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Idealog's Guide to Tauranga: How the Bay's design community embraces blue sky thinking

Outside of the region’s tech and agricultural expertise, the design community is thriving – and some of the best businesses in the Bay are embracing design-led thinking.

In most urban centres, the creative business community tends to flourish when there is economic growth. And as the population increases and diversifies in Tauranga, the number of design businesses is growing – as is the appreciation of design in the wider business sector.

All in

The Design Thinking Meetup (DTMU) is a gathering of local design-focused people and businesses, led by Trimax global marketing manager Karl Stevenson, but it’s a truly collaborative affair.

Key individuals and organisations involved in its creation include designer Blythe Rees-Jones, Comvita’s David Bathgate, Priority One, University of Waikato, Ignition coworking space, WOODS, NZTE and Callaghan Innovation.

On the first Tuesday of every month, members gather for a slice of pizza and a wine or a beer to shoot the breeze before the activity for the night kicks off. This ranges from an inspirational talk, to a showcase on something exciting that’s happening in the Bay of Plenty.

DTMU was founded last year and has since grown to over 200 registered members on its website.

Stevenson says around 30 to 40 people attend each monthly meeting to gain some creative confidence and inspiration for human-centred products and services.

“The output is to make our businesses more profitable and communities more enjoyable. It provides a forum for learning, doing and connecting with like-minded individuals or people on their design journey – whatever stage that may be,” he says.

He says the beauty of design-led thinking is that it’s applicable to problems or challenges that a business is facing in any sector.

Some of the core principles involved with the design-thinking process include empathising with the key problems and defining them, ideating, creating prototypes and iterating and refining.

“This means whether you're designing a new product, widget or service, the principles work in the same way, just applied in different ways,” Stevenson says.

The meetings explore tools and tips to get better insights from customers, collaborative research on innovation in the Bay of Plenty and design-thinking exercises.

Stevenson says they hope attendees go away inspired, challenged and connected to other innovators and designers in the Bay.

“All in all, we're trying to equip our leaders with extra tools to help design greater experiences and products for both our community and for the wider world."

Building better bureaucracy

Design-led thinking has even made its way into the Tauranga City Council’s office. Pip Loader, the Council’s challenge manager of co-design and innovation, says she “got the bug” for design thinking last year when her and a team of eight used it to tackle the problem of building consents in the Bay of Plenty.

The influx of people moving into the city and number of developments being built meant that intense pressure was being put on local government to get resource consents through.

“Our city is growing rapidly. We have seen extraordinary growth and we needed to be agile and responsive enough to keep up with that pace of change,” Loader says.

She was given eight weeks to focus specifically on the problem and how to better manage the demands using design thinking, and in the process, came up with a way to speed up the procedure.

“I got really excited about the methodology you can follow. You can do things quickly and it doesn’t need to be perfect, you just need to get something out there and test it, refine it, and test it again,” she says. “There’s this whole world where you can work in a rapid way and it doesn’t have to be accompanied by a 30 page-report and executive summary.”

Since then, the Council has rolled out three 12-week innovation tasks where a team will use design thinking to try and solve some of the city’s most pressing problems. The next challenge they’ve been assigned is coming up with some immediate solutions to Tauranga’s parking woes.

Due to a shortage of parking in Tauranga’s downtown, commuters are spilling over to parking in residential streets. Loader says they’re trying to get to the bottom of the problem by interviewing people and seeing whether they’d consider different modes of transport.

She says innovation is a word that gets bandied around a lot and is associated with big, groundbreaking ideas, but sometimes it can be smaller scale, too.

“In my view there are two types of innovation: it can just be a smarter way of doing something, or it could be the big, shiny new thing that nobody’s ever thought about before.”

Seeing as she’s working on behalf of a Council, she says they’re more focused on the pragmatic approach.

“One of the challenges with being a local government or territorial authority is you’re quite responsible to the ratepayer, so you’re more risk averse,” she says.

She says the design thinking framework equips the Council to tackle other problems.

“There are some bigger city issues that are not 12-week problems to solve, such as homelessness and housing affordability that are impacting Tauranga. That comes from growth, so we’ll see solutions in the pipeline to that once it starts to take shape.” 

Art and commerce

Down the street from the City Council in Tauranga’s CBD is one of New Zealand’s leading regional art galleries. Gallery director Karl Chitham says one of its aspirations is to ensure it takes an innovative approach to all things art and design.

“For us, it’s been about how we move forward when we’re based in Tauranga. Up until really recently it was considered provincial. But with the huge growth in recent years, it’s encouraged us to make that next step and think outside the box and do things a bit differently,” Chitham says.

The recent Paradox Inside exhibition is a celebration of street art and featured one of the largest collections by notorious UK street artist Banksy, as well as an exhibit where VR and art collided. It was part of Tauranga’s wider Street Art Festival from March to June, with people travelling from Christchurch, Wellington and even Australia to come see it outdoors in the city and in the gallery space.

“We’re bringing in new audiences that wouldn’t normally come into an art gallery who see it as intimidating or don’t know what it is,” he says. “It also changes the way they think about what art is. There are links to urban culture, community projects and the difference between graffiti and art, high art and low art.

“… The idea is that we’re not just a building that’s inward looking where you hang paintings on the wall. We’re expansive, reflective and all those other things you’d hope a cultural institution would be in the 21st century.”

Change agents

One of the local champions for design-led thinking in Tauranga is WOODS, a branding agency based in downtown Mount Maunganui.

Managing director Reuben Woods says local companies were tending to go outside Tauranga to get help with their marketing, so in 2004, Woods was started to provide a regional option for local businesses.

He says as the years have passed, the city has become an innovation hub, with countless new businesses, products and ideas coming to the fore.

“Our strategy from day one was to create the future of the Bay of Plenty,” Woods says. “It worked against us at the start, as a lot of the competitors were continuing to go to Auckland to find business, but it’s paying off now with the amount of people moving here and starting up businesses with the most unique, innovative products and the design meet ups that are happening.”

Woods says a key part of its work is bringing stories to life through great design, so it makes sense to follow designled thinking its approach.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding design-led thinking because that’s what a lot of our customers do and have departments set up in that area, so we’ve adapted that process into our branding and marketing approach,” he says.

The businesses WOODS has worked with are diverse, from a horned melon exporter called Enzed Exotics, Steens Honey, which specialises in cold pressed, raw Manuka honey, and Radfords, which develops inventory-related software for the horticultural sector (all three companies were finalists in the Bay of Plenty ExportNZ Awards in the ‘Innovation in Export’ category).

With Steens, WOODS focused on making beautiful packaging that highlighted the health benefits of the high-grade honey.

Woods says an infinity range 26+ Manuka honey range that retails for $1,500 for 350 grams didn’t even make it to market in China and Dubai due to an Arabian Prince buying the entire range to give as gifts.

As for Enzed Exotics, the company is now exporting 95 percent of its product to the United States.

Woods says it was really important to communicate its unique New Zealand story, while being a bit tongue in cheek with the ‘horny about melons’ tagline.

Woods says the companies the agency is working with are examples of new blood coming into the region and disrupting an “old boys club”.

“There’s a lot of innovative people here who believe innovation is the key to success and they’re bringing it through to all these different industries, including ours, creating a culture of innovation. And we’re building that at the ground level with the Young Innovator Awards (YiA).”