new auckland

Auckland’s real crisis isn’t just climate change

Smart cities thinker and Auckland Council candidate Mark Thomas ponders our biggest city's underlying crisis and how it can be fixed.

What a time to be a crisis. As our cities and governments struggle to cope with years of under (or lower quality) investment, the waves are breaking (literally) further and further up the shore.

The latest struggle sees some politicians change the meaning of the word “emergency”, to cope with not having made changes to decisions they have previously taken.

Although the crisis-du jour is climate change, what are the implications for other urban crises? Housing, homelessness, water quality or even the undeclared crisis in areas like transport which some of the country’s larger cities are experiencing.

As Auckland returns to the public transport patronage levels of the 1950s, it has become the most congested city in Australasia according to a Boston Consulting Group report earlier this year.

The answer is not to grow the list of crises, but to be more thoughtful about the underlying cause. At the heart of Auckland’s “crises” is an unsustainable economy.

In the PWC publication Competitive Cities released in May, former Auckland Council chief economist Geoff Cooper says Auckland’s competitiveness has fallen since the Super City was established in 2010 relative to other Australasian cities. This meant Auckland was the only city to experience a real decline in discretionary income.

Auckland’s economic growth rate, which rose to a high of 5 percent per annum at the end of 2016, has fallen since the tightening of the migration market to 3 percent by the end of last year. That is a respectable growth rate but it shows Auckland lacks resilience and that we are not growing enough of our own skills, or the right ones.

Auckland’s economic development agency ATEED, with Economic Development New Zealand last year commented that the region’s traditional productivity premium is being eroded by competitors capitalising more effectively on the accelerating depth and pace of technological change.

Yet the council’s original Economic Development Strategy launched in 2012 had developing Auckland as an innovation hub of the Asia-Pacific rim as one of its five key priorities. Seven years on, despite a lot of activity in the “innovation” area, New Zealand’s only international city has not achieved this goal.

The council’s innovation and startup hub GRIDAkl, established five years ago, celebrates a 25 percent growth rate in information and communications technology (ICT) companies. But this has taken 10 years and, despite half of New Zealand’s ICT businesses being based in Auckland, this only accounts for 3 percent of all jobs.

ATEED’s current three-year plan uses the word innovation a lot, but it is not clear enough what this means. Worryingly it does not seem to involve technology much, as this scarcely features and it isn’t the driving force it should be.

In his visit to Auckland in 2014, global cities expert Professor Greg Clark praised the region’s livability but said Auckland lacked an economic identity to better drive investment and talent, and a compelling business brand. Five years on, this is still missing.

Today ATEED’s core purpose is Quality Jobs for All Aucklanders. This is a very worthy aim, but I don’t think it is what Greg Clark had in mind.

On a recent visit to New York, it was impossible not to be impressed by the role the Chief Technology Office plays in driving internet of things projects to improve air quality, private sector partnership labs to boost electric vehicle take-up, new digital products which help citizens get around the city more easily and digital rights approaches for excluded communities.

Closer to home Brisbane, the same size as Auckland, aspires to be Australia’s New World City. Their economic strategy is accessed via the “Choose Brisbane” site – where you find the New World City Action Plan. They appointed the second Chief Digital Officer in the world, after New York, in 2013 and “Digital Brisbane” is where you go as a resident or a business to get tools or support to engage in the new economy.

Melbourne, like Auckland also one of the world’s most livable cities, has spent the past four years becoming the Knowledge City to grow knowledge intensive industries including focusing on a fully operational open data platform.

Vancouver has also moved past livability to use technology as a key driver in becoming the Greenest City on earth.

Auckland’s economic interventions today seem more analogous to a cook in the kitchen baking the (probably vegetarian) pie. Vital work, everyone needs to eat. But what’s the menu look like?

On the precipice of the 2020s, what is Auckland famous for? Apart from being beautiful, friendly and indigenous.

The annual Local Government meeting in Wellington has seen Auckland Council focusing on banning private fireworks and cars on grass berms. More issues from the past decade than preparing us for the next one. Now that’s a real crisis.

Mark Thomas leads a smart cities business and has been based in Asia for the past two years. He is standing for Auckland Council in the renamed Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward and is presenting at the upcoming Asia Pacific Cities Summit in Brisbane.

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