Auckland's Grow North innovation ecosystem one step closer to reality

Professor Howard Armitage says communities need to work together to create a successful innovation ecosystem, which is ...
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Professor Howard Armitage says communities need to work together to create a successful innovation ecosystem, which is much harder than it sounds.

An action plan for Massey University's ambitious vision of creating an Auckland version of Silicon Valley will be unveiled on Monday.

Over the past year Massey University has been leading the Grow North: Innovation District project set up to investigate how to develop an innovation district in Auckland North, and to produce a plan for its development.

The project has been co-funded by Massey University and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) on behalf of Auckland Council.

On Monday research results and a plan outlining a way forward will be revealed at a Grow North summit at Massey in Auckland.

The research looked at what support would be needed to create an innovation ecosystem in Auckland North and other parts of New Zealand.

Massey University's deputy vice-chancellor professor Ted Zorn said the university's vision was to have an entrepreneurial Auckland campus at the centre of that ecosystem.

Massey has campuses in Albany, Palmerston North and Wellington.

"We believe we have a key role to play in developing talent and drawing together academic, public, industry, and government interests to collaborate across disciplines," Zorn said.

Auckland's existing innovation hubs include GridAKL in Wynyard Quarter, The FoodBowl near Auckland Airport, the New Zealand Health Innovation Hub in Parnell and The Icehouse, also in Parnell.

Grow North leader and Massey University entrepreneurship lecturer Rebecca Gill said there was also innovation happening across the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

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"There are many efforts oriented toward developing innovation in the Auckland North region, but much of what is going on remains invisible," Gill said.

There was an opportunity to connect up Auckland's innovation efforts to generate new ideas, expand the scope and diversity of ideas and contribute to economic and social welfare, she said.

"Grow North is more of a concept that aims to bring together the innovation efforts that are ongoing in Auckland and Auckland North, more specifically."

Auckland North refers to the five regions of Kaipatiki, Devonport-Takapuna, Hibiscus and Bays, Upper Harbour, and Rodney however, a location for the ecosystem had not been decided yet, she said.

Grow North has widely been described as a way to create Auckland's own version of Silicon Valley - the southern San Francisco Bay area famous for producing some of the world's most innovative technology companies.

However, one visiting professor from Canada says that's easier said than done.

Professor Howard Armitage, a key contributor to the Waterloo Innovation District near Toronto, has been invited by Massey to speak at the Grow North summit.

"It takes a while for people to recognise that we can't all become Silicon Valley," Armitage said.

Waterloo is a town of about 500,000 best known for being the home of smartphone producer BlackBerry, a company which helped stimulate other high tech activity in the community, he said.

"We're right up there with the most effective ecosystems but it always comes as a great shock to realise that we are a pretty small community about an hour west of Toronto."

The community had rallied around the University of Waterloo to help create "incubators, accelerators, discovery spaces and maker spaces", he said.

This contributed to the growth of new start ups and encouraged organisations both small and large to be clustered nearby, he said.

Waterloo had a reputation of being an entrepreneurial community having been a large producer of buttons, shoes, tyres and liquor in the past.

During the late 1990s its focus turned to information and communications technology, he said.

The Waterloo innovation ecosystem helped the city have the lowest unemployment rate and highest GDP growth of all mid-sized cities in Canada, Armitage said.

It also fostered a healthy social structure in the community which was a big achievement for a town which had little else going for it.

"Waterloo for the most part is in the middle of a great big cornfield.

"We've had to create over a period of time the desire for people to come here through the job opportunities, the social structure and the quality of the universities that we've put up," Armitage said.

Working together as a community was the key to developing a successful innovation ecosystem, he said.

"That has been the single most important reason why our community has been able to move forward while others have kind of stalled."

While working together was an easy concept it was exceptionally hard for communities to pull off, he said.

"We really have to leverage of the particular strengths and unfair advantages that a particular community has.

"It takes a while to sort out what those are."

 - Stuff

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