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Auckland must embrace the exponential economy – or risk being left behind

Spark Ventures CEO Rod Snodgrass on what the ‘exponential economy’ might bring, and how Auckland might tap into it to accelerate its transformation.

There’s plenty of noise going on about the future of Auckland, from familiar and unfamiliar voices. That’s no surprise – we all have a vested interest in inhabiting the world’s most liveable city. And in having a city that will attract diverse global talent in a world where the war for talent is increasingly ferocious.

So, here’s a few more unsolicited reckons to add to the mix.

Like it or not (and travel to some of the more remote parts of New Zealand and loudly espouse this view at the local pub to see how well it goes down) Auckland is New Zealand’s only city of international scale, in a world where global ‘city-states’ increasingly dominate, particularly in the war for talent.

Given global urbanisation trends and Auckland’s projected growth, it will become even more important as the economic centre of gravity for our nation. Which is a roundabout way of saying that, if we can get our collective act together, and super-charge Auckland as a city, everyone in the country will benefit.

This notion isn’t new by any means – there are many very big brains that have been working on this for decades, with plenty of great progress to show for it.

The change is evident. I remember Auckland in the ‘80s when I first came here for University, and while there is plenty I miss about those days, it’s undeniable Auckland is a much more international city today – and that is a good thing. So please don’t read this as a criticism of the great work being done around Auckland – if anything this is a plea for us to put aside our different affiliations and somewhat self-absorbed Twitter battles and paddle the Auckland waka even harder.

A CRH high-speed train runs across Urumqi city during its test run in China. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

A CRH high-speed train runs across Urumqi city during its test run in China. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

What provides the opportunity before us is the Exponential Economy. There’s been many books written about this but I’ll make it brief: essentially, smart connected accelerating technologies are driving exponential change around the world. Basically a heck of a lot of change, fast. The only real debate is how fast these exponential trends will occur and where they will impact. Because the impacts will be huge and everything will change.

In my day job at Spark it’s got us thinking a lot about how a company like ours can build the platforms that increasingly connect and enable homes, transport, cities, businesses, healthcare, entertainment and energy amongst others. For Auckland as a city, the real opportunity is to get ahead of the game and drive exponential change.

We need to unleash Auckland.

The reality is that all international cities are looking at how to take advantage of this to some degree – those which do it better and quicker will become more attractive places to live, and will reap more of the social and economic rewards than the others. In the global competition for talent, speed wins.

And speeding up will need a lot of coordinated action for something that simply can’t be done by any single body alone – ‘Government or Council should fix it’ isn’t really a rallying cry, it’s an abrogation of our collective responsibility. It requires a coalition of the willing where we all must play a part.

For Auckland to win in this brave new world, it effectively needs to become a platform for its citizens. That platform needs to deliver a smarter, safer, healthier and more fun city for us where we live, work and play. When thinking about what that means, cities need:

  • To win the war for talent
  • To be adaptive
  • To have open systems e.g. open data
  • To leverage technology and innovation to unleash capacity
  • To understand their unfair advantage

So far, so theoretical. But it isn’t theoretical anymore. The technology to create the Smart City is already available and being implemented. Other cities have already embarked on this path including San Francisco and Barcelona to name just two. The race is real. While predicting the future is a mug’s game, in 10 years, a ‘Smart’ Auckland could lead to:

  • A place where smart kids from around New Zealand and around the world want to come and work and play and live – why not Auckland rather than New York or San Francisco or Berlin or Barcelona or Shanghai or Sydney?
  • A city that attracts huge amounts of innovation and investment from offshore, eager to do business with all our city and the people in it – a city that proactively chases and welcomes talent and innovation and those willing to invest in it.
  • A higher-income city, where the influx of talent, innovation, capital and technology capability drives businesses higher up the value chain and spawns a myriad of exciting new start-ups
  • A city where public, private and academic interests work better together and ‘hunt as a pack’ to invest in and commercialise our great ideas, creating hundreds of new businesses each year and thousands of new jobs
  • A city with a significantly reduced need for new (and old) roads and private cars – with autonomous vehicles utilised at up to nine times the rate of the average car today will it mean the end of the steering wheel in our lifetime? Imagine all the unleashed capacity – roads, car parks and garages repurposed. Not to mention the reduced emissions and smaller city carbon footprint.
  • A city renowned for electric vehicle and electric bicycle use, with thousands of EV chargers and top-up points installed in things like old phone booths, helping residents and visitors get around easily and helping open up public spaces
  • A city-wide wireless data network delivering high-speed connectivity to everyone across the city and helping to bridge the digital divide in business and education
  • A city with smart public services such as street lighting that taps into renewable energy sources, and is only activated when needed
  • A city with all buses and commercial vehicles kitted out with smart camera technology, making our roads significantly safer for pedestrians and cyclists
  • A city where rubbish is only collected when the bins are full, rather than every week regardless, because sensors let the collectors know.
  • An open-data network (or series of networks) allowing thousands of kiwi developers and businesses to create cool new apps and digital services on the back of a treasure-trove of publicly available information
  • A city that uses data and technology to better protect and foster the unfair advantages that Auckland has of beautiful harbours, coastline, nightlife, multiculturalism and a thriving arts and culture scene
  • A city that is so connected to the Internet of Things, and with access to the massive amounts of data created, that it becomes, effectively, an open platform for its citizens to do, virtually, anything. Imagine the possibilities.

I’m a keen, albeit average, surfer, so I think of this as a wave that we need to catch ahead of other cities. Catch the wave of the Exponential Economy, back each other to collectively make the bold decisions that need to be made, focus on the 95% of things we can all agree on rather than obsess on the 5% we can’t and Auckland really can be the world’s most liveable city.

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