Canterbury buzzing but must look to future

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 26/07/2014

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OPINION: I managed to get lost in Christchurch last week.

It's not the first time it's happened in the last couple of years. Even though I was born there, grew up there and went to varsity there, the absence of familiar buildings and an evolving set of road closures makes navigation challenging.

Some parts of the city, like Manchester St, are a wasteland compared to their earlier manifestation. Whereas others, like Woolston, have transformed themselves as turbo-charged reincarnations of the areas I remember.

There's been a lot of criticism for the slowness of the central city's rebuild of late. For my part, I only see progress. While plenty of mates' houses remain smashed, the CBD seems to be moving on.

I visit the city about every three months. Soon after the second quake I helped set up an office of software developers in Christchurch.

The intention was to provide some local employment for engineers who had lost their previous jobs because of the quake.

It also made strong pragmatic sense. Wellington and Auckland were really tapped out for good developers, with the big shops swallowing up most of the market. Christchurch offered a rich source of smart people who were delighted just to have a job.

No offices were available so we ended up renting a massive house in Ilam that had been previously occupied by a senior academic and his family.

We then added heads over the next two years until it was overflowing (and the VDSL broadband cable was exhausted), before securing some more grown-up digs in the central city.

This has meant I'm a regular visitor to my old home town, so I have had a snapshotted view of progress, and frankly the amount that has been done surprises me. And while large swathes remain no-go areas, I'm noticing the buds of growth in the CBD.

One of these is New Regent St, quite possibly the last area that I would have expected to be back operating so quickly. Last week it was buzzing in the early afternoon with cafes and shops serving an eclectic mix of office workers, construction labourers and even a few tourists.

Between the Clockwork Steampunk Emporium and The Last Word specialist whisky bar, visitors were getting a distinctive taste of the Christchurch of the future.

I'm not sure that the city has yet developed a crisp articulation of its new marketing "story" but if steampunk and single malt scotch are part of it, that's just fine with me.

Canterbury's economy is going gangbusters driven by the three opiates of construction, manufacturing and continued strong dairying. For the five years leading up to 2013 Canterbury's GDP grew 33.5 per cent - well above the mean - and then last year Canterbury's GDP per capita stepped it up further, equalling market leader Auckland.

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While such short-term results are good news for the region, they are not shocking given its force-fed diet of rebuild capital. Longer term, economic literature is divided about the expected economic trajectory after a natural disaster. Different studies deliver very different conclusions.

Many see zero impact long term, citing the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan as an example; where 19 years later there appears to be no GDP impact.

Other theories support both negative and positive growth scenarios. A key determinant here is what structural changes are put in place after an earthquake to free up capital, labour and productivity.

The Christchurch Economic Development Strategy, prepared by the Canterbury Development Corporation, lists "big five" large-scale opportunities they are backing to deliver a step change to the local economy and grow GDP 69 per cent by 2031.

These in order of contribution are maximising earthquake recovery opportunities, water management, increased productivity through innovation, city design and build, and increased import/export distribution networks.

While those sound like reasonable things to focus on, the rate of change is so speedy and the technology so disruptive that I can't help but worry about how relevant they will be in 2031. It's also interesting that connectivity and technology infrastructure don't seem to have a high profile.

Getting UFB rolled out faster and in more areas in Christchurch seems like a no-brainer to me in terms of downstream economic growth at the time when the "internet-of-things" could be a real boon to the city's software community.

I recently saw a great tweet from Aaron Levie, the founder of enterprise cloud company Box.com "sizing the market for a disruptor based on an incumbents market is like trying to forecast the car industry based on the number of horses in 1910".

I can't help but think the same may be true of trying to plan now for a city in 2031. I hope we've got it right, and some flexibility to pivot along the way, or I'm not the only one who's likely to be lost.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an eCommerce manager and professional director and he has a lousy sense of direction.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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