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Can startup accelerator culture save small town New Zealand?

In the US, the tech sector is continuing to concentrate a few prospering metropolitan areas while the rest of the country drifts into joblessness. The same is true of New Zealand, with its struggling, small town regions, says Open Polytechnic associate professor of communication Gary Mersham.

In the U.S. digital services jobs cluster in just 10 of nation’s largest metropolitan areas; in New Zealand, Wellington and Auckland dominate. Core tech hubs are far from the troubled locales that need them most.

The call of tech-industry optimists in the US for the spread of tech into the heartland has become more urgent. With Donald Trump’s election reflecting an angry backlash against high-skill elites, many tech people are hoping the growth of tech jobs in “flyover country” will help cool down raw, popularist tempers by allowing struggling communities to participate more fully in tech.

It’s no secret that Tech elites who fear the backlash, openly seek a bolthole in New Zealand. They are worried that they will become the main targets of a violent struggle between rich and poor in a world economy turned upside down by new technology. The granting of a NZ citizenship to Peter Thiel, the billionaire Internet entrepreneur, raised public concern over “the invasion” of U.S. internet and finance billionaires, forcing the New Zealand government to release papers detailing the ‘exceptional circumstances’ under which the American tycoon was quietly given a New Zealand passport.

In the US, the increasing concentration in a few prospering metropolitan areas is exacerbating not just the nation’s economic fissures, but its social and political fabric. Economist Enrico Moretti calls this America’s great divergence and resegration.

New Zealand Institute of Economic Research economist Shamubeel Eaqub, who coined the phrase NZ Zombie Towns, describes a similar, growing economic imbalance in NZ in his book, Growing Apart: Regional Prosperity in New Zealand.

Image acknowledgement: Radio New Zealand. http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/250306/zombie-towns-looming,-leaders-told

Clearly we are not immune to this divergence. The same trends are likely to fire up local frustrations as retail High Street stores close, local professional intermediaries like accountants and lawyers are disintermediated and armies of delivery drivers, truckies, shelf packers and your local burger chain patty flippers are replaced by robots (yep, The Warehouse is looking at it).

Can we widen the opportunities for New Zealanders in struggling small town New Zealand by replicating the Wellington Creative HQ eco system and Hutt Valley manufacturing startup eco-systems across the regions?

Visionary Mindlab founder Frances Valintine in partnership with Unitec is providing the building blocks of this culture by pioneering digital and collaborative learning in Gisborne. How can this important initiative be extended to a fully-fledged startup and accelerator “city” model that links schools, entrepreneurs, Small businesses, community groups and local government agencies into a fully collaborative network in Gisborne?

American Lean startup pioneer and innovation guru Prof Steve Blank confirmed to an enthusiastic gathering at a Creative HQ’s Startup Garage event that Wellington’s dynamic accelerator sector is attracting a lot of attention in Silicon Valley. The government’s experimental Better for Business R9 Accelerator has been successful on a number of counts and is a world first. Government agencies share their pain points with private sector hackers, visionaries, coders, programmers and work with them to find solutions – creating teams, business ideas, applications and companies and feeding back into the ecosystem.

But the centralising principle remains largely the same – bring the entrepreneurs in the big city for the accelerator so that the investors can experience their pitches in one place at the end of it.

But it could be done another way. Cloud-based tools for entrepreneurs, laptop-driven 3D printing, diminishing prices of microchips, sensors, and other components and Internet-based tools and services such as GitHub has made it easier and cheaper for entrepreneurs to transform their ideas into finished products. It's now feasible for small town, regionally-based based entrepreneurs to design sophisticated products at reasonable cost. Investor visits to the regions, together with crowd-funding and crowd-lending sources, could potentially enable initial finance.

Image: Gordon Dykes, 3D printer resident evangelist Ist Assembly, Lower Hutt will be working with the Hutt Chamber of Commerce to assist schools and businesses understand and make best use of 3D printing.

New synergies and new opportunities are possible when physical-world inventors, entrepreneurs and creatives gain traction alongside virtual ones. Manufacturing enterprises flourish without needing to invest in large factories. The emergence of new cloud-enabled, incubator-supported manufacturing, agriculture and digital startups could widen the opportunities for New Zealanders engaging in new, high quality “new industries” jobs through replicating our successful, city bound tech and manufacturing initiatives.

NZ politicians need to grasp this opportunity to deal with the bifurcated reality of the digitally empowered and disempowered, and stand for re-investing in the resourcefulness of small town NZ.

For example National has accepted there is a problem with escalating youth crime by promising more cops, particularly in Northland. But disempowered, radicalised Northland youth demonstrates know what they need - relevant education and jobs.

It’s a huge challenge to see past the effects and fix the cause. It would make a worthy election year promise.

Gary Mersham is currently Associate Professor of Communicationpart time at the Open Polytechnic where he teaches Organisational Communication, Communication Management, Public Relations and Global Communication.
The rest of the time he is a digital flunkie, communications junkie, lifelong learner and innovation researcher. He is a willing participant in accelerator, start up and entrepreneurial communications and likes to assist entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.
You can read more of his articles here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gary-mersham-91912519/.