Politics

Influencers, inventors and international relations: on the ground at the Tripartite Economic Summit

It sounds like a bureaucratic bore, but Auckland’s Tripartite Economic Summit, with guests including a British YouTube superstar and an American political “rock star”, is the hottest ticket in town. Tim Murphy reports from day one.

YouTuber Tom Cassell – who is globally famous as Syndicate Tom – has been walking and talking around Auckland, filming himself on his iPhone between 50 and 100 times a day.

He then edits his life, documented like this every day, down to 10 minutes and broadcasts it to 2 million subscribers.

That’s his personal account, called Syndicate Central. His main one – Syndicate Project, which is for gamers – has 10 million subscribers. At 22, Tom routinely ‘influences’ almost triple the population of New Zealand. He has an estimated net worth of $NZ6 million.

“I make videos, put them on YouTube and for some reason people watch them,” he says while posing for a selfie at the Viaduct in Auckland.

YouTube star Tom Cassell, his business partner Angelo Pullen and the writer selfied by an expert at the Viaduct .

YouTube star Tom Cassell, his business partner Angelo Pullen and the writer selfied by an expert at the Viaduct .

Yesterday Cassell, from Manchester via a technology business deal in Los Angeles, was one of the star influencers at the big Auckland-LA-Guangzhou summit at the harbour’s edge. It has a heavy-duty name, The Tripartite Economic Summit 2016, but it is loaded with techs, creatives, inventors and thinkers from here and the two international markets.

It is an 800-person extravaganza. The registrations well outdid organisers’ highest hopes. And it was running with big names, although few would have been as big beyond the conference walls as our man Tom.

The theme is “Making Connections” and aims at business and trade links, investment and jobs for the three cities. Cassell has been making connections everywhere he turns in Auckland.

At Auckland Airport, he encountered a backpacker who stopped, pulled down part of his shirt and showed Tom a tattoo of Syndicate’s logo (a lion) and motto (Life’s too short, make the most of it). “That was awesome”.

Then, walking to the venue through downtown Auckland yesterday, a high-rise window washer called down from his platform “Gidday Tom” revealing that he, too, followed the daily video log (vlog).

Cassell is here as a symbol for the possibilities in technology and marketing, for the benefits of collaboration and as evidence that the ordinary can have just as much appeal as the extraordinary.

3Blackdot, the Los Angeles technology company he runs with American business partner Angelo Pullen, links big global brands with Cassell and 21 other YouTubers. It is, says Pullen, a “very low-overhead endeavour”. People like Cassell keep on doing their thing with a major brand coming on for the ride.

“It is not about how exceptional someone like he is. It’s about how accessible he is. He’s a very common guy and that’s not to be disrespectful.”

Having started posting to YouTube with his dad’s camera as a 17 year-old, Cassell still sounds disbelieving about what’s happened to him. “I play video games and I travel the world. I went with Microsoft to Russia – I flew First Class! – and there were 1.7 million views of me just flying on an airplane. It was ridiculous.”

The Microsoft gig was to Siberia to publicise the new Tomb Raider game, giving an influencer the real Raider experience.

He’s happy to tell the Kiwi, Chinese and American delegates of the reach and potential of a communications genre few would recognise. Except through their kids: for teens, YouTube can be their dominant online experience.

Cassell, who as @Prosyndicate has 2.1 million Twitter followers, entertained that audience with praise of New Zealanders, tales of being driven around in Kim Dotcom’s car and his interactions with the “coolest mayor in the world” – Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti.

The Tripartite Summit is, after all, about making connections. And it’s about scale. With China in the room, how could it not be? It has a delegation of 60 from Guangzhou, China’s third largest region at 14 million people. Then you have Mayor Garcetti’s business and creative delegation representing the 10 million from the West Coast super city.

Auckland might seem the odd man out, but the three-way alliance signed two years ago in Guangzhou and cemented in L.A last year seems thoroughly egalitarian and a rosy spirit of friendship was evident yesterday.

