Editorial: Innovation gets under way

Last updated 05:00 05/06/2014

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OPINION: When the Christchurch Central Development Unit produced its blueprint for the rebuild of the central city, one of the most exciting of its ideas was to allow for the creation of an innovation precinct.

It was intended to attract companies on the leading edge of new technology and provide a place where they would coalesce and imaginatively collaborate.

It was based on an idea that is not unique to new technology but uncommonly strong within it - that enterprises engaged in a similar industry thrive best when they are located near one another.

Silicon Valley is an obvious example, Silicon Alley in Manhattan, New York City, is another and Silicon Fen in Cambridge, England, yet another.

Like other plans for the rebuild, the innovation precinct has been slow to get off the ground. Amid grumbles about the price of land, cumbersome government meddling and various other complaints, one early participant, the Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre (EPIC), gave up plans for a second stage of its undertaking. Despite government assurances that it was still on track, the precinct seemed to be stalled.

The logjam, if that is what it was, was emphatically broken this week with the announcement by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce of the first large-scale and very promising commitments to the precinct.

The first was that the international telecommunications giant Vodafone is to become an anchor tenant. It is to build an 8000 square metre $50 million headquarters, capable of accommodating 900 people, at the heart of the precinct.

It will also establish what it calls a Xone incubator in the building - a "technology playpen" in the words of Vodafone's New Zealand chief executive Russell Stammers.

The incubator will be one of six Vodafone has around the world, including one in Silicon Valley in California, and amounts to an enormous vote of confidence in the innovation precinct and in Christchurch and a shot in the arm for the city's technology industry.

In addition, the Government intends to base in the precinct one of three new postgraduate computer schools it has decided to establish in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The Government will spend $28.6m on the schools over the next four years.

The Christchurch school will be placed in a new Government-funded innovation hub in the precinct, along with a branch of Callaghan Innovation and a department of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. The hub is also intended to provide lower-rent offices for innovative start-up companies. This move is an encouraging Government response to the complaint by some potential tenants that the possibility of high rents has deterred them from considering moving in to the precinct.

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The whole innovation precinct covers 3.6ha over three city blocks, bounded by Lichfield, Madras, St Asaph, Manchester and High Sts.

To stimulate an attractive design for the area, the Government has commissioned an independently produced "spatial framework".

It is not intended to be a master plan but a series of indications of how buildings and spaces in the area might be designed.

The plan intends to preserve the old High St Post Office building, occupied by C1 cafe and Alice's Videoland, and the Buddle Finlay building, and to try to retain the facades of other heritage landmarks in the area such as the facades of the Excelsior Hotel and the McKenzie and Willis building.

The Government says landowners have given a good level of support to the principles shown by the framework.

Certainly, if new buildings come to fruition in anything like the form envisaged, the precinct will not only be an entrepreneurial place in which to work but also a very attractive one.

The development phase of the precinct is being managed by the Government, but the management is intended at some point to be taken over by a private operator and the bulk of the precinct itself is expected to be created by market-led development.

As with all private enterprise undertakings, success is not guaranteed. But the Government is doing its part in getting the project under way. It is now up to other private-sector operators to follow Vodafone and take up the opportunity.

- The Press

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