Forum: Five ways to create an Auckland ICT hub

Computerworld takes part in a panel discussion on how to grow the tech community

Last week I took part in panel discussion run by The New Zealand Computer Society’s Auckland branch on ways to turn the city into a technology hub – a kind of Silicon Valley downunder. Convenor Brett Roberts’ instructions to panellists* were that we needed to be controversial in order to provoke ideas in what he hoped would turn into a lively discussion involving around 250 ICT people.

Here are five ideas/random thoughts I went equipped with. Most of the points were discussed, often brought up by audience members, so I've put post-event comments in brackets.

• Ignore the government

Governments exist to build schools, hospitals, and roads and make laws. Sometimes they get to do fun stuff like create a telecommunications network. But, as has been shown with the UFB (essentially just a big add-on to existing networks such as Chorus’s Fibre to the Node roll out), the government excels at mediocrity. The National party knows this and so devised a pragmatic solution to building a national fibre network (although it did split up Telecom, so three cheers for that Mr Joyce).

If you want innovation you need risk takers, and it is preferable not to take risks with taxpayer money. So don’t look for leadership or funding from government. Instead demand from politicians a regulatory environment that will enable innovation.

(In the National Infrastructure Plan released by Minister Bill English on Monday, in the executive summary under telecommunications it reads: "Following current ultra fast and rural broadband investments, the government will focus on ensuring the regulatory regime operates effectively."

• Show me the money

There are fat cash cows that graze in our land called multinationals. Alcatel-Lucent, Microsoft, Vodafone, HP, Fujitsu, Oracle and so on make a heap of money selling systems and software to us. What can they give back to ICT?

Setting up a Silicon Valley down-under will require investment. How about we hit them up for some sponsorship money to build a centre for innovation at that new Highbrook Estate in Auckland where IBM just opened its $80 million datacentre?

Another organisation that could stump up is InternetNZ — it gets around $6 million in domain name revenue every year and, even taking into account the organisation’s Byzantine governance structure, it doesn’t take $6 million to run the domain registry. What about we demand to see a bit of that uncontested funding up this way?

• Form alliances

Auckland can’t go it alone; we need allies. The most obvious one is Christchurch. The earthquakes have been devastating, but in their wake is an opportunity to create a fibre-connected city in the South Island that leads the world, and Auckland needs to partner with Christchurch to make that happen. Two cities, in two islands, pushing unique, New Zealand solutions out into the world together. Time to lobby for an international cable to land in Auckland, and with a spur to Christchurch.

Maori are another important ally and here the Minister of Maori Affairs Pita Sharples has handed Auckland a gift in the form of Nga Pu Waea – the working group set up to advise on UFB and RBI. What about extending the mandate to contribute to a Silicon Valley downunder?

(Another hot topic for conversation was the concen that skilled immigrants are not always welcomed in New Zealand despite their expertise being of great value).

• Engage the teachers

If we want the brightest and best kids to join this industry and contribute to the technology hub then we’ve got to get better at engaging the secondary school teachers.

The Computer Society has an extensive Auckland membership, they could list every school in the area and members could nominate a school that they then approach with the idea of becoming its ICT buddy. Everybody’s time-poor, but maybe the expectation could be a commitment of at least an hour a month for a year.

The Society would need to provide the parameters for the engagement, as well as maybe a wiki document for ideas that a buddy could pitch to the school. It could be as simple as arranging to speak to a different class every month about what’s involved in an ICT career.

Every school matched with one (or two) buddies, and suddenly the Computer Society has engaged with Auckland’s youth. And it hasn’t cost the taxpayer anything.

(NZCS CEO Paul Matthews told the audience the Society has trialled a similar scheme, but it requires a national coordinator. He says they've applied for partial funding from InternetNZ and the Ministry of Economic Development and have been turned down - see Show Me The Money above).

• Branding

There’s a reason why the Chief Marketing Officer reports directly to the CEO, when CIOs often don’t – they know how to sell themselves. Silicon Valley Downunder is an awful name, so too is anything with an acronym. The Auckland technology hub will need to brand itself effectively if it wants to capture Auckland — and the world’s — imagination.

(Didn't get to mention this point, but if I had I would have asked that we not name technology centres after dead scientists, with all due respect to Ernest Rutherford).

* There were two panel discussions. First panel: Roanne Parker (Jericho), Rod Drury (Xero), Ken Erskine (The Icehouse) and Michael Whitehead (Wherescape). Second panel: Rhoda Holmes (Raghnall), John Hosking (Auckland University), Rohan MacMahon (Crown Fibre Holdings) and Sarah Putt (Computerworld).

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