It may be that, as is often the case, the wee Kiwi is the middle man. The broker of a better relationship between two of its friends.

But why not? This is no lightweight junket. People are talking and meaning business. Mayor Garcetti, a charmer who is routinely labelled a “rock star” by other speakers, is a big name. So is the senior emissary from China, Madame Li Xiaolin. According to host mayor Len Brown, she is not only a close friend of China’s President Xi Xinping but also daughter of former Premier Li Peng, who was in office at the time of the Tiananmen protests and crackdown in 1989.

Guangdong City’s mayor couldn’t make it but Madame Li labels his stand-in, Vice Mayor Wang Dong, a “rising star politically speaking”. So he could be one to watch.

Guangzhou Vice-Mayor Wang Dong, Len Brown, and L.A Mayor Eric Garcetti

Guangzhou Vice-Mayor Wang Dong, Len Brown, and L.A Mayor Eric Garcetti

The summit opened almost poetically. Inspired perhaps by the welcome from Ngati Whatua and explanation of the hongi as “more than a pressing of noses, the bringing together of two breaths”, speakers dug deep.

Mayor Garcetti can orate. “I come from a place where the sun only kisses the Pacific when it sets, to a place where it kisses the Pacific when it both rises and sets.” And “Whether it eventually sets over the Pearl River or the California coast, we come together [beneath it] as one people.”

Sir Pita Sharples welcomed the manuhiri (visitors) by citing the ancient bond of the godwit migrating from the Yellow River to New Zealand in one 8-day flight. He recalled a statue at Parliament of the bird, inscribed with “I am the dreams of the people. The length of my flights depends on the wisdom of your decisions.”

In all tongues the spirit was lyrical. Len Brown invoked Chinese fraternal imagery. He, the eldest, was the big brother of the three mayors. Wang the middle one and Garcetti the youngster. “And I want to acknowledge Madame Li as our sister.”

If it all sounded a bit saccharine, it didn’t tip over into wanton sentimentality. Madame Li, whose main job is as chair of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, threw in a Chinese proverb: “True friendship exists only where there’s an abiding commitment to share common goals.”

China has 2297 sister cities worldwide, 33 within New Zealand and 257 with US cities and states. Such relationships can easily be dismissed as window dressing. The Tripartite allies were having none of that. Garcetti said: “L.A is home to the most Chinese in the US and the most New Zealanders in the US. We like to think of ourselves as a great Chinese city and a great New Zealand city.”

Despite just one percent of its business being in exporting, Los Angeles is the trade capital of the US. “Cities” Garcetti said, “are where national promises turn into local progress.”

A major focus of yesterday was the Māori‎ economy and the potential for international links and markets. Sessions on the subject were over-subscribed from visiting nations.

Maori Affairs Minister Te Ururoa Flavell outlined the $40 billion Maori economy, with 40 percent of the land for export forests, 40 percent of fish quota, 12 percent of sheep and been units, 10 percent of kiwifruit and 5 percent of dairy.

“But we want to hear from your heart. We don’t want to hear just slick words. No connection to your heart? No deal, or it will be doomed from the start.”

Mr Brown had an ebullient day. Certainty of his October retirement seemed to relax him into hosting with the kidding, roaring laughs and singing Len of old. It could possibly be his last big stand on the international stage wearing the mayoral chains and he reclaimed the title “The Singing Mayor”. Urging the Kiwis present to join him in “Pokarekare Ana”, he told his guests:

“This is a love song and today we share our love and passion.”

Meanwhile Tom ‘Syndicate’ Cassell will be posting some time about now on his life yesterday among the mayors and diplomats and suits and Kiwis and Yanks and Chinese. He’ll be talking to more people than will read all the mainstream media in New Zealand today.

Smile, Auckland, for the camera.

This report was commissioned in association with conference organiser ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development). The summit continues today.

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