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The Southern Initiative is Auckland’s quiet achiever

A south Auckland scheme that defies a tidy description of its far-reaching work is breaking new ground internationally with its efforts to lift the region out of deprivation. 

The Southern Initiative (TSI) has been quietly operating under the auspices of Auckland Council since 2012. It has taken a while to find its feet but got an injection of energy and direction in 2014 when Gael Surgenor took the reins. A recent review by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation called it "world class", saying it was "already achieving results that should be the envy of other place-based initiatives". 

Now it has been given a further boost with the addition of Te Haa o Manukau - a centre for creation and innovation that caters for budding entrepreneurs. It gives them a place to base themselves with office facilities, and puts them in touch with like-minded operators. The centre is based on the CBD's GridAKL, and is backed by ATEED and Panuku. 

Te Haa is being operated by Manawa Udy of Ngahere Communities Limited. She was a business owner working from home who found it too big a jump to move into an office - "there were no options available. I got shown a tiny warehouse in Otara that had some spare rooms in a back corner." That started her crusade that has seen her manage shared office spaces with full facilities that burgeoning businesses can lease by the day, week or move into. Often they are meeting like-minded people - already two of the tenants are collaborating on a podcast. Udy says it's a very motivating space, where you can be more productive than operating from home.

Most of the projects are in creative technologies, such as the social influencer who has been learning how to build his brand, but there is also room for the cafe owner who wants a space to plan and do administration without being constantly called on by their staff.  

The creative sector is a billion dollar earner for the country and south Auckland is a hot-spot of it. TSI's Gael Surgenor says it's a way of thinking for Maori and Pacific Island people. 

Surgenor knows there is "no silver bullet" however in pulling up the region's prosperity. "There's no magic answer, it's hard graft." But she says south Aucklanders are sick of being seen as a problem to be solved, and that's where TSI's philosophy diverges from previous efforts made to change things. 

TSI's operation marks a stark departure from the old way of public servants and government departments laying down the rules and handing out the money, to a situation where locals are helped to help themselves. Surgenor says what's good for south Auckland is good for Auckland, and that's good for New Zealand. Inequality, she says, is a handbrake on economic growth. In its 2014 evaluation, the OECD estimated rising inequality knocked more than 10 percentage points off New Zealand’s growth over the past two decades.

TSI is working from the ground up, starting with parenting skills, and making real changes for young workers .... including by leveraging Auckland Council's buying power to provide real work and career opportunities for them.

Skin in the game

Surgenor says some of the most important work TSI carries out revolves around the massive development contracts, especially in transport, that the Auckland Council is currently putting out for tender. Those contracts now require social measures - for example, taking on a certain number of local, newly trained workers, including incentives for employing women in the trades, and making sure those workers have meaningful career paths. It's based on the concept that value for money isn't just about the price paid, but includes benefits generated for locals. 

"This should just be the way we do business," she says. "It's creating extra value from those billions in contracts. We've demonstrated that it works." The change "encourages business to have a bit more skin in the game not just economically but socially", she says. 

Surgenor believes many south Aucklanders are no better off now than they were during the Global Financial Crisis. Many haven't shared in the city's growth and prosperity - some feel they've been left behind by successive economic and social reforms, automation, globalisation and other impacts on the labour market.  Improving their skill sets and encouraging them into qualifications will help see them ride out the next slump. "It's a tight labour market now so we're making hay while the sun shines," she says. 

The other vital part of TSI's work starts at the cradle. "Because we are working across all sorts of spaces we are starting to see some patterns, that other people perhaps working in their silos don't see."  A lot of work is being done to remove stress from young mothers, for example by supporting them to get access to housing and services, and connecting them with other new mums. 

Surgenor says executive functioning skills, which are needed to become a great parent, disappear when you're under stress. Working to build resilience is starting to show in their children who are now modelling the problem-solving skills their parents are developing. "We removed the stress temporarily which freed up the bandwidth for people to use those skills." 

ATEED's general manager of economic development, Pam Ford, says TSI is doing amazing work. It's work that dove-tails nicely with a change in emphasis in the Auckland Council CCO's direction, to concentrate on the economic wellbeing of the city's more deprived areas. "It floundered a bit at first but Gael came on a few years ago and took it to another level," she says. The Te Haa project will also fuel economic growth . "It's about catalysing ideas and trying to increase economic prosperity through social enterprise.

"We know Auckland is growing but that prosperity is not being shared equally across the region. Across the world we are getting more and more innovation districts. [In South Auckland] we have a high manufacturing base, and educational institutions ... to make sure there's growth there we need to concentrate on enterprise, young people, creative people." Ford says there is huge opportunity around intelligent manufacturing, and for industries to become more productive. "There is so much development potential in the south and there will be over the next two decades".

The work TSI has done over the last couple of years has been "phenomenal", she says. "They have really kick-started a lot of change for good. Now we are going to help them scale up, out and across.

"All over the world, cities and OCED countries are trying to tackle the uneven increase in economic growth. We can be a leader in this space." 

Ford says TSI has managed some 'brilliant' work by being so localised and community oriented - and extremely focused on doing things on a small scale. "Now it's about how we amplify some of that great work." She says it has been a silent mover, but "it's always the quiet achievers who achieve the most." 

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