of societal behaviour I would suggest reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

The stadium is no different in concept than the moai of Easter Island, the temples of the Aztecs or the coliseums of ancient Rome.

The monuments all got more elaborate as these societies responded to a changing environment by desperately doing more of the same hoping that some deity would be appeased, or at least the inhabitants would be distracted until things improved.

The most insightful document I have read recently on where we might all be heading is a report released in November 2008 by the United States Joint Forces Command entitled The Joint Operating Environment 2008 (JOE2008).

This document is remarkably frank, insightful and alarming.

It is not militaristic alarmism but a concise and comprehensive geographer's analysis of the possible consequences on our collective futures of the mixing of the demographics of massive population growth, the ageing of the West, competition for resources, economic instability and indebtedness, pandemic, international interconnectedness, technological change and relative changes in the economic and military power of nations over the next two decades.

Every major trend identified in the report will happen.

It is the consequences and interactions that are uncertain.

What is not uncertain is that the world will see change the like of which it has never been seen before.

Building a stadium seems delusional once having read this report.

Dunedin also has some local challenges to survive over the next two decades that are sourced closer to home.

Dunedin also seems in denial of the fact that without the support of provincial Otago and Southland it would cease to exist, while the reverse is not true.

Gore and Invercargill both possess more secure dynamic and productive economies, where Dunedin is critically dependent on the future of two large state-funded institutions.

These institutions are not just vulnerable to change in government policy, they are the most exposed of institutions to the oncoming changes in society and technology.

Both universities and hospitals are hugely costly and inherently resource-inefficient beasts. There are technologies presently in their early phase of development that will render redundant much of their physical infrastructure and compete for provision of services.

This is both a threat and a unique opportunity, however, the threat is a certainty while the opportunity must be created.

A quote from the JOE2008 report (pp22-23) is insightful.

"Key to understanding information technology in the 2030s is the fact that the pace of technological change is accelerating almost exponentially. Because most individuals tend to view change in a linear fashion, they tend to overestimate what is achievable by technology in the short term, while dramatically underestimating and discounting the power of scientific and technological advances in the long term.

"If the pace of technical advances holds true, greater technological change will occur over the next 20 years than occurred in the whole of the 20th century. In many ways the world of 2030 will be nearly as strange as the world of 2000 would have been to an observer from 1900."

Dunedin is at vitally important stage of its history.

Its initial reason for existence has nearly run its course.

Its only natural asset is its character.

It has no inherent physical resources or productive base upon which to build. The city's economic core is about to experience a life threatening exposure to virtual education and virtual health services and its main street to e-commerce.

The harbingers of this change are already in existence.

If we are lucky and insightful, these changes will occur positively, driven by adaptive necessity as our nation becomes increasingly impoverished through indebtedness, a loss of wealth through foreign ownership of our resources and infrastructure, and an ever-increasing dependence on imports.

If we are not lucky and insightful we will fail to adapt and succumb to terminal economic decline.

If Dunedin is to survive then it must look to the future, not the past.

It is a future where the wealth of the South will be increasingly focused in Southland and the Clutha where energy and agricultural developments will drive economic growth.

It is a future where the city could become increasingly isolated through travel being constrained by the cost and availability of fossil fuels and limits on its use by climate change policies.

It is also a future where travel may become rapidly less necessary as the growth in virtual services removes time and distance from many intellectual and commercial transactions.

The stadium is an old idea from an era nearly past. Dunedin needs new ideas for a new era and it needs to conserve its scarce economic resources until this strategy for the future is resolved.

Ciaran Keogh is CEO of the Southland Regional Council (Environment Southland). He has a masters degree in regional and resource planning and an MBA, both from Otago University.

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