At the risk of displaying a Wellington-residential and Southland upbringing bias, the government’s keenness for an Aucklandisation of our science and innovation strikes me as stupid.
In particular, the push to make (force even) the development of the former oil tank farm Wynyard Quarter as a place that can grow into a hotbed of science-led innovation is wrong.
Purely on an evidence-based front, there’s flaws in the argument that’s been put up for the Quarter.
Why would startups, one of the main elements that the Quarter’s meant to be trying to attract, be interested in locating themselves on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country?
Startups start in garages and spare bedrooms, rundown warehouses and close to the sources of supply (of raw materials, brains, good distribution) that fit at the particular time of their beginning.
Startups don’t kick off in elaborate, over-designed (potential white elephants), and surely the government’s not suggesting a subsidised rental scheme!
Even if Industrial Research (as it even so slowly morphs into an Advanced Technology Institute) was ‘encouraged’ to set up in the WQ, those wanting to tap into its knowledge wouldn’t have to be co-located to access the brains. You don’t have to be onsite to have a meeting.
The other worry with the government’s Aucklandisation push for science and innovation is that it is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Sure, some high-level manufacturing takes place there – but attempting to concentrate R&D resources in the Queen City ignores the facts of the matter.
In a New Zealand environment that has a great scarcity of data, a recent working paper by Victoria University’s Management School crunches some numbers and draws some conclusions from IRL’s 2009 initiative, ‘What’s Your Problem New Zealand’.
The 19 page document can be found here. It’s a nicely written piece, low on theory-speak, and prepared to draw a few conclusions.
The management school recognised that analysing the  competition application forms
“represented a unique and potentially extremely useful insightful view of the corporate innovation landscape”.
One particular feature they noted was that WYPNZ isolated firms with active innovative intent – that is, thinking about innovation ‘right now’ in order to apply.
The competition was also open of all-comers, not just those identified by another agency or body as having potential to turn innovative intent into value creation, or firms in need of development.
All in all,
“we hope to have created a picture, in microcosm, of the landscape for corporate innovation inNew Zealand.”
Again, check out the report for yourself.
But, to cut to the chase, and the first couple of 13 propositions (which VUW suggests could be the basis for further possible research):
Proposition 1: No geographic region in New Zealand has more or less “innovative intent”, or indeed innovative capability, than any other.
Proposition 2: IRL’s primary location in Wellington appears to have no significant bearing on encouraging or discouraging firms from any particular region to relate to it.
So, to draw a long bow...
Don’t go overly pushing Auckland as an engineered hotbed of science and innovation – it’s an incorrect property play in the first instance, and unsubstantiated policy proposal in the second.
And for goodness sake government – let IRL get on with developing its ATI-inspired campus at Gracefield.
In the continued absence of a sense of science and innovation direction (which will only be exacerbated with the MSI’s absorption into the super-ministry), the ongoing mucking around with what was IRL’s idea in the first place is bad for the country.
In other words, tell IRL what you want them to achieve, and let them get on with doing that by allocating its smart people resources in the way that best fits. Kicking off with a rebuild (of a modular design that can be replicated in Christchurch and Auckland) in Wellington is the sensible option.
If the argument is that New Zealand needs to act as a city of four million people, IRL’s current head office location is fine as demonstrated by the evidence.
Or to put it another way, let’s just get on and do stuff, without the Auckland bias.
This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.