The Moxie Sessions: Will the last person out of Ohura please turn out the lights (but for the love of God don’t unplug the navigation beacon)

Towns have inertia, and tend to live on long after their purpose for being. 

You’ve been to Ohura. It’s about half way between Auckland and Wellington as the Boeing 737 flies, and that’s how you’ve been there: 36,000 feet up (33,000 if you were heading north) in seat 12C on the way to or from some meeting.

You have to know what you’re looking for. The captain won’t announce that Ohura is coming up on the left hand side (or the right), because the route passes smack bang over the top of the place. 36,000 feet below, just outside of town, there’s a navigation beacon for airplanes, and its endless Morse code song marks a tiny kink in the air route. Your 737 knows it’s there, though, so if you pay very close attention, about half way between Auckland and Wellington, you’ll feel the auto-pilot direct the tiniest of tiny left turns as you pass the beacon.

And that’s Ohura. 

It’s not good for very much but, unlike a bunch of other small towns, it’s actually good for something. The navigation beacon is fully automatic, though, so why is the town still there? Why do its 129 residents (we counted them in 2013) stay there? And why do the other 4.5 million of us help provide them with health, education, electricity and, presumably, fast Internet?

Ohura isn’t alone. Towns have inertia, and tend to live on long after their purpose for being. Down the river (Ohura sits on a tributary of a tributary of the Whanganui), the city of Whanganui meanders on in much the same way its namesake river has in the 100 years since anyone used it for commerce. North of Auckland, Helensville moulders at the heart of a Kauri exporting district that logged itself out of existence before the end of the 19th Century.

At least Helensville is growing (slightly). Whanganui has been on a slide since 1936. Dunedin hasn’t added a citizen in 100 years. And Ohura’s citizenry has almost halved since 2006. It’s a story told all across almost New Zealand and is what led NZIER economist Shamubeel Eaqub to coin the phrase “zombie towns.” 

So are those cities and towns unlucky enough not to be Auckland really dying? Can anything be done? And does it even matter? Is this the same issue the Prime Minister happened upon when he (controversially) described the capital as on its last legs?

There’s no better way to answer questions like these, of course, than to assemble a group of a dozen clever Aucklanders. So that’s exactly what we did at GridAKL recently for the 27th meeting of The Moxie Sessions. 

For NZ Institute of Economic Research principal economist Shamubeel Eaqub, provincial 'zombification' is very real, and down to three factors. Firstly, like Whanganui, small towns’ relevance is fading. River navigation isn’t important in 2015, and the coal mines that once supported Ohura closed in the 1960s. The second factor is the technological and infrastructure changes that allow agglomerations like Auckland to happen, and encourage them to grow. And the final nail in the coffin is the exodus of young people from the provinces to where the educational and employment opportunities are.

Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy isn't a fan of small towns (at least on a professional level – he comes from Palmerston North).  He believes that connectivity and concentration of people are essential for the creation of ideas, and he’s got the research to back it up. His team’s studies show that the level of innovation – as measured by patents registered – correlates to population size. The bigger the city, the more patents – not just in total, but per head of population.

From Shaun’s perspective, even Auckland isn’t big enough – he sees our future in connecting New Zealanders both virtually and physically to create “a city of 4 million.”

Hawke’s Bay expat and Wiki New Zealand founder Lillian Grace agrees. Despite building a business on data, she sees the value in physical connectivity and wonders if investment in airline links – even going as far as funding free flights to and from Hawke’s Bay – might deliver far greater returns than the cost it would require.

Samantha Seath from Economic Development Agencies New Zealand supports physical infrastructure too, but sees strong political leadership in the regions as key to their prosperity. “Identifying a niche, making a plan then going for it,” is, she says, a more sustainable path than relying on central government. “MBIE can only go so far.”

Auckland-centricity aside (although not one of us was born here), it’s an odd way for a Moxie Sessions discussion to go. The group’s purpose, after all, is to investigate how New Zealand can best take advantage of the Internet economy, not lobby for more trains, planes and automobiles.

But as Shaun Hendy’s numbers indicate, and almost everyone in the room seemed to support, it’s physical connectivity as much as virtual that drives innovation and growth. Virtual connectivity is a great way to stay in touch with people that you already see a lot of. Which is great news for big cities – or towns closely connected to them – but not so great for Ohura. The connection that will make the difference, it looks like, won’t just happen via the information superhighway, but the one you drive on.

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz. This month, we returned to technology and innovation precinct Grid AKL to discuss connectivity between New Zealand’s cities and its regions.

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for their generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at http://themoxiesessions.co.nz, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.

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