30 Nov 2015

Silicon Valley 'roadmap' for Auckland

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 30 November 2015

Could Auckland's North Shore become the next Silicon Valley? 

It certainly makes a great headline, says Dr Rebecca Gill, the lead researcher for the Grow North Innovation District project, which aims to promote a Silicon Valley-type hub on Auckland's North Shore.

Auckland Harbour Bridge

[thumbnail:32047:full] Photo: 123RF

"But actually we need to be careful to not replicate Silicon Valley in its entirety, because so much about [it] is that particular place, that particular culture, that particular history, that to suggest that anywhere could become a Silicon Valley is sort of impossible to do," she told Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon.

"One of the things we need to do here is really figure out what we need to want to become, and what are our strengths here in New Zealand that will allow us to become some kind of innovation ecosystem."

The Grow North project is trying to put together what Dr Gill called "a light-handed roadmap" to help foster what is already in the area, which encompasses Albany, Takapuna and Orewa, particularly around current strengths in ICT (information and communications technology), and health and medical technology.

But it was important, she said, to make sure those efforts remained light-handed. 

"There's always something good that can come out of guiding the efforts, but we need to make sure we don't control or get in front of the efforts," she said.

"Innovation ecosystems are emergent. They are organic - they come from the sort of emerging efforts of people getting together, and working together, and seeing what happens when they get together.

"When we think about planning it, we're really trying to find a balance between observing what's already there and supporting what's already there, but then putting some kind of roadmap in place to help continue to foster what is there."

How to foster an ecosystem

Massey University, which is involved in the project, hopes to establish a steering committee, or board of champions, to get behind the initiative, which at this stage involves identifying who might serve on the committee and, beyond the businesses involved, what the other key players might be.

"We'd also want to make sure that we think about the role that education plays in an ecosystem, and the way that local government can support that ecosystem," said Dr Gill.

The Grow North project also hopes to identify and highligth what is already happening and which organisations are already - or look likely to become - key players on the world stage.

Two such examples are Unleashed, who produce an innovative inventory software to help businesses manage their stock, and Rex Bionics, who produce robotic exoskeletons that can be used as an alternative to wheelchairs or crutches.

But New Zealand's so-called 'number 8 wire' mentality could be both a help and a hindrance: on the one hand, innovation was already under way, but on the other, the country's "very modest culture" meant many people chose to work alone and not share their ideas, which could hold progress back. 

An innovation ecosystem, however, requires the to-and-fro of ideas.

"The basic idea is that when you get people together in close proximity you have a lot of cross-collaboration, diversity of ideas, you have a lot of sharing of new inventions and new innovations going on," said Dr Gill.

Grow North has a 10-year plan, but Dr Gill said researchers were trying to look even further into the future at how Auckland's continued growth, as well as more people living outside of the central city, could help the area develop a unique flavour.

"The Harbour Bridge [is] representative of the fact that Auckland North is not Auckland City. And we had a lot of participants in the research saying that they wanted to live and work in Auckland North so they wouldn't have to go over the bridge every day."

Growing and developing the area might also present an opportunity to improve transport and amenities, perhaps even stretching to a second commercial airport.

Grow North is one of a few such projects nationwide, with another in Christchurch. Maintaining a relationship with these projects would also be important for Grow North's success, said Dr Gill.

"We see that we have a unique niche, but we want to make sure that we connect up with other things that are happening elsewhere in the country."