As goes Dunedin, so goes New Zealand

As goes Dunedin, so goes New Zealand
It's the fluffy Ewoks of Star Wars. Cuddle, yes. Take home, no.

It’s assumed our country’s economic future relies largely on the success of Auckland – our ‘international city’. That assumes too much – including what we mean by an international city. It has a sky tower like Toronto? Traffic like Kuala Lumpur? Westies like Sydney?

I’d like to propose an alternative: that where Dunedin goes, so goes New Zealand. This old town embodies in micro what New Zealand has in macro: a slow-growing, educated workforce, an agricultural base with hi-tech ambitions, long distances to market and a tiny but loyal populace with great taste in music but low expectations for worldly success. If Dunedin can cut it – then so can the rest of us.

So the release of the Dunedin Economic Development Strategy is worth noting. The 10-year plan is a bit of a departure for the Edinburgh of the south. For one thing, it’s signed by the chairmen and women of seven civic organisations, a rare show of agreement among this fractious town. Included are council, iwi, business and tertiary institutions. Try getting that in Auckland.

It’s also bold. The plan says Dunedin will become one of the world’s great small cities within 10 years. By great it means cities such as Cambridge (UK), Salisbury (North Adelaide), Kingston (Ontario) and Dundee (Scotland) – all under 150,000 population, with a strong knowledge base and with a high per capita income. “We intend to match them with regard to quality of life, education, knowledge intensity, export growth and enterprise,” the report says.

It’s also specific, setting measureable targets the seven signatories can be shamed by in 10 years’ time: 10,000 extra jobs, two percent growth in employment per annum (currently 1.1 percent), $10,000 increase in per capita income and increase in GDP growth of 2.5 percent per annum (currently 1.8 percent). These numbers aren’t much different from the national average but Dunedin is behind on all of them. And given the disappointment of such reports in the past (think of anything from the 1990s) ‘boringly achievable’ might make it absolutely, positively heroic.

And what might a more prosperous Dunedin look like? Probably like Kingston, Ontario, which has no real reason to exist other than history; it was the first French military base in Canada. Like Dunedin it relies heavily on public institutions for employment.

Traditional manufacturing has diminished but its old limestone buildings have become home to funky young professionals in hi-tech industries with close links to the universities. Like Dunedin, it has the highest proportion of PhDs in the country and it can get freakin’ cold – lending weight to my half-arsed theory that cold places make better innovators.

Which raises the big but in all of this. Just how the hell is Dunedin going to achieve this and become great? It’s funny talking to people about Dunedin. They see it as that lovable character in the movie that no-one wants. It’s the fluffy Ewoks of Star Wars. Cuddle, yes. Take home, no.

Looking at the list of cities it aspires to be, they all share something that Dunedin has yet to crack: they’re great places to live. Kingston regularly earns ‘best place to live’ awards thanks to its vibrant urban centre, clean air, low costs and after-hours fun. Creative economies need creative cities. And creative cities need to take risks. The rancour caused by the construction of the Forsyth Barr stadium or of the proposed waterfront hotel belies a mean-spiritedness in Dunedin that will kill this report’s ambition.

The same is true for the rest of us. Make Auckland the world’s most liveable city? Make SOEs export successes? Make Fonterra a rival to Nestlé? Make clean and green a New Zealand brand? These bold ideas are within our ability to achieve but our hearts are weakened by that dour Kiwi critic.

Can Dunners break the mould?