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(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONBusinessFebruary 22, 2021

How the Christchurch earthquake gave rise to a new generation of businesses

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Not many cities have endured what Christchurch has over the past decade. But as Steven Moe writes, the tragic legacy has inspired a new, impact-minded business community to emerge from the rubble.

It’s quite difficult to put in words just how difficult the earthquakes were for the people of Ōtautahi Christchurch. Alongside the tragic loss of life, our CBD was demolished, as were many of our homes, and for those with businesses impacted by the earthquake, livelihoods were stripped away. The city became a red zone without access for years, prompting a mass exodus as many of our most talented residents went elsewhere in New Zealand for better opportunities.

And yet, 10 years on from that tragic day in 2011 when our city was torn apart, we’re starting to see the strands coming together to weave something new. The Christchurch I knew growing up in the 1990s is gone. A new city has emerged: not perfect, not orderly and certainly not complete, but at the very least one built in response to the challenges we’ve already faced, and in preparation for the work that still lies ahead.

Of course, it’s not been an easy recovery, but perhaps, as the poet Robert Frost once wrote, taking the road less travelled makes all the difference. Few other cities have gone down the road Christchurch has, and that may be the most valuable experience to a new generation raised on resilience, adaptability and a focus on what really matters. Facing death and losing friends as buildings crumble around you puts everything into a new perspective and provokes some serious, existential questions: Who are we? Are we just cogs in a well-run machine, or unique human beings with the skills and daring to forge our own destinies and create meaningful change?

Whatever the answer to these question, it’s abundantly clear that many Christchurch people are rethinking what to do with their lives. Just look at the wealth of new startups and events blossoming around the city. There’s the Ministry of Awesome’s business incubator Te Ōhaka, the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, the work of ThincLab and ChristchurchNZ. And the businesses they support are largely “supernode” sector areas: aerospace and future transport; food, fibre and agritech; health tech and resilient communities; and high tech services.

Of course, startups are emerging in strong numbers in cities around the world. What is distinctive about Christchurch is the movement is grounded in a strong sense of purpose and social impact. Many of these projects are less concerned about maximising profit than they are about reimagining business as a force for good.

Over the last three years I’ve been capturing more than 240 stories like those for my seeds podcast, talking to inspiring founders and movers mainly based here. With homegrown startups like Banqer, Ethique, Ohu, Fush, Home, Bead; Proceed, Medsalv, Partly, Te Putake, Komodo, Fairground, VxT, Social Currency, Cactus Outdoor, it’s clear the impact ecosystem is alive and thriving in Christchurch.

“We had to re-imagine and reinvent our city,” says Marian Johnson from the Ministry of Awesome. “Anyone who wanted the ‘normal’ left. At the same time, there was a massive influx of individuals in search of opportunity. Also playing out in the background are these major global shifts creating uncertainty. So, not only is New Zealand becoming a destination for progressive thinkers and risk takers, Christchurch represents the highest potential for opportunity.”

Of course, there are a number of obstacles blocking the city’s true “potential for opportunity”. Christchurch has always struggled to compete against Auckland and Wellington as a major destination for talent. While it may be the country’s second largest city, with ambition to be a hub of innovation and reimagined businesses, the reality is that the city’s potential is dependent on attracting creative people to live and work here.

One of the most appealing features that might solve this is our house prices. Even in the frenzy of 2021, the median asking price in Christchurch is considerably lower than in the other major centres: $510,000 compared with $1 million in Auckland and $792,000 in Wellington.

Around the world, interest in Christchurch is growing, particularly in light of the pandemic and the growing realisation that, in many industries, you can really work from anywhere. I know personally of a number of international entrepreneurs in the Edmund Hillary Fellowship who are considering relocating here rather than staying in Silicon Valley or settling elsewhere. I returned to live and work in Christchurch around five years ago. When the borders open, I’m sure more will follow.

However, there’s no denying deep structural problems caused by the earthquake that have still not been remedied. Around 70% of our CBD buildings were demolished as a result of the earthquake, leaving many empty spaces that have not yet been filled. Many of the corporate businesses that moved out to other suburbs still haven’t returned. The new justice and retail precinct is up and running, but many of the anchor projects that were planned after the earthquake have not eventuated.

The partially demolished Christchurch cathedral (Photo: Getty Images)

We all knew the recovery would be slow. A few days after February 22 2011, one article noted that the “devastated CBD of Christchurch will not be able to open until the end of the year and that it could take at least 10 years to rebuild the city.”

It turns out that prediction was too optimistic, and there is still a long way to go before the city is truly rebuilt. This is a hindrance to the city’s business community rediscovering its potential, and operating as a unified hub. But to an extent, it has been these delays and problems that have prompted the emergence of the many entrepreneurs and startups scattered across the city, looking to challenge the old guard and do something different.

We may not have a “normal” city, but perhaps that shouldn’t be our aim. Perhaps we should continue on the road less travelled, nurturing the new types of businesses that are grounded in the resilience, innovation and social impact that can only be learned through hard times.

Here in Christchurch, an ancient remnant of native forest rises above the city at Riccarton Bush. The trees were shaken 10 years ago, but they still stand as a symbol of strength and endurance. The earthquake may have devastated Christchurch, but the experience has contributed to a resilient city; standing as a symbol for others around the world for years to come.

Keep going!